History will be kind to Olson - East Valley Tribune: Sports

History will be kind to Olson

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Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 11:31 pm | Updated: 9:02 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Until now, Lute Olson has been judged by games won and banners hung, but it is the passage of time that will be his greatest test.

Doctor: Olson had stroke in past year

Ultimately, it won't matter that he didn't beat Purdue in the last game he ever coached, that his final recruiting class went bust or that he abandoned his school twice at the worst possible time.

As the games fade away, the future will paint a flattering portrait of him.

As North Carolina's Dean Smith said when he retired 11 years ago: "I don't believe that 'winning the big one' says all there is to say about you.''

This community will be quick to forget Olson's exit.

It wasn't necessary Tuesday for Dr. Steven A. Knope to tell us that Olson's sudden retirement was triggered by a triple-team of medical issues that ranged from a heart problem to depression to a minor stroke.

He said that Olson "is frankly devastated'' and that "he's really beating himself up.''

I suspect that all anyone wanted to hear was that Olson left because he had no other choice. He left, it turns out, because the most imposing enemy of his career wasn't Duke or North Carolina but, rather, Father Time.

A week ago, Olson vowed to coach another season "I'm energized,'' he said but he was only fooling himself. He couldn't possibly have believed his own words. This is what he might have said:

"I am 74 years old and, frankly, I'm tired. I've spent more than 50 years working my butt off, chasing the next big game. I've always been on call, always on duty, and I think I gave it my best shot. But now I'm going to worry about something besides beating UCLA .''

The indestructible coaching legend is human after all.

Knope referred to Olson as "a celebrity'' and that is precisely why this story has so much endurance. Whether you follow basketball or not, Olson is the face of Tucson. It is not a pop singer, not a politician, not a war hero. Olson has been Tucson's standard of excellence.

When he began to fire coaches, insult recruits, spar with his athletic director and his ex-wife Knope referred to it as "behaviorial changes'' it created an unprecedented local discord.

Now it all starts to make sense.

In his final years on the job, Olson wasn't as demanding. He skipped some morning staff meetings. He was sometimes late for practices. He wasn't diligent at film study. He cut corners that, for 40 years, he never cut and never allowed anyone else to cut.

But he had so much equity that no one questioned him.

During the devastating fall and early winter of 2000, when his first wife, Bobbi was dying, Olson would attend morning staff meetings and then rush to the University Medical Center. He would return, punctually, for the afternoon practice.

His staff marveled at his capacity to concentrate on basketball; his work ethic was unchallenged. At the same time, it took a considerable toll; a physical beating that has now manifest itself.

Why didn't he tell us himself? We were always a rapt audience. Maybe we'll never know. But it was probably a mixture of his keenness for privacy and a sense of pride that drove him to keep at it, keep chasing the big one, when, surely, he had to know his time had grown short.

"He knew something was wrong,'' Knobe said, "but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.''

Across the last quarter-century, Olson made our city feel good about itself. He made us feel like winners. Who else has done that? He changed the way we looked at ourselves.

It is clear that he is contrite; last week, through a third party, he attempted to get a call through to Kevin O'Neill and make amends for their messy split. One suspects that over the long winter he will seek out others, like Jim Rosborough and Tony McAndrews, once-trusted coaching allies who were rudely pushed aside, and try to make things right.

We all need some closure.

On Tuesday, as Olson's daughters Jody and Christi sat solemnly in a McKale Center conference room, the video screen behind them was conspicuously draped with a generic gray covering.

Hidden beneath it was the standard red and blue, press-conference surface adorned with UA logos. On this occasion, the school chose not to affiliate itself with its old coach.

History will be much kinder.

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