Stress-free Olson returns to Wildcats, vows to deliver '09 title
Lute Olson regained total control of the Arizona men's basketball program this week, after taking the season off to deal with the stress created from going through a divorce from his second wife.
In a wide-ranging phone interview with ESPN.com Friday morning from Tucson, Ariz., the 73-year old Olson described why he left and stayed away from the program he built this season, where he went, the status of interim coach Kevin O'Neill, why he had to settle the chaos of this past season, the potential for NBA draft early-entrants on his team, how long he plans to coach and how certain he is the Wildcats can challenge for the 2009 national title.
"I had to make it a stabilizing situation that the coach is back," Olson said. "We're going to go back to an open style."
"Lute Olson is the coach and we're moving forward," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said Friday.
Olson, a Hall of Fame coach, announced he was taking a leave of absence on Nov. 4. He made a few cameos at practice over the next month with O'Neill, who was hired to replace Jim Rosborough as assistant, coaching the team. But a month later, Olson extended the leave for the entire season -- on the same day that he filed for divorce from his second wife, Christine, whom he married a few years after his first wife of 47 years, Bobbi, died of cancer in 2001.
"That was the whole situation," Olson said of going through the divorce. "I obviously needed to take care of the stress and anxiety to be effective, to be fair to the kids [on the Arizona team]."
Olson said he plans on coaching through his contract, which ends in 2011. But that may not be it. He said he doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon.
And on Friday, it was clear that O'Neill won't be Olson's successor despite an announcement to the contrary on Dec. 18.
"Everything changes," Livengood said by phone Friday. "That was done at that time for a particular reason and it coincided with the extended leave of absence [for Olson]. Lute is back and coaching right now -- period. That's not what the situation was in December."
O'Neill had a verbal agreement, not written, to succeed Olson.
I'm ready to go, the kids are excited and we're going to get back to playing Arizona basketball on the offensive end. We're going to have a great year.
Livengood said "more people are making this mysterious than it really is."
Olson met with O'Neill earlier this week. The consensus seems to be that O'Neill will go elsewhere if he can land a college head-coaching job, which is his preference. O'Neill has a contract with Arizona for another year. Olson didn't want to discuss too many specifics of his conversation with O'Neill but did say O'Neill wants to pursue head-coaching opportunities.
O'Neill told ESPN.com that he was going to take a week out of Tucson to think over his options, which technically include returning as Olson's assistant. "We'll talk when he gets back and Kevin will then make a decision about where he's going to go," Olson said. "He deserves that time to make a decision."
Three former Arizona assistants were fired as head coaches this season -- Jessie Evans at San Francisco, Rodney Tention at Loyola Marymount and Jay John at Oregon State -- but Olson said he doesn't have an opening on the staff now. Clearly, though, there is sense of change in the air to go back to the way it was in Tucson.
"I'm ready to go, the kids are excited and we're going to get back to playing Arizona basketball on the offensive end. We're going to have a great year," Olson said after Arizona ran set plays and was much more halfcourt under O'Neill. Olson said he didn't have a problem with O'Neill coaching the way he felt was comfortable for him, but it's not Olson's style.
Olson said he spent last Monday, his first full day on the job, meeting with all of the returning players as well as the walk-ons. He told them all that the Wildcats will go back to running, not being much more scripted next season.
"We're going to work our tails off, recharge and do what we think is reachable for us next year and that's to go for the whole thing [the national title]," Olson said.
Olson then met with the outgoing seniors on Tuesday to make sure they were set with their careers going forward. Then, on Wednesday, he drove up to Phoenix to meet with the family of freshman Jerryd Bayless as well as signed recruit Brendon Lavender. Olson said that Bayless' family told him they are in touch with Stu Jackson from the NBA to assess Jerryd's draft stock. Bayless missed four games with a knee injury but led the Wildcats with 19.7 points a game and would likely be pushing to go somewhere in the lottery or middle of the first round if he were to declare.
Olson said Bayless had a tough year but next season he would "play the way he expected to play offensively," for Olson. Olson said he was scheduled to visit with sophomore Chase Budinger's family Sunday about his draft stock. Budinger averaged 17.1 points a game. He said he thinks Budinger is leaning toward returning.
Olson's hope is that Bayless, Budinger and Nic Wise are back with the stud class that also includes Brandon Jennings of Oak Hill Academy (Va.).
Olson said the Cats would go with three ballhandlers on the perimeter with Bayless, Jennings and Wise next season. Center Jordan Hill is also expected to return.
"We're going to be good I'll tell you that," Olson said. "This is as good a collection of talent that we've had here."
When Olson decided to leave in November, he said he told his players and staff that he couldn't have done a good job with all of the stress and anxiety in his life. He said he has always said he would continue coaching as long as "my health is good and as long as I have energy and can communicate with the kids and as long as I enjoy it and all of those were still present except, just the anxiety from other situations that really caused me to ask for a medical leave."
He said getting away for a full season and from the "stress and anxiety was good for me. I feel fabulous and I'm in great health."
"I don't have to wear glasses, my blood pressure is 113 over 65 without medication and I'm exercising every day." Olson said. "Sometimes you have to step away from it a little bit. I feel fabulous. I think probably after 50 years, everyone should take a year off to charge their batteries."
Olson said the reason he wasn't allowed to talk during his leave is because of the Family and Medical Leave Act. He couldn't presume to be fine, act as if he were coaching, and still be on leave.
"So many of the local press wanted to know: Why doesn't he say something about it? Well if they had checked our medical leave act they'd understand," Olson said. "It was a case where I couldn't comment on anything nor could the athletic department."
Olson's medical leave ended March 7. The school put out a news release announcing his return on March 10, two days before the Pac-10 tournament.
"There were thousands of rumors flying around this town and we thought the best thing was to put out the press statement and get it over with," Olson said. "I knew it would be an explosive situation but we had to get it out of the way. If I hadn't done that and the team made a long run in the NCAA tournament then the rumors would have been flying around. We did what was best for Kevin, the staff and the players."
Olson said the rumors about his health and his personal life were, "flying around, some of them vicious."
Olson said he spent the first month of his leave with his three adult daughters in Coronado, Calif., where he has a house.
"It gave me a great chance to bond with my daughters," said Olson.
Then, in January, Olson said he got out of Tucson and went to the Pacific coast of Mexico to be with friends of his and Bobbi's from his time in Iowa City while he coached Iowa.
"I had to get where I could be a normal person, just walking around the streets [of Mexico] instead of trying to do that normal thing anywhere in this country. I did my two times of exercise every day that my doctor told me would help get rid of the stress I had built up," Olson said.
Olson said he worked out in Tucson at the McKale Center on a number of occasions and didn't seek out the players. He said if was in the weight room players would come up and talk to him. He said parents of the players called him and if a parent called him, "I returned the call and said 'I know they're not playing the way we played but they're playing hard and doing a good job with them.' " Olson said he didn't call a parent unless a parent called him. He said he didn't do anything to usurp O'Neill's power in taking over the team. He said he had recruited every one of the players and coached all but the incoming freshmen so it would be natural for them to talk to him.
"It wasn't ethical for me to call the parents," Olson said. "If I was at McKale I was working out. My doctor told me that was the way I had to get rid of the stress and anxiety."
Olson said he watched every Arizona game, even in Mexico. He said he didn't attend the games because the "media would have been all over me," and he felt the fan reaction wouldn't have been fair to O'Neill.
O'Neill coached the Wildcats to a 19-15 record overall, 8-10 in the Pac-10. The Wildcats reached the NCAA tournament, their 24th straight appearance which is currently the longest streak in the country. Olson said he was pleased the Wildcats kept that streak alive and he would like to topple North Carolina's 27 NCAA tournament appearances steak, snapped in 2002.
"We're targeting that," Olson said. He is 780-280 in 34 seasons and said reaching 800 wins isn't a goal.
"Everywhere I go, everyone says we're happy to have you back," Olson said. "My response is: not as happy as I am to be back."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.