Olson twists O'Neill game plan at Arizona

Lute Olson will return to the Arizona bench next season, the university announced Monday, but that doesn't begin to resolve the questions surrounding the program and its Hall of Fame coach.

Olson missed the entire season for what he announced for the first time was "a medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away from my coaching responsibilities." He later attributed his leave to "personal issues within my family."

That suggests Olson, 73, was being cagey when he said in November that the issue wasn't a "health scare," but "a personal matter that needs my undivided attention."

Grant Olson this: He has handled some of life's most difficult challenges with tremendous grace, including the death of his wife of 47 years, Bobbi, from cancer in 2001, and recent public divorce proceedings from his second wife, Christine.

If Olson wants to be on the bench next fall at age 74, he has earned that right after 780 career victories and the 1997 NCAA title.

"I am very eager to be back doing what I love, which is coaching this team," Olson said in a statement. "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.

"I know there has been a lot of speculation about my situation. 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."

Clearly, the decision and its timing create a complicated situation for everyone &

not the least of whom are the players, who this week at the Pacific 10 Conference tournament at Los Angeles' Staples Center will be trying to secure the program's 24th consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

Arizona is 18-13 overall and would seem to need to win at least a game or two at the conference tournament in order to advance.

Olson is to resume his duties when the season ends, and the players don't know whether the coach they are playing for, O'Neill, will return as an assistant next season.

"Our team will be fine," O'Neill said Monday. "Think how much they have been through this year, with the distractions and the injuries."

Maybe Olson would retire if he weren't 20 wins from 800 or if Arizona's season had gone better, and O'Neill looked as if he had the Wildcats headed for the Sweet 16 or beyond.

But the transition and injuries to guards Jerryd Bayless and Nic Wise have made it a bumpy road. And Olson made it clear when he brought in O'Neill to shore up the defense after last season that he didn't want to see Arizona lose its grip on the Pac-10 to UCLA without a fight.

Painful as it must be for Olson, that already has happened, with the Bruins reaching consecutive Final Fours and probably headed for a No. — seeding after their third consecutive Pac-10 title.

How fit is Olson to coach next season at 74?

How fit would any of us be at that age for a job that eats up much younger men not only with the stress, but the physical demands of travel and recruiting?

After Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser died of a heart attack last summer at 56, UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who will be 51 in May, went in for a battery of tests, and he wasn't the only coach for whom Prosser's early death was a sad cautionary tale.

Those who work with Olson notice he gets fatigued a little more than in the past, even though he is devoted to his workouts on Arizona's fitness equipment.

Like our parents and our friends and yes, sometimes ourselves, he takes a little longer than he used to when he tells a story or explains something. And the stress of family issues, his divorce and whatever else he might be enduring, would sap anyone.

Yet the very fact that we are addressing this brings up the issue that unfortunately will be with Olson for the rest of his career: How well is he really, and how much longer will he coach?

Maybe Olson will become like Penn State's Joe Paterno, an eternal presence who brings his program back from the brink. His contract runs through 2011, and Arizona announced he "is returning to fulfill" that contract.

That would seem a long wait for O'Neill, who has been designated Olson's successor in a handshake agreement.

Arizona isn't O'Neill's lifelong dream job to the point he would wait for years as an understudy as some coaches might.

He is a professional coach, meaning not only that he is an NBA coach, but that he expects to move &


"I learned, don't buy," he said this season when asked whether he had bought a home in Tucson, Ariz.

O'Neill could easily decide to see what his NBA options are and move on rather than return as an assistant, a difficult transition after a season in charge.

He has said he would make a decision at the end of the year, as he always does, and left open the possibility he will return.

"My intention would be to be here back next season," O'Neill said, trying to put aside the idea that he and Olson are at odds.

"Lute and I have no problem whatsoever," O'Neill said.

If O'Neill were to leave, there would be disarray in the program, with the seeds of doubt about Olson's status planted deep.

Other coaches once thought of as potential successors &

Kelvin Sampson chief among them before he took the Indiana job and then imploded in an NCAA scandal &

are no longer an option.

Knowing when to stay and when to go is rarely easy.

It was the question Olson faced, and now it belongs to O'Neill.

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