Four months ago to the day, I wrote that University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson owed the public a better explanation for his sudden leave of absence announced Nov. 4.
I was pilloried in cyberspace for saying so; online commenters were outraged and vitriolic.
Olson was due his privacy. How dare I say otherwise? My wife half-jokingly suggested we leave town for a few days.
I should have waited a few months to write that column.
As ‘The Lute Story” grows curiouser and curiouser, about a third of readers and fans likely still would pelt me with virtual rocks and garbage for demanding anything of their sainted Lute. But another third would agree with me and the rest are sick of the whole affair and ignoring it.
I had predicted a persistent press would hound Olson, friends, family and UA until it got the reason fairly quickly. I also said Olson’s silence would only invite damaging rumors.
I was half right. The cone of silence around Olson and the media ambivalence have stunned me. Whether out of fear of Olson’s legendary wrath, or respect and loyalty, no one who may know the cause of his leave has been willing to say so.
The only medium that has stayed hard on this story has been the Tucson Citizen. Even the national media have mostly ignored it – until recently.
I didn’t expect the ugly rumors to resonate from my beloved free press, but some recent national reports have been loaded with innuendo, rumor and unnamed sources.
Citizen reporters have pursued all the rumors, but no one has been willing to speak on the record about them.
We report information with sources. It’s unfortunate that national media have jumped into this weird stew with unidentified sources.
At issue here are the future of Olson and the UA basketball team, and whether UA properly handled Olson’s leave.
The answer from Olson and UA has been a deafening silence.
The university, apparently through its interpretation of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, has kept Olson’s confidence, if in fact UA President Robert Shelton or Athletic Director Jim Livengood knows the answer.
Both are public officials who owe the public a better explanation, but both also are in an excruciatingly tight spot.
Proper handling of a beloved figure in the twilight of his career is a public relations nightmare.
They also must protect one of the nation’s best basketball programs. Recruits, its lifeblood, have to be reassured.
More than basketball is at stake, too. The difference between a winning and losing program is millions of dollars.
More than a dozen UA teams rely on the football and basketball teams to make millions to cover their own costs.
Shelton and Livengood are under tremendous pressure to keep money flowing and keep Olson, the players, recruits, boosters and fans happy.
Olson, though, won’t return calls or respond to reporters in person. Last week, he publicly congratulated players after the UCLA game, then retreated to his office with security guards in tow, who then barred the McKale Center hallway to his office. No reporters allowed.
Olson is being paid for his leave. His vacation time ran out months ago. So under state and federal rules, he must be using sick leave. UA won’t say.
Sick leave requires that he be caring for an immediate family member or be sick himself.
A news release in November from his estranged wife’s spokesman said his health wasn’t the reason for his leave.
That means he’s caring for a family member – unless rules are being broken or the news release lied.
A one-sentence news release from UA or Olson could settle this by simply stating what the hell is going on.
Instead, they leave one of the greatest college basketball programs twisting in the wind.
Olson is either unwilling or unable to break his silence.
Whichever is true, it’s news.
And terribly sad.
Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?”
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