Is Lute Olson entitled to privacy? You bet. Is the public that pays millions of dollars a year to watch his basketball team and provides his players a free college education entitled to a better explanation about where he’s gone on the eve of the season’s start?
Monday, UA President Robert N. Shelton said, “The real key is, this is a public figure who not only has devoted his life to one of the best – if not the best – basketball teams in the nation, but also is completely devoted to this community. He has given all . . . . Human beings are complicated creatures and everyone needs a little down time, especially after 25 years.”
There is no arguing that. Take all the time you need, coach. But tell us why. We’re going to find out anyway. Every UA sports reporter in this city, plus a few in Phoenix and probably several nationally are trying to find out. And one of them will – soon.
Olson lovers and Wildcat fans will criticize reporters for trying to find out. They’re writing in blogs and story comments that Olson has earned the right to keep to himself his reasons for abandoning one of the country’s marquee men’s college basketball programs at the start of the season.
I don’t see it that way. We, the press, have a fundamental duty to find out the status of this program and why Olson’s left it because there’s more at stake than just the basketball team.
His team is vital to UA athletics. It brings in almost as much money as the football team. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006, Olson’s basketball team brought in $14.9 million and the football team $15.3 million, according to data reported by the university to the U.S. Department of Education.
Combined, the two programs pay for the best-in-the-nation UA women’s softball team and the superb swimming, baseball, golf and cross country teams, as well as every other athletic team.
The continued success of the men’s basketball program is critical to the success of UA athletics. And the success of UA athletics is important to the academic success of the university.
Hundreds of colleges and universities don’t spend tens of millions of dollars on sports teams because it’s tradition. Successful sports teams help bring in the education bucks, too, keep deep-pocket boosters happy and recruit students known more for their ability to play with buckyballs than basketballs.
Moreover, Olson, 73, is a public official, and a highly paid one at that, though his salary comes from his program and not taxpayers. Regardless, he’s an employee of the state. If the governor asked to take an indefinite break from her job and not tell people why, the criticism would be withering.
Not that a college basketball coach’s job is as important as the governor’s, but in this town, ask people on the street who’s more important, Olson or Gov. Janet Napolitano, and Lute wins going away. He’s as important to Tucson as he is to the UA.
Olson certainly has the right to take a break, retire, tend to his family, or whatever. But tell us why. Just like he did when he took a break from the team when his wife Bobbi died in 2001. But we all knew why; then, it wasn’t cloaked in the mysterious “personal matter” as it is now.
Without a better reason, the rumors – which have already started -will be rampant and those who wish the UA basketball program harm will start whispering those rumors in the ears of recruits.
Saying why also will give everyone who knows Lute a break. Because until then, every day every UA basketball, athletic and administration official who knows where Lute is and why will be hounded by reporters, as well as every person who knows Lute and who might know why he left. It’s the reporters’ job to find out.
Eventually, someone will talk. It’s only a matter of time.
Lute, what you’ve done for UA and Tucson is invaluable.
What we’ve done for you is worth the same. We’re owed an explanation.
Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?” TODAY: Why Lute Olson should tell us what’s behind his leave of absence
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