Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hey Lute, It's Time To Retire Buddy

What a year it has been for the Arizona basketball program. Take a look at this chain of events:

  • In March, 2007, rumors start to circulate that Lute Olson has Parkinson's Disease, which he brushes off as a "vicious, vicious rumor".
  • On November 4th, 2007, Olson announces that he will be taking a year-long leave of absence from the team and is to be replaced by lead assistant Kevin O'Neill. On December 7th, Olson files for divorce from his wife Christine. In April, it gets ugly.
  • Then, the exodus began. First, it was interim coach Kevin O'Neill, who Olson graciously parted ways with threw under the bus. Then it was Jerryd Bayless (NBA Draft), Brandon Jennings (Europe), Emmanuel Negedu (common sense) and Abdul Gaddy. 
  • Lute Olson sounds off on recruiting one-and-done players.
Now, it appears has if Olson has committed a pretty serious and damning recruiting violation. Apparently, a letter was sent out in May to the Arizona basketball boosters asking them to donate money to the Jim Storey Cactus Classic AAU Tournament (boosters are explicitly forbidden from financially assisting any recruits). From the AP:
"A 'personal and confidential' letter was sent to Rebounders Club board of directors over the electronic signature of Lute Olson, requesting that they provide financial assistance to Jim Storey's Cactus Classic AAU Tournament," Livengood said in a July 2 letter to Ron Barker, Pac-10 associate commissioner in charge of governance and enforcement. "The letter expressed how important this tournament is to the Arizona basketball program's recruiting. The letter also stated [correctly] that 'The athletics department can't assist in any way.' Which would include requesting that donors make financial contributions."
Olson denies all knowledge of the letter, and some Arizona fans are even crying conspiracy (h/t RTC).

I don't know what happened. I am definitely cynical enough to believe that Lute Olson (and any big-time D1 coach for that matter) would have no problem skirting the rules like that (if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'). But to be honest, it is not even a huge problem as Arizona self-reported it back in July, and it is the type of thing (a form letter with a digitized signature) that would be very easy to forge (and if you believe some of those 'Zona fans, a very real possibility).

Whether Lute sent the letter or not doesn't change the fact that it may be time for him to hang it up. He's 74 years old and his teams have consistently underachieved during the new millenium (although to be fair, his assistants are he is a helluva recruiter as he just re-landed top 10 recruit Abdul Gaddy). To me, it has always seemed as if Lute Olson has just rolled the ball out there and let his guys play. Granted, there is a method to the madness - he lands talented lead guards, surrounds them with talented role players, and then runs a system where the Wildcats push the ball and play in the open court. That is fine when you are loaded at every position (remember in 2000-01 when they had Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Loren Woods, Michael Wright, and Jason Gardner? I think only the 1996 Kentucky team and the 2006 UConn team had more talent in my lifetime), but it is tough when you aren't.

I loved Lute and Arizona back in the day. Besides UConn, they were probably my favorite team growing up. I just hope that Olson's legacy lives on as the great things he did for the program in the 90's, and not that he ran it into the ground these last four or five seasons.

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