Opinion by Greg Hansen : Bill comes due for Arizona program engulfed in chaos

2008-10-24T00:00:00Z Opinion by Greg Hansen : Bill comes due for Arizona program engulfed in chaosOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star
October 24, 2008 12:00 am  • 

In the end, there was no teary farewell, no band playing, no banners waving, no fairy tale at all.

It was Jim Livengood flanked by two thinkers from the school's public relations brigade, Paul Allvin and Stephen J. MacCarthy, saying something in code that really meant "the lawyers will clean up all the details."

As Don Henley sings, "This is the end, this is the end of the innocence."

By the time the UA puts all the dollars together, Lute Olson's retirement won't be about happy memories; it will be about the chaos that has engulfed Camelot, the once-thriving UA basketball program.

The first guy to knock on the door will be the attorney for Kevin O'Neill, the vagabond coach who a few months ago was publicly announced as Olson's successor.

"When does Kevin start?" his attorney will ask? Let the bidding begin.

Then will come the unhappy calls from parents of UA ballplayers who pledged to become Wildcats because Olson assured them he would be their coach.

There will be no good answer.

"Sorry," they will be told. "Lute didn't tell us, either."

Olson had to re-recruit Chase Budinger and Nic Wise and Jamelle Horne, pledging that if they remained Wildcats, he would erase the sting of last year's dysfunctional drama.

Tough luck, huh?

It's not true that Livengood failed to put an exit strategy into place and was unprepared for this preseason crisis; in fact, he has been working on Olson's departure for months.

Livengood chatted formally with former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery about replacing Olson for this season. But the timing didn't work, and in the end Olson wanted to give it another shot and, well, nobody had enough power to tell him no.

It wasn't good business sense, but when a man coaches you to four Final Fours and 11 Pac-10 titles in what seemed like 11 years, he has the hammer. It was his choice, and perhaps his unwise judgment, to put the program he so artfully built into so much jeopardy. But no one, not even the university president, was willing to back him down.

And so now the bill comes due.

The UA recruiting class of 2009 is all but bankrupt. The team the next coach puts on the floor, in 2009-10, could be as bad as the one Olson inherited in 1983-84.

Because of that, there is a simultaneous feeling of appreciation and one of melancholy. There is also the reality that Olson wasn't going to be able to re-establish Arizona as an elite-level franchise.

"My personal opinion is that this is the right time for Lute to go," said Matt Othick, Arizona's skillful lefty shooting guard from 1989 to '92 who is now a Las Vegas businessman. "I didn't want to see him struggle. He's a special coach, and only a few have ever matched what he accomplished, but things had taken a turn for the worse.

"I'm glad to see that he stepped away before his image could be tarnished."

As Livengood begins to woo a replacement — is John Calipari too much to expect? — it is with a sense of expediency.

The UA athletic program is beholden to Lute's annual yield of about $16 million. It is one of the five or six top-grossing college basketball departments. Season ticket sales have dropped by almost 2,000 since 2006, and it is imperative — urgent for the health of the UA swimming, tennis, softball and baseball teams — that Arizona continues to produce similar basketball revenues.

Every bit as important as Olson's 24 consecutive NCAA tournament seasons are these figures:

● In 2006-07, the Wildcats produced $17,056,700 in basketball revenues.

● In 2007-08, the figure was $16,609,000.

No wonder they put his name at center court. In a self-supporting athletic department, Olson was an ATM. Can you fathom how many UA golf events in Hawaii and how many volleyball recruiting trips were funded by Olson's basketball program?

"Lute didn't have anything left to prove," 1988 Final Four center Tom Tolbert said on his San Francisco radio program Thursday. "Tucson wasn't on the map when he took that job. Tucson was nowhere. But he put it on the map, and he has meant a hell of a lot to that city and to those who played for him."

Or as 1988-91 point guard Matt Muehlebach, a Tucson attorney, said: "We all had visions of Lute going out in the Final Four, or by winning a championship. But this is probably for the best. I'm left with a tremendous, positive feeling about him and Arizona basketball."

In the end, that is what will be remembered. Lute's sloppy departure will be forgotten; his fabulous success will prevail.

What happens next is on Livengood. It's is the ultimate challenge of his long career. His charge is to find a replacement who will win at Olson's level, generate income at Olson's level and carry the torch with similar command.

No one is going to be happy with anything less.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pac-12 basketball standings

  Conference Overall
Arizona 0 0 0 0.000 12 1 0 0.923
Washington 0 0 0 0.000 11 0 0 1.000
California 0 0 0 0.000 10 2 0 0.833
Oregon 0 0 0 0.000 9 3 0 0.750
Utah 0 0 0 0.000 9 2 0 0.818
UCLA 0 0 0 0.000 8 4 0 0.667
Arizona State 0 0 0 0.000 8 5 0 0.615
Colorado 0 0 0 0.000 7 4 0 0.636
USC 0 0 0 0.000 7 4 0 0.636
Stanford 0 0 0 0.000 7 3 0 0.700
Oregon State 0 0 0 0.000 7 3 0 0.700
Washington State 0 0 0 0.000 5 6 0 0.455

AP Top 25

Pac-12 basketball schedule

Teams Date Time
Harvard at
Arizona State
12/28 12:00 pm
Cal State-Bakersfield at
12/28 1:30 pm
Cal-Davis at
Washington State
12/28 4:00 pm
12/28 4:30 pm
Stony Brook at
12/28 6:00 pm
Cal-Irvine at
12/29 9:00 pm
Arkansas-Pine Bluff at
12/29 9:00 pm
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