If you believe Dick Vitale -- which I do, not becuase I like him or his announcing (because I don't), but because nobody cozies up to coaches like Dickie V -- Lute Olson is stepping down at Arizona, effective immediately. The story also has been confirmed by Jeff Goodman at FoxSports.com. The university is flatly denying the report, but it's hard to believe that both ESPN and FoxSports.com would run with the story without it being true.
What a soap opera of epic proportions, and just a shameful and unfortunate end to Olson's career, if that's what it is. Just to recap (sort of) quickly:
- Arizona hires Kevin O'Neill before last season with the intention that he will take over for Olson whenever he retires.
- Two weeks before the season begins, Olson announces he's taking an indefinite leave of absence. O'Neill is named interim coach. No reason is given for the leave, other than "personal reasons."
- Speculation runs rampant. Is he sick? Tired of coaching? Olson is silent, as everyone else is left to answer the questions.
- Some time goes by, and word starts to leak out that Olson is taking a leave to deal with a messy divorce from his second wife. You'll remember that Olson's first wife -- Bobbi -- died of cancer, and that Arizona's court is named "Lute and Bobbi Olson Court." Still no word from Olson.
- Arizona struggles mightily under O'Neill, even with first-round NBA talent, thanks to the radical shift in philosophy from offense to defense. Olson is still nowhere to be found.
- Ten days before the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, Olson abruptly announces he will return at the end of the season. He says he wants to "reassure everyone that this isn't a health scare, but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention." There's no press conference, just a release. Still no questions answered by Olson.
- Arizona AD Jim Livengood: "We are delighted that Lute will be rejoining the program. He is one of the true legends of collegiate coaching, and his return is something that I know will be embraced by everyone who cares about our basketball program."
- While trying to prepare his team for the Tournament, O'Neill is asked what he knows about the situation. In a preview of things to come, O'Neill responds: "I've never asked Lute. I just didn't think it was my place. I don't know what medical condition he would be talking about, because I never asked him. I never wanted really to know." Clearly, these guys are not close.
- Asked what he thinks this means for his future as an assistant, O'Neill responds: "I don't know that. That's an option, obviously. All I'm going to do is what I do every year in coaching, and this isn't any different than when I was in the NBA or college before. After the season, I take a week or two, think about what is best for everybody and just make my decision based on that." When asked if he's put down roots in Tucson by buying a home, he says: "I learned many years ago in the NBA: Rent." Again, telling.
- Shortly after No. 10 seed Arizona's unceremonious first-round loss to West Virginia -- 10 days after Olson's announcement -- O'Neill and Olson meet. The talk is reported to be productive, and on March 23, it's announced O'Neill will be coming back as an assistant. The plan is still to succeed Olson when he retires.
- Two weeks later, Olson finally speaks -- for the first time since stepping away -- to announce that he is firing O'Neill and officially taking back the program. It's part of a rambling, confrontational news conference. Incidentally, Livengood and the school president find out about O'Neill's removal from the news conference.
- During the conference, it's intimated that Olson more or less fell off the map, failing to explain anything to recruits or players or their families. Olson is defiant, saying, "You don't have a feel for the situation at all."
- Over the next few months, recruits back off their verbal commitments to Arizona as assistant coaches (and former players) Josh Pastner and Miles Simon leave the program.* Simon's contract was not renewed, while Pastner took a job at Memphis. Pastner's leaving is characterized as a promotion by Livengood, but given Pastner's importance to the Arizona program, rumors persist that he was sent away.
- The story fades, as Arizona tries to put the pieces back together.
- Yesterday, Olson professes a desire to start over fresh.
- Today, Olson is stepping down -- again.
Now, maybe it will come out that there is some sort of illness that is forcing this. But what a shame that this is the way it ended for Olson, if in fact this is the end. I'm as turned off by Olson's pomposity as anyone else, but there's no denying what a great coach he's been. This is just sad.
* I forgot to put the detail about the assistants in the original post.