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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Lute’s absence lacks class

    Lute Olson
    Lute Olson

    Lute Olson has always conducted himself with impeccable class, earning a reputation as a hard worker and one of the best coaches in college basketball history.

    The Silver Fox has become a revered figure in Tucson by piling up NCAA Tournament appearances and 20-win seasons, along with bringing the 1997 national championship to Arizona.

    That’s what makes the lack of class he has shown in handling his leave of absence so shocking.

    Olson lied about the reason for his absence, originally saying, “”It isn’t a health scare but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention,”” before turning a complete 180 by calling it a “”medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away”” in Monday’s press release.

    In the past four-plus months many rumors have circulated, with the most believable one being that Olson was attending to a serious issue involving one of his children.

    It made sense. Vacation time does not cover a leave as long as Olson’s, so he had to use sick leave unless he was getting preferential treatment. UA athletic director Jim Livengood repeatedly said that wasn’t the case.

    He could have legally used sick leave to take care of one of his children, but it did not make sense for a man to take a whole season off after only missing five games when his beloved first wife Bobbi died.

    Olson asked for privacy, which some have argued he deserved based on everything he’s accomplished. But in reality all that privacy has done is veil the truth.

    Olson’s not alone in this secrecy, as Livengood admitted he knew “”a fair context”” about the true reason for Olson’s absence.

    When asked to elaborate on the skimpy details Olson gave for his leave in Monday’s release, Livengood refused comment once again because it’s a personnel issue that Olson will address directly at the end of the season.

    Livengood should not have to answer those questions, but they are put in front of him because Olson has hidden behind press releases throughout the whole ordeal.

    Even when he attended the Senior Day festivities on March 2, he watched the game from his office and returned immediately after the ceremony, declining to speak with the media or even address the crowd.

    All the while Olson has taken in his base salary of $737,790, making him one of the highest-paid state employees in Arizona. He may even receive some of the incentives UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill has earned in his absence, as that issue will not be decided until season’s end.

    Meanwhile, O’Neill’s $375,000 salary – believed to be the nation’s highest for an assistant – has been increased to $725,000, meaning the UA athletics department is paying top dollar to a pair of head coaches.

    Livengood said the succession plan in place for O’Neill to take over when Olson retires is one of “”a number of things that need to be addressed when the season’s over.””

    That does not sound like a firm succession plan, especially in light of O’Neill’s ambivalence on whether he will even return next season.

    Livengood admitted that plan was put in place in large part to answer questions recruits had about the program. That’s a wise strategy, as nobody wants to commit to a program in turmoil, but it sure seems more like a cover-up to show recruits there’s a plan in place than an actual plan.

    Recruiting had never been an issue under Olson; he was always able to answer questions opposing coaches posed about his age, but that job just got much more difficult after he took this season off for health reasons without offering many answers.

    Livengood said “”it’s hard to say”” whether Olson’s ability to recruit top-level talent has been compromised, not exactly reassuring news for those concerned with Arizona’s ability to recruit in the future.

    Questions also linger about whether Olson, 73, will have the energy for a job O’Neill said he devotes at least 12 hours a day to, sometimes as many as 15, without ever taking a day off.

    However, Livengood said he’s “”comfortable right now with the information we have at hand that he will be ready to come back to be our head basketball coach.””

    As for the timing of the situation, likely necessitated by his leave under the Family Medical Leave Act expiring last week, Livengood said he doesn’t see anything odd about it.

    Maybe so, but it sure seems odd that UA sports information director Richard Paige had to remind the media that Monday’s session was the only opportunity to ask about the Pac-10 Tournament – an event that will determine if the team makes the NCAA Tournament for the 24th straight year – due to the high volume of Olson-related questions.

    Olson deserves the chance to return for another season and finish his illustrious career on a high note if he feels he can still coach, but he has handled his leave of absence in a manner that does not befit the reputation he has built.

    When asked if he’s surprised the truth about Olson had not gotten out, Livengood said, “”I think what he’s meant to this community, what he’s meant to this state, what he’s meant to this university and so on and so forth, I think there were probably a number of people who wanted to take the high ground.””

    It’s unfortunate Olson did not do so as well.

    Michael Schwartz is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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