News & Opinion » Feature

Missing Lute Olson

Kevin O'Neill has reluctantly taken the UA basketball reins as the season gets underway


"Ya know, Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos comes order.'"--Howard Johnson to Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles, to which Olson replies, "Oh, blow it out your ass, Howard."

"Chaos" is too strong a word, but during the opening weeks of what is/was supposed to be Lute Olson's 25th year as head coach, the University of Arizona men's basketball team is certainly being buffeted about by some serious forces, external and otherwise.

This was to be the year that the Wildcat program got back on course, having rid itself of knuckleheads and slackers and having returned to a work ethic and team chemistry that had, during Olson's glorious reign, elevated Tucson from frontier outpost to giant among giants in the college-basketball world. It still might be, but the odds are lengthening by the day.

To be sure, there has been enough drama and turmoil in the program over the past-quarter century that long-time fans will swear they've seen it all before. Can't-miss teams that did. No-name squads that scaled the heights. Olson stepping away from the program for personal reasons.

Cat fans might look at this year's squad and wonder whether history--or a mix-tape version thereof--might repeat itself. And if so, will it be, as Karl Marx said: First as tragedy, then as farce?

But enough of the pre-Nazi philosophers. If indeed this is farce, let's hope it's in the vein of Mel Brooks. Indeed, as I sat there at McKale Center during the Nov. 13 regular-season opener and watched as the Wildcats let a scrappy Northern Arizona team whittle a 16-point deficit down to three in a game that remained a nail-biter to the very end, all I could do is think of Mel.

The week before, on Nov. 8, as the Cats were playing an exhibition game against something called Team Georgia, Mel's Young Frankenstein was opening on Broadway.

Both got mixed reviews.

"Hey, where da white women at?"--Bart in Blazing Saddles.

At the UA, the answer to that question is invariably on the cheerleading squad. But the important question is: Where da White Man at?

During the UA football team's thrashing of previously significant UCLA on Nov. 3, Lute Olson was in the press box at Arizona Stadium. Nattily attired in a red sweater vest, he was pacing about, a cell phone attached to his ear. A press box is a disturbingly quiet place, especially considering the number of people crammed in there, and the outgoing nature of many of its occupants. Nevertheless, Olson found it necessary to go outside onto the patio, which provides a stunning view of downtown and the mountains off in the distance. He was on the phone when I went to get a soda and was still on it when I went to get a refill. I thought nothing of it, figuring he was talking some ninth-grader into signing early with Point Guard U.

The next morning, it was announced that Olson was taking a leave of absence from the basketball program, effective immediately. Athletic Director Jim Livengood went out of his way to stress that the leave had nothing to do with health issues. (While hale and hearty, Olson is 73 years old, an age at which those who have actually lived that long might start experiencing a few health problems.)

While Olson showed up at the team's Monday, Nov. 26 practice, UA officals say he remains on leave, and there is still no official word regarding the situation that prompted his leaving. The rumors began flying immediately and coalesced into two main topics, neither of which will be discussed here, seeing as how they're just rumors.

It should be noted that, in this day and age of TMZ on the Web and 24-hour Britney sightings, the fact that the mainstream media in this town would respect Olson's privacy is downright refreshing. We understand that journalists are trained to dig to get to the bottom of everything, but sometimes humanity rears its lovely head, and decency prevails.

So far, those who know what's going on aren't talking, and those who are talking don't know what's going on.

"So, Lord Helmet, at last we meet again, for the first time ... for the last time."--Lone Starr in Spaceballs.

Kevin O'Neill was the story everyone was after heading into this season. He was The Angle, around which the story would pretty much write itself. Not exactly the Prodigal Son, O'Neill was with Lute during some of the initial glory days. During his three years in Tucson as head recruiter and badder cop to Olson's bad cop, the Wildcats went 82-19 and reached the Final Four in 1988. O'Neill was revered by the players, and the respect was a two-way street. (O'Neill's son, Sean, was named for Sean Elliott, the greatest player in UA history.)

Hard-charging and abrasive, O'Neill was perfect for the program. He helped turn a squad of undersized guards (Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan), underweight forwards (Elliott and Anthony Cook) and an underheight center (Tom Tolbert) into world beaters. The Cats went a stunning 35-3 that year, but a bad shooting night against Oklahoma in the Final Four cost Arizona the national championship many thought was theirs for the taking.

O'Neill left the UA for the head coaching job at Marquette, where three of his teams reached the postseason. Then it was on to Tennessee, where things didn't go as well, although not bad. Taking over a team that had won five games the year before, O'Neill had the Vols in the National Invitational Tournament within two years.

From there, he went to Northwestern, the nerd school in the Midwest where coaching careers go to die. Somehow, he coaxed those Wildcats into the NIT, just the third postseason appearance in the school's history and only the third winning season in the previous 29 years.

Finally, he moved on to the National Basketball Association, where coaching itself goes to die. It's almost certain that there are Latin words for "NBA" that mean "overpaid, crap-talking underachievers." O'Neill was an assistant for the New York Knicks and then, for a while, the head coach of the Toronto Raptors.

When Olson lured him back to Arizona, it was amid its fair share of controversy. Long-time assistant Jim Rosborough, who had been with Lute literally for decades, was shoved out the door to make room for O'Neill on the staff. Rightly or wrong, Roz took the fall for two dismal seasons that saw the Cats win the usual 20 games and advance to the NCAA Tournament, but under circumstances that left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. The teams were too cool and not really good enough to be cool at all. There were off-court scrapes with the law and on-court lapses that had fans and insiders pondering the direction of the program.

"Oh my God, it's Mega-Maid. She's gone from suck to blow!"--Colonel Sandurz in Spaceballs.

An 8-9 second half of the 2006-2007 season, capped by a take-that-ass-whuppin'-and-go-home loss to a less-talented but much-tougher Purdue team in the first round of the NCAAs, signaled that something had to be done. Rosborough was unceremoniously bounced and could have been banished to a crappy fundraising position in Phoenix. However, Jim Livengood kept Rosborough in McKale Center as Livengood's assistant, creating--for the first time ever--microscopic cracks in the solid relationship between AD and head basketball coach. A confrontation over a different matter later in the summer widened those cracks, through which a chilly wind blows to this day.

O'Neill was brought in, and the whip began cracking immediately. Players were given God-awful times for individual workouts; the weight room was always busy; some players put on needed weight while others lost poundage. (Point guard Nic Wise dropped a whopping 25 pounds and now looks more money than dough.)

When O'Neill came back to town, some thought that Olson was hand-picking his eventual successor, while others thought that it was just a move to help get the program back on track. Whichever it was (or whether it was both or neither), O'Neill would not confirm. He steadfastly turned down all requests for interviews, from media local and national, referring all questions to Olson and going about his business of being an assistant coach.

That is, until Lute stepped away.

"It's good to be king."--King Louis XVI in History of the World: Part 1.

Whatever success the Cats achieve on the court this season will undoubtedly have a lot to do with the play of Chase Budinger. It would be wrong to call him The Great White Hope since his skin doesn't really rise to the level of white. He's more like The Great Translucent Hope.

Apparently growing up in the only part of Southern California where it's foggy 365 days a year, Budinger puts the caulk in Caucasian. Outgoing and carefree off the court, he's a battler on it. He scored 25 points against NAU, and his perfection at the free-throw line down the stretch kept the upstart Lumberjacks at bay.

Picked by several preseason magazines to be the top player in a talent-laden Pac-10, Budinger seems comfortable with the challenges ahead.

When asked which team he hates to lose to, he blurts out, "UCLA! I can't stand losing to them. (The Cats lost by four last year at UCLA and then, inexplicably, by 15 later in the year at McKale Center.)

"They're our natural rival, and they think they've taken our place as the best team (in the West). We have to show them this year what's up."

Much has been made of Budinger's ability on the volleyball court, and he continues to love that game as well. "I don't see all that much difference between the two. They're both team sports; they're both really competitive; and they use a lot of the same athletic skills. I plan on playing both for a long time."

Laid back and casual, Budinger is almost certainly the most recognizable figure on campus. Last year, he could be seen getting around campus on a foot-propelled scooter, cruising next to others on scooters and talking to anybody who wanted to listen.

He can't really explain what went wrong last season. After a tough loss at Virginia (in which Arizona blew a 19-point lead), the Cats reeled off 12 straight wins, including victories over Stanford and Cal and a win over a tough Washington team on the road. But then there was an odd overtime loss at Washington State, one in which the Cats had a chance to win in regulation but didn't get a decent shot off. Observers noted that Budinger threw the ball in to Mustafa Shakur, who was apparently upset that the pass was a little bit behind him. He stopped to glower at Budinger, burning precious time, and then failed to score. That was the first of three losses in a row and five of the next six games.

"I really don't know what happened last year," Budinger says. "You know how you get rolling one way or another in sports. If you're winning, you do the little things that help you keep winning. The same for losing. It's really hard to put your finger on."

He realizes that Olson's absence will be disruptive, but says that everybody is taking it in stride and doing their best to keep things normal. "The other coaches (Miles Simon and Josh Pastner) are helping (O'Neill), and all of the players are just working real hard. We know Coach will be back sooner or later, and we don't want to let him down while he's gone."

Budinger likes this year's team a lot and thinks that even with a freshman point guard (Jerryd Bayless) running the show and a painfully thin corps of big men, the Cats can compete for the Pac-10 and national titles.

"I saw some magazine has us picked fifth in the Pac-10. That's not going to happen."

""...but we don't want the Irish."--Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles.

There hasn't been any of that "we don't want" sentiment so far. O'Neill has been accepted, if not completely embraced, by the Wildcat faithful. He certainly has many of Olson's mannerisms and eccentricities. During the NAU game, he not only stood most of the game; he stood on the court.

Not exactly the clothes horse that Olson is, but nattily attired nevertheless, O'Neill seemingly doesn't want to wrinkle his pants. Several times during the NAU game, the referee who was running the sideline either crashed into O'Neill or had to scramble to avoid a collision. Apparently, O'Neill was never told to sit down or even get off the court. It was very disconcerting, and some fans found themselves watching the sidelines rather than the game.

(Having been an assistant basketball coach to a stander in my day, I can tell you it's no fun for assistants Miles Simon, Josh Pastner and Jesse Mermuys. It's like that old joke about being a part of a dog-sled team; unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes. You can just hear it. Pastner: "Who scored that one?" Simon: "I think it was his left butt cheek. But at least his pants aren't wrinkled.")

The Cats would hold on to beat NAU, which would later forebodingly lose by 41 to Kansas. Pundits in press row sniffed, having come to expect blowouts in nonconference home games, especially against teams from the Big Sky Conference.

Most Cat fans are giving the relatively young Cats and the interim coach the benefit of the doubt. They understand that there are several possible recipes for success, and that it doesn't always include great physical prowess. (One of the Cat teams that underachieved had three--count 'em, three!--monsters on the inside and failed to live up to the hype and the potential. That team didn't have chemistry; all it had was biology.)

This year's team appears to have plenty of chemistry, but it is being led by a freshman point guard, which in major college basketball isn't the best idea. (Exception to the rule: Mike Bibby in 1997, who led the Cats to their only national title.)

"Light speed is too slow. ... We're going to have to go right to ludicrous speed."--Dark Helmet in Spaceballs.

Jerryd Bayless was the best high school basketball player in Arizona last year, and this year, he may well be the best basketball player at Arizona. A consummate player, he goes anywhere he wants on the court with the ball, has great court vision, throws sweet passes and hits the tough shot.

But occasionally, he plays like the freshman that he is. Against NAU, he clanged several second-half shots and even kept the fans from leaving early by missing two late free throws.

"I don't know what happened. I wasn't nervous. I just missed them," he explains.

He is going to have to use his speed to drive the Cats up and down the floor, because, as mentioned, Arizona is not imposing in the frontcourt. Fendi Onobun and Kirk Walters are nursing injuries/health problems, leaving only offensively challenged Mohamed Tangara and Bret Brielmaier to help last year's pleasant surprise, Jordan Hill, inside. (Freshman Jamelle Horne actually started against NAU, but he's only 6 foot 6 and is limited in what he can do inside.)

"Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, but it expressed a courage that is little seen in this day and age."--Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles.

When asked what he thought was the best basketball movie ever made, Jordan Hill promptly responded with the second- and third-worst basketball movies of all time, Blue Chips and He Got Game.

Throwing gasoline on the fire as he strolled through the room was media-relations guru and general smart-ass Richard Paige, who chimed in with the undisputed worst, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

For the uninitiated, Fish "starred" Julius Erving and Stockard Channing, who played a mystic named Mona Mondieu (yes, Mondieu). It's the only movie ever made that co-starred Jonathan Winters and Meadowlark Lemon, and for that, we can all be thankful.

After the laughter died down over Hill's picks, Hill proceeded to explain in his measured Southern drawl why the Cats will be better this year that they were last.

"It's good this year. We've got people who want to play together and have fun together. We work real hard. It's just a different feel this year."

Hill came out of nowhere to earn big playing time last year as a freshman. He was a shot-blocker who quickly blossomed as a scorer and rebounder as well. He had a double-double (15 points and 14 rebounds) against Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament, but was basically the only player who showed up that day as the Cats were dumped in the first round.

"It was weird last year. It was like we were beating ourselves. We told ourselves we were trying our hardest, but it didn't work out that way. It was real disappointing. This year will be different."

He likes O'Neill, but misses Olson. "Yeah, we all want Coach O to come back soon. Nothing against O'Neill, but it isn't Arizona basketball without that man (Olson) standing on the sidelines."

"Perhaps I've been a bit too haaaarsh ..."--Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety.

After showing disturbing tendencies (early foul trouble, way too many turnovers) in an unnecessary home loss to a good, but not great, Virginia team, the Cats then showed the same disturbing tendencies in lackluster home wins against the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Adams State. This led to high anxiety among UA fans, as the Jayhawks, ranked fourth in the nation, were installed as 17-point favorites (not that anybody actually bets on games like that).

Arizona quickly fell behind 20-9, and had more turnovers than a Dutch bakery. Apparently, Hill showed up at the arena with two fouls on him already. But then, an odd thing happened: All of a sudden, the Cats were the better team on the floor. Budinger was The Man, and the score was tied at 40 at halftime.

The Cats led for much of the second half, but with a chance to win the game, the ball was in Brielmaier's hands and didn't end up in the rim. Budinger missed the front end of a 1-and-1 in overtime, and Kansas won, 76-72.

While the outcome was disappointing, the game was most encouraging.

"The Inquisition, what a show!"--History of the World: Part 1.

Kevin O'Neill might have wanted to avoid the spotlight this year, but instead has been thrust right into it. He held a press conference last week and looked as though he would rather have been a guest on The View. Naked.

He said he would have preferred to have been at the dentist.

He clipped off his responses and made a couple of faces at the inevitable questions that most coaches find dumb and/or redundant. O'Neill had been saying that Olson would "be back shortly," but at the Nov. 15 press conference, that changed to: "There's absolutely no timetable for his return."

He then added that the statement did indeed represent a shift from previous statements, but then said, "To me, 'no timetable' means it could be one hour. Coach wants his privacy, and I've respected that all along. But there is no timetable for a return right now."

O'Neill said that Olson watched the NAU game and was less than impressed. "We talked a little bit about it. He's aware of what's going on."

Then came Olson's appearance at practice on Nov. 26--which was followed the next day by the news that there was still no timetable for Olson to return to his rightful throne as the team's full-time coach. For now, O'Neill remains the interim head coach.

And so begins Lute Olson's 25th year at Arizona, a year filled with promise and apprehension. Longtime fans can back through the years to pick and choose what they would like to see repeated. A dominant Sean Elliott team or maybe a Miles Simon squad that finished fifth in the Pac-10 and got hot at the right time. Maybe an under-the-radar Khalid Reeves/Damon Stoudamire Final Four team, or a Luke Walton/Jason Gardner team that got mugged by some Duke-leaning refs in the championship game.

Maybe some from Column A and some from Column B.

"When does this happen in the movie?"

"Now. You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now."

"What happened to then?"

"We passed then."


"Just now. We're at now, now."

"Go back to then!"

"... I can't."


"We missed it."


"Just now."

"When will then be now?"


--Dark Helmet and Colonel Sandurz in Spaceballs.

We can only hope.

Add a comment