A national search has begun to replace Lute Olson, who stepped down as Arizona basketball coach after a 25-year run in which he won the program’s first national title in 1997.
Olson, 74, said he is retiring immediately to spend more time with his family. It is unclear if the medical and personal reasons that caused his leave of absence last season contributed to his decision, announced late Thursday afternoon by UA.
“This was not a decision that was made lightly,” Olson said in a statement released through UA. “I’ve had a wonderful run at the University of Arizona. I leave with a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished here.”
UA associate head coach Mike Dunlap apparently will take over for Olson on an interim basis.
But Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood did not address Dunlap’s situation, nor would he speculate about how fast a new head coach could be found. The regular season begins Nov. 17 against Florida Atlantic.
“We will never replace Lute Olson. But we do have to find a successor, and we have to move quickly,” Livengood said in a statement. “I intend to recruit a coach who is worthy to inherit Lute’s astounding legacy.”
In his statement, Olson said:
“At this stage in my life, I want to devote my time to my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, family and friends. I look forward to watching Wildcat basketball and visiting with my colleagues in the coaching profession. It is time to pass the program on to a younger staff, to transition the university to the next generation of basketball.”
Olson added: “To my family, all of the players who have put on our uniform, our fans in Tucson and all of the great supporters of this basketball program, I offer my heartfelt thanks for your support, and I look forward to reconnecting with each of you. The University of Arizona will always be a basketball school. It will continue to flourish.”
Earlier Thursday, Solomon Crawford, the father of 2009-10 recruit Solomon Hill, said UA assistant coach Reggie Geary told him that Dunlap would take over for Olson on an interim basis.
“Reggie gave me a call, and said Lute wasn’t going to be there,” Crawford said. “I don’t know if he is sick. There’s been no specific reason (given).”
Crawford’s statements came after ESPN analyst Dick Vitale broke the Olson departure story Thursday morning. UA officials, however, spent much of the day denying the report.
Players’ families didn’t know what to think, and some parents were upset having learned about Olson’s situation on the Internet or from friends.
Debbie Withey, mother of freshman center Jeff Withey, said she received word by text message.
“That’s how I find out?” she asked. “The mother of one of the top players. . . . To find out this way is unbelievable.
“I just got done crying to my husband,” said Debbie Withey, a local teacher. “I feel totally stupid that we stuck it out (when Olson took a leave of absence last season). And we’re the stupid ones. We listened to people.
“Every coach we dealt with is gone” from the previous regime, she added.
“I feel totally betrayed. That’s me personally. I have no clue how Jeffrey feels right now. He probably is just concerned with playing. He doesn’t care about this stuff. But that’s why we’re the parents.”
Duncan Budinger, father of junior forward Chase Budinger, said Thursday morning that he had not heard from UA officials about Olson’s status. But he called the media reports “disturbing.”
“The boys (UA players) had a great experience with (Olson) over the last couple of weeks while he’s been on the court,” the elder Budinger said. “He hasn’t just been a sideline coach. He’s been very active. . . .
“The UA basketball program,” he added, “did not need any more drama.”
Olson missed the annual Rotary Club luncheon Wednesday. Assistant Reggie Geary spoke in his place. Olson, who had a 589-188 record at UA in 24 seasons, took a leave of absence 2007-08, citing medical and personal reasons.
But during media day Tuesday, Olson said, “Energy is not a problem.”
UA sophomore forward Jamelle Horne told the Citizen earlier this week that Olson looked fine in practice. “You’re constantly bumping into him during drills, because he wants you to realize he’s back,” Horne said. “He’s getting after it. He’s been yelling at everyone.”
Olson, a member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame, came to the Wildcats in 1983, after coaching stints at Long Beach State and then Iowa. His overall coaching record is 780-280.
Duncan Budinger said he’s met with Dunlap several times.
“He seems to be a fine individual,” the father said. “I don’t think it’ll be quite the same (as tough a season) as it was with Kevin O’Neill last year.”
Look for a 4-page special section in tomorrow’s Tucson Citizen commemorating the Lute Years at UA.Lute Olson retires
Lute Olson retires
A look back Lute Olson over the years as he will retire effectively immediately.
Producer: FRANCISCO MEDINA
LUTE OLSON ARCHIVE
Read more Citizen coverage of the Olson years at tucsoncitizen.com/ss/lute
OLSON’S UA TIMELINE
1983: Lute Olson is hired from Iowa on March 31, 1983. His first team goes 11-17 overall, but players such as freshman Steve Kerr give Wildcats fans hope for the future.
1985: UA goes 21-10 in Olson’s second season and loses to Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tourney.
1988: The Wildcats go 35-3 and reach the Final Four for the first time behind Sean Elliott, Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Anthony Cook and Craig McMillan. They fall to Oklahoma 86-78 in the semifinal.
1994: UA unleashes guards Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves to make its second Final Four, losing to eventual champion Arkansas in the semifinal.
1997: Olson’s perfect silver hair is mussed as the Cats beat Kentucky 84-79 in overtime to win the NCAA crown in Indianapolis, led by guards Miles Simon and Mike Bibby.
2001: The Wildcats go 24-10 to reach their fourth Final Four, just months after Olson’s wife, Bobbi, dies of cancer. UA loses to Duke in the title game. Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Loren Woods and Michael Wright go on to be drafted in the NBA.
2003: Olson gets his 500th win at UA on Nov. 24 in a 107-73 victory over NAU.
2005: The Wildcats are minutes from reaching their fifth Final Four when they blow a 15-point lead to Illinois and lose in overtime 90-89.
March 16, 2007: UA struggles down the stretch and finishes with 20 wins for the second straight season, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Purdue 72-63.
April 20: Longtime Olson assistant Jim Rosborough is reassigned in the athletic department. He initially declines the offer, then accepts.
May 1: Kevin O’Neill, a UA assistant coach during the Cats’ first Final Four run, is hired as Olson’s assistant for $375,000 a year.
Nov. 1: Olson attends the Pac-10 media day in Los Angeles.
Nov. 4: The school calls a news conference to announce Olson is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons.
Nov. 26: Olson returns to practice but does not coach in games.
Dec. 6: UA announces Olson’s leave of absence will last the season.
March 10, 2008: UA says Olson will return when the season ends and plans to coach through 2011, when he’s 76. Olson admits he had a “nonthreatening” medical condition. O’Neill is unsure whether he will stay on as an assistant.
April 1: Olson gives contentious press conference, criticizing the media and ignoring the job O’Neill did.
May: Olson reshuffles his coaching staff, adding Denver Nuggets assistant Mike Dunlap (associated head coach), former ASU assistant Russ Pennell and ex-UA guard Reggie Geary. Miles Simon is let go, and Josh Pastner takes a job at Memphis. O’Neill takes an assistant’s job with Memphis Grizzlies.
May 29: Olson reaches divorce settlement with Christine Olson, ending their five-year marriage.
Oct. 1: Olson tells team that he is engaged to be married to Kelly Pugnea, 47.
Tuesday: Olson apologizes for his April outburst and praises the job of O’Neill. Olson also says, “Energy is not a problem,” and players say Olson is active in practice.
Thursday: ESPN reports Olson is stepping down. UA officials deny the report.
Compiled by Tucson Citizen Sports Editor Mike Chesnick