For the last two decades, the battle for supremacy in Pac-10 basketball has spawned some strong and storied rivalries.
UCLA and Arizona. Stanford and Arizona. Oregon and Arizona. And lately, Washington and Arizona.
But while the challengers to the conference throne have come and gone — and in some cases, come back again — the one constant has been the Wildcats. Well, make that two constants.
The other is Lute Olson on the Arizona sidelines. Never a silver hair out of place. Arms crossed. Stamping his foot in disgust at a referee. Imploring his teams to greater heights. Reeling in the years and racking up the victories.
When Olson arrived from Iowa in 1983 to resurrect an Arizona program that was 4-24 under Ben Lindsey the year before, Pac-10 basketball’s Mount Rushmore had only one face. It belonged to The Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden, who led the Bruins to 304 conference victories while winning 10 national championships over a 12-year span with the Bruins.
Olson hasn’t produced banners at Wooden’s incredible rate — Arizona’s lone national title came in 1997 — but the empire he has built and the results he’s produced are staggering on their own:
• 543 wins with the Wildcats (his 735 wins rank 11th on the all-time list, third among active coaches).
• A .770 winning percentage (543-162) at Arizona.
• 20 NCAA tournament appearances — in a row.
• 18 straight 20-win seasons, the longest active streak in the nation.
• 11 NBA first-round draft picks, 28 drafted players in all.
• 10 Pac-10 Conference titles.
• Four trips to the Final Four.
• Two trips to the national championship game.
• One national championship.
• An induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"He’s almost like IBM in the old days,’’ said Oregon State coach and former Arizona assistant Jay John. "He just keeps producing.’’
Saturday in Tempe against in-state rival Arizona State, basketball’s "Big Blue’’ can claim one of Wooden’s hallowed marks with his 305th Pac-10 win. It would also ensure Olson a share of conference title No. 11 and send the Wildcats toward their 21st straight NCAA tournament with a head of steam.
"Any time anybody’s won that many games. . . . I can’t even imagine being in coaching that long to get that many wins,’’ Oregon coach Ernie Kent said.
"It’s a tribute to two great coaches (Olson and Wooden) to be in this game that long and have that kind of success. It means the game has not passed them by. It means you’ve been able to make adjustments.’’
Or in Olson’s case, stay ahead of the curve. And at age 70, with a zest for life, a new wife and goals to accomplish, Lute’s Locomotive shows no signs of jumping the tracks in Tucson.
"He enjoys the job more now than he ever has. You can see it,’’ Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner said. "Every day on the practice court, he puts on a basketball clinic. Everyone around him learns, and everyone is amazed.
"The program has never been in better position to succeed. We have great kids now, we have a great class coming in, and these kids are getting the best of Coach Olson right now.’’
A huge chunk of Olson’s Pac-10 wins have come against the Sun Devils — his teams have won 38 of 45 career meetings. He chalked up his 700th career win in his last visit to Wells Fargo Arena and also took part in a spirited joust with the ASU student section, who continued to hurl profanities at Olson even as the Wildcats built a 30-point lead.
But Olson said that breaking Wooden’s record in Tempe wouldn’t make it any more special.
"I’d rather have it in my pocket now,’’ he said. "To me, it wouldn’t make any difference who it was against unless it came against UCLA, it might be more meaningful.’’
The man who has Wooden’s old job, UCLA coach Ben Howland, has seen the Arizona machine up close — first when he coached at Northern Arizona, and now with the Bruins.
"He’s done it both recruiting really good players and he’s done a great job of coaching them,’’ Howland said. "He’s already in the Hall of Fame. He’s got it all."
So what is left for Olson to accomplish? He has the wins and the ring and he’s in the Hall of Fame. The rest of the league wouldn’t mind seeing him trade in his seat at the front of the bus for a rocking chair.
"I’ve been trying to get him to retire every year I’ve been here,’’ said California coach Ben Braun, who ranks second to Olson in Pac-10 tenure with eight years on the bench. "That’s how good he is. I’m willing to throw him a retirement party.’’
But the jewelry on Olson’s mind isn’t a gold watch — it’s more rings. He wants parades, not parties. Multiple championships would put him in even more rarified air, and Olson is going for it.
Pastner said a few weeks ago, at the end of another long day, Olson called him. He wanted Pastner to call a young man, a future recruit, and let him know Arizona was interested in him becoming a Wildcat in the future.
"The kid is 12. He’s in the sixth grade,’’ Pastner said. "I think Lute has another eight, 10, even 12 years left in coaching. People think I’m crazy, but I think I’m a visionary. He’ll be here when he’s 80, maybe even longer.’’