In one of his bizarre series of calls to Tucson radio stations KIIM-FM, KMXZ-FM and KFFN-AM last week, Lute Olson twice suggested that fans unhappy with UA basketball should "turn in their tickets."
"I'm sure the tickets will be picked up by people who would want to be there," Olson told KFFN (1490-AM) in a Tuesday call from the East Coast.
This is a serious miscalculation of the Tucson ticket-buying market, especially as it applies to the diminished product of Arizona Wildcats basketball and the economy of 2008. The demand for basketball tickets peaked several years ago. It has since ebbed. The streak of McKale Center sellouts quietly passed during the Mustafa Shakur/Chris Rodgers/Marcus Williams years.
Many UA season-ticket holders who pay up to a $500 tax per seat are now, like most consumers, debating whether to renew to watch a thinning product. The ticket package, at full price, includes the Red-and-Blue scrimmage and two non-counting exhibitions.
Buying UA basketball tickets is no longer an automatic rollover, spurred by expectations of being a national power, and by faith in the 73-year-old Olson.
The last time a UA head coach told ticket-buyers to give up their tickets, attendance fell from 57,779 to 35,779 in one week. In 1985, angered by boos at a home loss to UCLA, football coach Larry Smith told fans to "stay home if they don't like it.'' And so they did. Athletic director Cedric Dempsey was furious.
Fans don't like to be given ultimatums. Smith was in the middle of a fifth consecutive winning season, a program on the rise, a Rose Bowl contender that had in recent years beaten No. 1 USC, undefeated Notre Dame and shocked favored Arizona State three times in succession. And yet 22,000 stayed home on the coach's advice.
Olson's unpopular housecleaning, which has come at an unbudgeted cost of about $1 million to the athletic department's precarious bottom line, has created a feeling that the UA basketball program has been seized for personal gain and self-image. In his first 20 years on the scene, Olson fostered an atmosphere that his program was one big family that belonged to the fans.
That is no longer the case.
The spending habits of UA basketball fans have become a critical issue. If unhappy fans don't renew their orders for 2008-09, and beyond, the financial well-being of the entire athletic department will become a crisis.
Until Sonny Dykes and Willie Tuitama came along, Jason Johnson held many of the UA's top passing records, including most passing yards in a season (3,327) in 2002.
Johnson was a district first-team academic All-American in '02, a smiling, upbeat personality — he refers to himself as a "positologist'' — who spent three years as a substitute in the Canadian Football League and became a TV producer in Edmonton, Alberta, and, later, a marketing executive for Canada's equivalent of Jamba Juice.
Two months ago, piqued by an e-mail from former UA tight end Peter Hansen, who briefly played pro football in Italy, Johnson applied for an opening in the Italian Football League. He soon became quarterback and co-offensive coordinator for the Catania Elephants, a pro team on the Italian coast.
Johnson read John Grisham's best-selling book "Playing for Pizza," and discovered that he has become a real-life Reek Dockery, who was Grisham's quarterback-playing protagonist.
How's it going? A week ago against Palermo, Johnson, 28, threw five touchdown passes. The Elephants are 5-1.
If you wish to learn more about his adventure, his blog reallyplayingforpizza.blogspot.com is fabulous. Once his football days are over, he would be a terrific travel writer.
Arizona shot-putter 'on the right track' toward dream
UA junior Zack Lloyd set a personal shot put record of 65 feet 5 inches three weeks ago in San Diego. He talked longingly about someday being able to challenge ASU's Ryan Whiting, who won this year's NCAA indoor title by twice throwing more than 70 feet. That day came Friday night in Tempe. Lloyd unleashed a school-record throw of 69 feet, shattering Sean Shields' UA record by almost 2 1/2 feet. In doing so, Lloyd not only won the Pac-10 title, he also became the NCAA's top 2008 outdoor shot-putter. "Whiting is the gold standard,'' Lloyd told me recently. "If I can ever get to his level, I'll know I'm on the right track.'' Lloyd and Whiting have probably become the No. 1 ASU vs. UA rivalry of the athletic season. They'll meet for the NCAA title June 11 in Des Moines, Iowa. … When Pima College track coach Greg Wenneborg had a ceremony Tuesday for his letter-of-intent signees, PCC freshman shot-putter Jeremiah Korn, formerly of Sahuaro High School, was standing nearby. Wenneborg wrongly thought Korn was a sophomore and out of eligibility. Instead, Korn told him not only did he want to return to PCC in '09, but that he would like to be included in the signing festivities. Three days later at the NJCAA finals in Texas, Korn threw a career best 52-10 to win the national title. "He's such a good kid, always working to get better,'' Wenneborg said. "And now he's the national champ and has another year to throw for us. It was a pretty good day for all of us.''
Farmer earns degree while working part time at UA
At the UA School of Business graduation ceremony Friday at the Tucson Convention Center, former 1,000-yard rusher Clarence Farmer was awarded his diploma. It was a long time coming for Farmer, who initially started for Dick Tomey's final UA team as a true freshman in 2000, and later left the team during the turbulence of John Mackovic's brief tenure. Farmer has worked part time at the UA since returning from a failed NFL tryout while completing his degree. … When UA football coach Mike Stoops referred to ASU as a "junior college'' during February's letter-of-intent announcements, his unhappiness was based mostly on the Sun Devils' signing of Peoria Centennial safety/receiver Jarrell Barbour. Earlier, Barbour had committed to play at Arizona but changed his mind and said ASU "has a better chance of getting me in.'' Last week, Barbour was declared academically ineligible and is thus headed to a junior college. Score one for Mr. Stoops. … With Josh Pastner's departure to the Memphis coaching staff, Arizona is going to have difficulty getting incoming power forward Emmanuel Negedu to actually enroll at Arizona. Negedu was so close to Pastner that it wouldn't surprise anyone in the UA basketball office if the four-star stud from New Hampshire now tries to get released from his letter of intent. And would the last one out of McKale Center please turn out the lights.
My two cents
Cats could lose two players in 1st round of baseball draft
Baseball America last week suggested that two pitchers who could be part of Andy Lopez's 2009 Arizona team will be first-round draft picks next month. The magazine projects Flagstaff left-hander Kyle Lobstein, who has signed with Arizona, to be a first-round pick. It also says Marana High grad Ryan Perry, a junior right-hander who has 60 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings for the Wildcats, will be drafted late in the first round. … After winning the SEC individual golf championship, Rincon High grad Michael Thompson of Alabama struggled mightily in the NCAA Central Regional last week. In his first slumping performance of a terrific senior season, Thompson shot 16-over par (78-73-78) to finish 82nd overall. Thompson will work on his game as 'Bama, ranked No. 3 nationally, prepares for the NCAA championships May 28-31 at Purdue. … Tucsonan Cindy Rarick's performance in the ongoing LPGA Sybase Classic is a tribute to her persistence. She shot an opening-round 69 and was in the top 10 during part of Saturday's second round. The Sahuaro High School grad, in her fifth LPGA event this year, has not won a cent, and earned $2,551 in 10 events last season. But at 48, the five-time LPGA winner has a competitive spirit that still burns.
Star of 1962 Tucson High 21-0 basketball team dies
Tucson High School's undefeated (21-0) state championship basketball team of 1962, perhaps the most dominant boys basketball team in Tucson prep history, suffered another tragic loss last week.
Former All-City star Chester "Chet" Willis died here. He was only 63. Another star from that team, point guard Jesse Peoples, was killed in an automobile accident more than 25 years ago.
"Chet was one of those guys who became a playground legend here,'' said Randy Price, a reserve on coach Tony Morales' 1962 team. "He was one of those guys who would always be picked first for any team. He was a wonderful man.''
The other all-star players from the '62 team included Mike Aboud, who became a starter at Arizona, and 6-9 Ray Kosanke, who was an all-conference center at Stanford.
White Sox's Reinsdorf a hypocrite of the first order
It was comical to read that White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf considered ex-Suns coach Mike D'Antoni to be "rude" when he bypassed the Bulls to coach the New York Knicks.
If that is rude, what is Reinsdorf, who threatens to bring down the entire spring training structure in Tucson by moving the White Sox to Phoenix before their lease expires in 2012?