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Archive for Sunday, October 26, 2008

Commentary: Ugly exit can’t spoil Olson’s legacy

October 26, 2008

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In 1982-1983, the University of Arizona men's basketball team finished 4-24.

Its only victories were over Florida International, Northern Arizona University, San Diego State and Stanford.

"The program was a joke," former Arizona State coach Bill Frieder said.

Lute Olson was hired 17 days after the season ended. Two years later, he led the Wildcats to their first of 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

Say what you will about Olson's sudden and surprising resignation Thursday and the mess Arizona's program has become in the past year - much of it his responsibility - but don't deny the man his due.

Olson was one of the best college basketball coaches of the last 25 years, if not the best.

Look at the resume: Those 24 consecutive tournament berths. Five Final Four appearances, one with Iowa and then four as Arizona's coach. A national championship in 1997. A career record of 780-280.

And all of that in a city that's hardly fertile ground for elite high school basketball players. Only two Tucson products received scholarship offers during Olson's tenure: Sean Elliott in 1985 and Deron Johnson in 1989.

"It is incredible when you think about where the program was and what it became over an extended period of time," said Suns general manager Steve Kerr, who was part of Olson's first recruiting class at Arizona. "No one has matched what he did. A lot of coaches had great runs, but nobody sustained a 25-year run like that, particularly when we're talking about taking over a program at the bottom."

What made Olson so successful? He was the complete package.

Few college coaches were his equal as a recruiter. From Kerr to Gilbert Arenas, Olson was able to spot something special in supposedly marginal players. Olson could close the deal, too. Once he got into a living room, chances are he was leaving with a commitment.

"I went with my mom to a banquet in Los Angeles after my senior year in high school, and Lute was speaking," Kerr said. "I remember my mom saying, 'That's exactly the type of man I want you to play for.' He cast such an amazing presence."

Olson was a terrific teacher.

Those who saw Phoenix St. Mary's center Channing Frye disappear in the 2002 state title game never thought he'd amount to much at Arizona. Four years later, he was the eighth overall pick in the NBA draft.

"There were a lot of us like that," Kerr said. "We weren't heavily recruited but we made it to the NBA. His on-court coaching and developmental skills are probably underrated.

Olson was willing to adapt to the changing face of college basketball.

Olson is not leaving Arizona gracefully. Players, recruits and, most certainly, Kevin O'Neill, have every reason to be upset about how he's handled himself the past year. UA is in disarray, and he's responsible.

But once those emotions subside, he'll be remembered for his accomplishments rather than his departure. He came to a basketball Siberia 25 years ago and turned it into a winter wonderland.

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