On Dec. 18, Arizona unveiled a plan it hoped would ensure stability within its basketball program: Whenever longtime coach Lute Olson decides to retire, his top assistant, Kevin O'Neill, would become the next head coach. O'Neill, an assistant at Arizona from 1986-89 who was brought back onto the staff in the spring of 2007, had been the Wildcats' acting head coach since Nov. 4. That was the day Olson, 73, said he was taking a leave of absence for personal reasons not related to his health.
On Dec. 6, Olson decided he would not return at all this season. Facing continued uncertainty about the future of the program, the school felt compelled 12 days later to announce its seamless succession plan. It was, in theory, a good idea. In reality, however, it has proved to be anything but seamless.
Even as the Wildcats (17-12, 7-9 in the Pac 10) have fought through injuries to put themselves in position to reach their 24th straight NCAA tournament, behind the scenes the program is awash in dysfunction. Over the last few weeks, Olson has been making almost daily appearances in the basketball office, yet he and O'Neill have barely spoken since the day he took his initial leave of absence. The silence between them does not necessarily result from personal animosity. When Olson took his leave, O'Neill told him that he would give Olson his space, and that he was available any time Olson wanted to talk. Perhaps Olson is just trying to be courteous and give O'Neill his own space so he can coach the team. Perhaps O'Neill has sent signals he doesn't really want to hear from him.
Regardless, the rift has made life difficult for everyone in the program. Making matters worse is that, according to several sources, Olson has over the last few weeks been holding player meetings, during which he has expressed his displeasure that O'Neill is running set plays and utilizing man-to-man defense, as opposed to the motion offense and zone defense that Olson prefers at the moment. One source told me that O'Neill has informed Olson he is not happy with these meetings, but Olson has continued having them anyway.
The divide between the "absent" head coach and his designated successor has naturally strained relations between O'Neill and the rest of the coaching staff. Arizona's top two assistants, Josh Pastner and Miles Simon, both played for Olson. The video coordinator, Matt Brase, is Olson's grandson. Should O'Neill ever become the head coach, it is unlikely the staff will remain intact.
If Olson knows what he's going to do next year, he's not saying. He declined to return my message seeking comment. Arizona sports information director Richard Paige told me that as far as he knows, Olson still plans to coach again. Athletic director Jim Livengood told me last weekend that he has "a pretty good feel" for what Olson is going to do, but that he didn't want to discuss the issue publicly until after the season. "Right now, our entire focus is on these players," Livengood said. "If we addressed this question now, it would only detract from what those kids are trying to accomplish, and they deserve our full support."
By coming into the office and meeting with players, Olson is certainly acting like a man who wants to continue coaching. I've heard he has also made phone calls to high school players. While one athletic department source suggested Lute is "incapable" of coaching at an elite level given that he'll be 74 when next season starts, I'm told Olson is still a regular in the workout room, where he rides the elliptical trainer and hits the nautilus machines like a man 20 years his junior.
Given all this dysfunction, it seems unlikely that O'Neill could remain at Arizona if Olson returns to the sidelines. When I asked O'Neill Sunday night what he would do in that situation, he echoed the noncommittal remarks he made during his press conference following the Wildcats' loss to UCLA earlier that day. "Every year I've ever coached no matter where I've been, I make my decision at the end of the year what I'm going to do," he said. He cautioned me not to read between the lines, but that position is obviously a far cry from the definitive plan he signed onto last December.
Even the manner in which Olson originally announced his leave was dysfunctional. He distributed his press release not through the school but rather a public relations firm. Nor did he ever meet with the team to tell them he was leaving; O'Neill was forced to break the news to them by reading the press release.
The reasons behind Olson's leave of absence continue to remain murky as well. In December, he announced that he and his second wife, Christine, were getting divorced. Yet, several sources have confirmed to me that the divorce is not the only reason Olson took the season off. Nobody inside the program, the coaching profession or the media seems to know just what those additional reasons are. Rumors have been running rampant, but it is truly remarkable that this has remained a secret in today's information age -- and it is a reflection of the deep respect people have for Olson. As one of the game's preeminent statesmen, he has earned that wide berth
Olson's rare public appearance on Sunday during Arizona's postgame Senior Day ceremonies didn't shed any light on the situation. While Christine watched the game inside the arena, Olson watched from his office before coming onto the court. He did not address the crowd, and he did not speak to reporters afterward.
Given how chaotic and fluid this situation is, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where things are headed. It's possible Olson wants to retire but is looking to secure a lucrative exit. There is much speculation around Tucson that he is having financial problems, and if that's true it won't be helped by an impending divorce. It's also possible that if Olson says he wants to come back, he and O'Neill can come to a meeting of the minds and put the succession plan back on track.
Still, when I asked an inside source if it was safe to say that there was a 50-50 chance that O'Neill would leave if Olson came back, he replied, "I'd say those are pretty conservative numbers." I mentioned to a second source that I intended to report that O'Neill would probably leave if Olson came back, and asked if he could tell me on background if I was off-base. "I'm not going to tell you that," he said. "And you know what? It's too bad."
It is indeed too bad to see Olson's Hall of Fame career wind down this way. He is a man of extraordinary accomplishment and utmost class. O'Neill is a capable coach who is managing a difficult situation as best he can. For the sake of both men, as well as the entire program, this whole circus needs to be brought to closure. Here's hoping it ends well, and soon.