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Olson to return as head coach; O’Neill unsure what to do

Coach Lute Olson and assistant coach Miles Simon after the last home game of the season against UCLA.

Coach Lute Olson and assistant coach Miles Simon after the last home game of the season against UCLA.

Arizona men’s basketball coach Lute Olson said he is returning next season and will attempt to finish out his contract through 2011.

Olson, who will be 76 by then, admitted Monday he had a “medical condition” that led to his leave of absence since Nov. 4.

Interim coach Kevin O’Neill praised Olson for coming back but said Monday he has not made up his mind whether he will return as an assistant under Olson next season.

“I am very eager to be back doing what I love, which is coaching this team,” Olson said in a prepared statement Monday. “I appreciate everyone’s support during this period and want to thank Kevin O’Neill for the great job he’s done in my absence.”

Olson said his leave from the team was necessitated “by a medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away from my coaching responsibilities.”

In announcing his leave of absence Nov. 4, Olson issued a press release to “reassure everyone that this isn’t a health scare, but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention.”

Olson declined to comment or to clarify the wording of his original release when reached Monday morning, saying the new press release will be all he’ll have to say.

“I know there has been a lot of speculation about my situation,” he said. “I’m glad we can clear the air, but the most important thing right now is the team. All of our effort and attention should be on these student-athletes and their efforts to advance to the NCAA Tournament.”

O’Neill, in his weekly news conference Monday, said:

“I think it’s great that (Olson) is coming back. I think it’s going to be great for the program, great for the players and great for the city.

“Obviously, he feels he’s ready to come back or he wouldn’t do that. I’ve been the caretaker of this program for the year and I’m assuming he’ll take over once our season is done.”

Will O’Neill come back as an assistant next season?

“I don’t know that,” he said. “That’s an option obviously.I make my decisions at the end of the year in caoching. I think anytime you think about making a decision about your future during the year and season you’re making a mistake.”

Former UA players reacted positively to Olson returning.

“I’m glad to see that whatever he was going through was just temporary,” Corey Williams said. “A coach of his stature is always welcome. It’s great to see he’ll be able to come back and contribute to the team.

“He deserves a story-book ending. I’m glad to see this is not the last chapter for Coach O.”

Added Pete Williams, who was on Olson’s first few teams at UA. “You hear a lot of rumors and such. But thank goodness. I felt he’d be coming back.

“I was getting a little nervous. But I’m thrilled he’s coming back.”

Steve Kerr, who helped take the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 1988, said: “I’m happy for him. Obviously this is what he wants. So if he’s happy I’m happy.”

Eugene Edgerson, a member of UA’s 1997 NCAA champion team, said Olson’s decision was not surprising.

“The Coach O that I know would never leave on such a note as this year,” Edgerson said. “I’m just very happy that he’s going to be back next year. Today is a good day to be an Arizona Wildcat. It really is.

“If you’re not fired up, you’re in the wrong place. I’m fired up for next year.”

UA athletic director Jim Livengood said, “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.”

Olson has been on a leave of absence since November “for personal reasons.”

Dec. 6, he asked for leave through the remainder of the season. However, he has returned to his office a few times in the past month.

Arizona is 18-13 overall. It finished 8-10 in the Pacific-10 Conference, coming in seventh, the lowest spot since Olson’s first year at UA, 1983-84, when the Wildcats finished eighth in the Pac-10 and were 11-17 overall.

Arizona faces Oregon State on Wednesday in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament.

O’Neill “has handled a very difficult situation with tremendous poise, and I can’t begin to say how appreciative we are of the job he has done,” Livengood said in the statement.

Livengood, who is out of town, will have a press conference Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. Kathleen “Rocky” LaRose, senior associate athletics director, declined to comment.

Olson has coached at Arizona for 24 years and 34 years overall in Division I. His record is 780-280 (.736). He is 589-187 at Arizona.

O’Neill was named interim coach right after Olson took the leave.

Dec. 19, O’Neill, after guiding his team to a 7-2 record, was selected to be Olson’s successor when the head coach decides to retire.

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RELATED

25 years: Lute Olson made Tucson a bona fide basketball town

Gimino: No harm in having O’Neill come back as assistant

LUTE OLSON TIMELINE

• April 21, 2007 – The Citizen reports that Lute Olson’s longtime assistant, Jim Rosborough, won’t be returning. “Roz” is asked to stay with the basketball program in an administrative role, but declines, eventually accepting a position in the athletic department under athletic director Jim Livengood.

• May 1 – Kevin O’Neill is hired to replace Rosborough at $375,000 per year, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in college basketball.

• Nov. 3 – After a home football game against UCLA, Olson informs Livengood that he needs a leave of absence.

• Nov. 4 – Livengood holds a news conference to announce Olson’s leave of absence and introduce O’Neill as interim head coach. In Olson’s press release about the leave, issued by his wife’s public relations firm, Olson says he needs the break for personal, non-health-related reasons.

• Nov. 26 – Olson returns to McKale for a team practice and attends several practices over the next week and a half as an observer.

• Dec. 6 – Olson announces late in the evening that his leave of absence will extend all season and that he will return to coach “next year.” He ceases going to practice.

Court records reveal that Olson filed for divorce from Christine Toretti Olson. He says their marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Through her spokesperson, Christine Olson says she is “personally devastated,” but pledges to support Olson “through this difficult time in his life.”

In Phoenix, at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting, UA President Robert Shelton said Olson understood the distraction of his presence at practices and that was part of what prompted the extension of the leave of absence.

• Dec. 18 – UA announces that O’Neill will be the head coach when Olson decides to retire.

• Jan. 4, 2008 – Christine Olson files a petition in Pima County Superior Court contesting the divorce and asking the case be remanded to conciliation court so she and Olson can “utilize the services of the Court of Conciliation for marital counseling.”

• Jan. 7 – Judge Sarah R. Simmons grants Christine Olson’s petition and postpones the divorce case for 60 days.

• Jan. 11 – Lute Olson shows up unannounced at McKale to work out in the weightroom. He gives brief interviews to the media and says he is “doing well.”

• Jan. 15 – The Tucson Citizen runs a story examining Olson’s treatment based on the universities leave of absence policy. It reveals that Olson would have to be using sick leave by the end of January and that sick leave can only be used by someone who is ill or caring for an immediate family member who is ill and needs continual care. University officials refuse to say if Olson is ill.

• Early February – It is revealed that players have been calling Olson, and vice versa.

• Feb. 5 – UA athletic director Jim Livengood says that Olson being on leave does not mean he is quarantined and that he is allowed to talk with players.

• Feb. 26 – In an interview in his office, Livengood says that it would be “very inappropriate to answer” questions about Olson’s health.

• March 2 – Lute Olson comes to Senior Day at the UA basketball game. He goes to the court with two security guards, greets the players and parents, but says nothing. He is escorted back to his office with security guards and refuses to speak to the press.

• March 3 – UA President Robert Shelton, after a faculty senate meeting, says that Olson is using leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, and that his FML hiatus expires March 7. In a phone interview March 3, Shelton said he didn’t expect an announcement regarding Olson’s status until March 8 at the earliest.

• March 4 – Christine Olson, in an interview after a public appearance at the Young Leaders Society of the United Way says that when she has seen Olson, his health “seems great.”

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TEXT OF UA PRESS RELEASE

Olson to Return at Conclusion of the Season

Hall of fame coach has been away since Nov. 4

TUCSON, Ariz. University of Arizona Athletics Director Jim Livengood today confirmed that Lute Olson would return to his position as head coach of the Wildcats basketball team at the conclusion of the current season.

Olson has been away from the program since Nov. 4, and is returning to fulfill a contract with the University that runs through 2011.

“We are delighted that Lute will be rejoining the program,” Livengood said. “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.”

Olson said, “I am very eager to be back doing what I love, which is coaching this team. I appreciate everyone’s support during this period and want to thank Kevin O’Neill for the great job he’s done in my absence.”

Olson noted that his leave from the team was necessitated “by a medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away from my coaching responsibilities.”

“I know there has been a lot of speculation about my situation,” Olson said. “I’m glad we can clear the air, but the most important thing right now is the team. All of our effort and attention should be on these student-athletes and their efforts to advance to the NCAA Tournament.”

Livengood said O’Neill, UA’s top assistant since May 1 and the interim coach in Olson’s absence, “has handled a very difficult situation with tremendous poise, and I can’t begin to say how appreciative we are of the job he has done.”

Olson has a career record of 780-280 (.736) in 34 seasons as a collegiate head coach and 589-187 (.759) in 24 years at Arizona. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 27, 2002, and became the 16th coach in basketball history (covering all levels) to tally 1,000 career victories on Dec. 11, 2004.

During his 24-year tenure at Arizona, the Wildcats have won one national championship (1997), played in the national championship game (2001), participated in four Final Fours (1988, 1994, 1997, 2001), won 11 Pac-10 Conference titles, four Pac-10 Tournament crowns (1988, ’89, ’90, 2002) and been to the NCAA Tournament for 23 consecutive seasons, which is the longest active and second-longest streak in NCAA history (North Carolina, 27). He also led Iowa to the 1980 Final Four.

He has the most Pac-10 wins (327) of any coach in league history and the second-best conference winning percentage (.764/327-101) and second-most league championships won (11) in Pac-10 history (minimum three years), trailing only UCLA’s John Wooden (.810/304-74/16 titles). Olson has been named the

Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times (1986, ’88, ’89, ’93, ’94, ’98, 2003), the Big Ten Coach of the Year twice (1979 & ’81) and directed the UA program to the nation’s third-best winning percentage over the past 20 years (519-142/.785).

In his collegiate career, Olson has produced 52 NBA Draft picks, including 31 at Arizona. He’s led UA to 20 consecutive 20-win seasons and has 29 overall in his career, making him one of only three head coaches in NCAA history to record 29 or more 20-win seasons.

Arizona director of athletics Jim Livengood is returning to Tucson on Monday and will address the media tomorrow (Tues., March 11) at 11:30 a.m. PDT in McKale Center room 109C.

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