In first meeting with media, Olson says O'Neill won't remain on Arizona staff

Updated: April 2, 2008, 11:09 AM ET
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Lute Olson said he's "really excited" to be back as Arizona's basketball coach.

He sure didn't seem that way Tuesday.

In his first news conference since returning from a season-long leave of absence, a testy Olson sparred with reporters and provided few specifics for the leave, which was the subject of endless rumors and speculation in this basketball-obsessed city.

Olson also said assistant coach Kevin O'Neill, who served as interim coach last season and was even named Olson's eventual permanent successor, will not remain on his staff.

"Frankly, even though I realize I'm a public figure, I don't think I need to go into every nuance of my private life," the 73-year-old Olson said at a televised 48-minute news conference at McKale Center. "There were things going on in my life that did create some health issues that I needed time to address. But it was not a health scare."

Olson's situation has been shrouded in mystery since Nov. 4, when he announced he was taking a leave of absence. He said then that he wanted to "reassure everyone that this isn't a health scare, but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention." Last month, he said he needed the leave to deal with "a medical condition that was not life-threatening."

During his leave, Olson filed for divorce from his wife, Christine.

On Tuesday, Olson declined to discuss his health, aside from a joking reference to his blood pressure and heart rate.

"I hope you can see that I feel great," said Olson, who wore a black-and-white checked blazer over a white button-down shirt. "This issue, though, has raised my blood pressure all the way up to 113 over 65, and my resting heart rate has gone from 60 to 62. So I'm concerned about my health."

Olson turned steely when asked if he had been able to provide a guarantee to university officials that his condition has been resolved. "Do I look like I have a condition?" he replied.

Olson said he had assured athletic director Jim Livengood he was fit to return to the rigors of big-time coaching.

"Mr. Livengood said, 'Are you sure that you're ready to face this job and this stress?' And I said, 'Absolutely,'" Olson said.

O'Neill's status with the program has also been cloudy in recent weeks.

"When he said he's coming back, or that he's going to fulfill the terms of his contract, he won't be on the staff," Olson said.

O'Neill stressed defense last season. Olson said he had assured players that they would return to an up-tempo style.

"I apologize for what they had to go through this year in terms of the change," Olson said. "They came here to play a wide-open game, and they didn't. That's no one's fault, because that's not coach O'Neill's belief on the offensive end. It was his team once I left. But I said we're going to play Arizona basketball and we're going to have fun doing it."

Olson built a powerhouse in the desert after arriving from Iowa in 1983. But Arizona is no longer among the national elite.

Arizona went 19-15 last season and drew its 24th straight NCAA tournament appearance, extending the nation's longest active streak. The Wildcats were eliminated by West Virginia in the first round.

The Wildcats finished seventh in the Pac-10 -- their worst showing since 1982-83, the year before Olson arrived from Iowa -- and were swept by Arizona State for the first time since 1995.

"You know what, maybe the fans needed to realize that this program doesn't just operate -- we don't go into the gas station and fill the kids up with fuel and turn the key on," Olson said.

Recruiting has been the lifeblood of Olson's success, and he said he had been looking for prospects since he returned to work last week.

Olson was asked if recruiters from other schools would try to take advantage of the leave of absence. He noted that rivals have used his age against him for years.

"Well, they're all gone and I'm still here," he said.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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