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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Succession stability needed at UA

    Michael Schwartz
    Michael Schwartz

    Schwartz on Sports

    Succession plans have become an integral part of college basketball over the past few years because of what continuity means to recruiting and keeping the program strong.

    Sometimes they work out great (Washington State) and other times not so much (Oklahoma State), but many schools with aging coaches make these plans to maintain stability in the program for current players and recruits.

    Both of the aforementioned examples, as well as this year’s succession plan exetuted at Texas Tech, involved a son taking over for his coaching legend father, with the program’s philosophy staying in the family.

    At Arizona, the Kevin O’Neill succession plan was hastily hatched to show recruits there’s stability in the program, which was hardly the case Dec. 18 when the plan was announced.

    A mere 12 days earlier, UA head coach Lute Olson had announced he would miss the remainder of the season. That gave UA athletic director Jim Livengood and UA president Robert Shelton less than two weeks to decide O’Neill would be the next coach at Arizona just in case Olson never came back like he said he would.

    Decisions like that don’t just happen, and it was impossible to judge O’Neill’s fitness for the position in the month and a half he had been coaching Olson’s team.

    Especially in hindsight, it sure looks like a panic move.

    “”At that point in time, regardless of who said what, when, why, it was unsure whether (Olson) definitely would come back or not, so we needed to have something to be able to show recruits that we had a plan in mind, so if he didn’t come back we at least had a plan in mind,”” Livengood said. “”But like all things, succession plans change as well.””

    That’s exactly what happened seemingly the first second Olson stepped back into his office on March 24 and what was officially announced during his press conference on April 1.

    Regardless of how true and how exaggerated the rumors of Olson’s strained relationship with O’Neill are, the truth is Olson didn’t want O’Neill on his staff next year, let alone be the person who eventually replaces him, although Livengood said Olson signed off on the succession plan idea back in December.

    That’s fine, and it makes the original plan an ill-fated attempt to cover the school in the short run in case Olson did not return, likely using O’Neill as a bridge to a long-term successor. O’Neill’s style just doesn’t jive with how Arizona basketball has been played the past 23 years, and fans and players took note.

    As for what changed in the succession plan, Livengood said simply, “”Lute’s back. What you’re trying to do and what people are trying to do is make it more complex than it is. It really is not very complex. It was a plan at that time with the best information we had at that time, but things change.””

    It remains to be seen what a judge would think of that reasoning in court, which could be what happens if O’Neill cannot negotiate an acceptable settlement with the school, but that means the original plan was more of a “”cover our asses”” plan than a true succession plan.

    “”The key issue was wanting to ensure continuity for new recruits,”” Shelton said. “”That’s a worthy goal. But in a way, you can see now with Lute committed to coaching through 2011, we’ve got that continuity.””

    Olson has committed to finish out his contract through the 2010-11 season, at which time he will be 76.

    He could end up being like Joe Paterno – who’s currently 77 – and sign another contract extension, but if you were an elite high school freshman or sophomore would you sign on to play for a coach at that age who just took a season-long leave of absence for an undisclosed health reason without even telling his players the details?

    I know I wouldn’t.

    That’s why it would make sense for Arizona to start looking for a successor. Although elite candidates aren’t going to leave their cushy jobs to wait around for Olson to retire, the stability sought while Olson was out will be important near the end of his contract.

    Shelton, Livengood and Olson do not share that view, however.

    “”His contract goes through 2011, and with that much time the next three years it seems impractical for all parties to have a succession plan in place,”” Shelton said. “”I wouldn’t expect Jim Livengood as the AD to want to predict what the best option is three years from now. So it seems to me it’s the timeline that has changed significantly.””

    Added Livengood: “”When he came back then a succession plan wasn’t needed at that time.””

    Added Olson: “”I don’t think that’s something that needs to be done.””

    Olson brags about the plethora of negative recruiting concerning his age that he’s withstood through the years, always managing to come away with elite talent, but he’s never had to fight back against the barrage he’s sure to get in the coming years when rival coaches question what will happen to the Wildcats after Olson and how much longer he will be around.

    “”A succession plan normally is in place, just as ours was, a succession plan is in place when you’re not sure of what might happen next,”” Livengood said.

    Nobody has any clue what will happen when Olson decides to hang it up, or even when exactly that will occur, but it will be critical for the program to show it has a plan in place for recruiting purposes.

    It’s just too bad Olson doesn’t have a coaching whiz for a son.

    Michael Schwartz is a journalism senior. He can be reached at

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