Wildcats dealing with Olson's departure

AP photo<br. In this March 31, 1997, file photo, Arizona coach Lute Olson holds the trophy after Arizona beat Kentucky 84-79 in overtime to win the NCAA college basketball national championship at the Final Four in Indianapolis. Olson has retired after 24 years with Arizona. Athletic director Jim Livengood confirmed Olson's decision Oct. 23, after hours of news reports speculating about the 74-year-old Hall of Famer's future.

TUCSON, Ariz. - Arizona has gone from contending for national titles to leading the nation in press releases.

Here's a quick summary of the news generated by the Wildcats since practice opened in mid-October:

-Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson retired suddenly after 24 seasons.

-Arizona named first-year assistant Russ Pennell its interim coach. Pennell, who spent last season as a radio analyst for archrival Arizona State, is the Wildcats' second interim coach in as many seasons.

-Arizona's top freshman, 6-foot-10 center Jeff Withey, is reportedly planning to transfer, although the school has yet to make a formal announcement. His expected departure comes after the Wildcats' entire fall recruiting class backed out in the days following Olson's retirement.

This is the new reality of Arizona basketball.

A program that once seemed as invulnerable as the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains has been pitched into chaos, although athletic director Jim Livengood cringes when he hears that word.

"The last word I would choose is 'chaos,' and I've seen it in print and heard it on the air," Livengood said. "Have we gone through some difficult times? We have. But that's not unusual in college basketball."

Perhaps. But it will take time for the Wildcats to recover from the unprecedented upheaval of the last two weeks, as well as the uncertainty of the past year.

"I hope it levels out a little bit and we get down to basketball and that becomes the focus," Pennell said.

At the team's media day on Oct. 21, Olson said he was "energized" for the new season, and his players spoke enthusiastically about Olson's return and the upcoming season.

Two days later, ESPN's Dick Vitale reported Olson was stepping down immediately. Vitale also reported assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who joined the staff last spring, would become the interim coach.

In fact, Dunlap opted to remain an assistant, so Livengood turned to the 47-year-old Pennell, a former assistant at Arizona State and Mississippi.

Olson initially gave no reason for retiring. On Tuesday, his doctor, Steven Knope, said an MRI had revealed that Olson had suffered a stroke in the last year. Knope said the stroke plunged Olson into severe depression and impaired his judgment, and Knope said he advised the coach to retire.

"When Coach Olson retired, it caught us off guard," said forward Chase Budinger, a third-team All-Pac-10 pick last season. "I was expecting him to be here all season. It was a devastating time. It really hit me personally for a couple of days. It was very hard to recover after those days. I was expecting one thing, and it changed in a second. I just didn't want last year to replay again this year."

The events of the last season are still difficult to grasp at a program long portrayed as a rock of stability.

Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983 and quickly built a national powerhouse out of the desert sand.

The Wildcats had won one conference title in the 29 years before Olson arrived from the University of Iowa, and they went 4-24 the season before he took over. Olson had them in the Final Four by 1988. They made three other trips, including winning the 1997 national title.

Those are now known as the good old days in Tucson.

The first sign of upheaval came last Nov. 4, when Olson announced he was taking a personal leave of absence to deal with what he later termed "a medical condition that was not life-threatening."

Kevin O'Neill was promoted from assistant coach to interim coach and later designated Olson's permanent successor. But the succession plan was scrapped even after O'Neill led Arizona to a 19-15 record and its 24th straight NCAA tournament berth, the nation's longest active streak.

O'Neill left the program soon after Olson returned, as did the rest of Olson's assistants. Olson pledged to bring back "Arizona basketball," as opposed to the defense-oriented game favored by O'Neill.

But "Arizona basketball" requires top-notch talent. Olson was able to lure touted recruits from across the country by selling his record of preparing players for the pros and a chance to play for national titles, not to mention Tucson's fabulous winter weather.

The next coach will be able to sell opportunity.

Arizona wades into the season with three proven Pac-10 players - Budinger, 6-10 forward Jordan Hill and nimble point guard Nic Wise. The rest of the roster lacks talent or experience.

"(Opponents) can take two of our three guys out of the game if you wanted to," Pennell said. "It's the other guys that have to step up."

During Olson's tenure, the Wildcats started many seasons with Final Four expectations. This season, it might be a miracle if the Wildcats extend the NCAA tournament streak.

But Budinger said he hopes the Wildcats will defy the odds.

"We have to ignore all the people that are doubting us," Budinger said. "We're a family, and we need to stick together. We have to play for one another."

Next year's roster could be even thinner if Budinger and Hill leave for the NBA. All three players in Arizona's fall recruiting class - touted point guard Abdul Gaddy and forwards Mike Moser and Solomon Hill - have backed away from their commitments, and Arizona seems unlikely to bolster its recruiting until the next coach is hired.

Livengood's search for Olson's successor likely will dominate the focus this winter.

The next coach will benefit from the legacy of Olson's success - a winning tradition, a national recruiting base, upgraded facilities and a fan following that borders on the obsessed.

But the new hire also must create stability. In that way, it's similar to the task Olson faced in March 1983, when he became Arizona's third coach in 13 months.

"What Lute's built is incredible," Livengood said. "Can we sustain it? Absolutely. But we'll have to prove it."


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