The Arizona circus has become a mess

October, 30, 2008
Tuesday's revelations that 74-year-old Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson suffered a stroke sometime within the past year were sobering.

Look, I'm no doctor, nor have I ever professed to be one, but I can tell you that I just got the sense that something wasn't right with Olson when I sat down with him for a one-on-one interview on Oct. 20.

Olson wasn't evasive with his answers. He just seemed detached. You can tell when someone just isn't right. And it was obvious to everyone in our crew in the room with me that Olson wasn't totally right.

The blame for Arizona's current mess can now shift. Olson is absolved of the current state of affairs. According to the reports out of Tucson, Olson's erratic behavior and depression were related to his stroke, something he had no idea had occurred.

That's why the blame game, and there needs to be some directed here, lies solely with the administration. As Olson begins his recovery and a medical program to help him live a healthy and productive life, the Arizona administration needs to address its issues.

Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood, whom I have known since the early 1990s, was in a tough position without knowing what was truly going on with Olson. But he still needed to be much more authoritative during the staff shakeup that occurred over the past two years.

The program had no clear-cut succession plan. Removing longtime assistant Jim Rosborough to bring in Kevin O'Neill was the first shakeup in 2007. Olson made that call. It was an odd move because Rosborough had been such a trusted aide to Olson and was one of the most loyal advocates of the program. No one seemed to challenge Olson at the time. The move put O'Neill in position for a possible succession plan when he was given a lucrative assistant-coaching salary.

When Olson took his leave of absence, O'Neill was named the successor in a news conference in December 2007. Livengood told me on Oct. 20 that the decision was based on the information he had at the time. That's legit. But once Olson came back in March, Livengood should have held his ground. When Olson and O'Neill had a meeting that, according to Olson, concluded O'Neill wanted to go somewhere else, Livengood could have stepped in. He could have made it clear to Olson that he named O'Neill the successor and that was that. No questions. He's the AD; Olson is the coach.

If O'Neill had received public backing that he was going to be the head coach after Olson retired, he would have stayed. Arizona may publicly challenge this statement, but O'Neill privately won't. He firmly believes he should be the head coach today at Arizona, and he's right. He should be. He was named the successor last December. Based on that news conference, it's embarrassing that he's not.

Arizona didn't do much to keep Josh Pastner, either. Pastner was the glue in the Arizona program. He was to Arizona what Dan Leibovitz was to Temple during the final year of John Chaney's reign. (Those who know the inside of the Temple program know for a fact that Leibovitz held the program together, not Chaney.) It was no surprise that recruiting would ultimately take a slide once Pastner left for Memphis this past spring.

Vetting Russ Pennell would have been a good move, too. Talk to former Arizona State coaches who worked with Pennell to find out how he fared in his final season on the staff with the Sun Devils. Rob Evans and Tony Benford had a major disagreement with his job performance.

Offering the job to Mike Dunlap made sense because he was well-known within coaching circles as an excellent coach at Division II Metro State (Colo.) and as an assistant the past two seasons with the Denver Nuggets. But naming Dunlap as associate head coach and then not confirming with him if he would take over if Olson couldn't make it the entire season was a misjudgment by Livengood. Livengood didn't mince words with me after our interview on Oct. 20. He couldn't be sure Olson would last the year. All he kept saying was "today." How could he not have talked to Dunlap about this possibility? Now that O'Neill is gone, Dunlap should be the coach. Dunlap turning the job down on Oct. 23 is one of the most bizarre moves in this mess.

Has Dunlap ever heard of Steve Lavin? Andy Kennedy? Leibovitz?

Lavin wasn't promised the head-coaching job in replacing Jim Harrick, yet took the interim job at UCLA and ultimately landed the full-time gig. Kennedy took over for his good friend Bob Huggins when Huggins was ousted at Cincinnati. It was a tough call to do that considering Huggins' hatred of the Cincinnati administration. Kennedy didn't get the UC job, but don't you think that experience helped him get Ole Miss? Of course it did. Leibovitz had no choice but to take over for Chaney when he was suspended for five games for the "goon" incident, when he sent in a player to put a hard foul on a Saint Joseph's player that resulted in a broken arm. Standing in for Chaney would ultimately prove to the folks at Hartford that Leibovitz could lead under a stressful situation and they gave him a shot to be a head coach.

Arizona will go on a national search to replace Olson. But you don't know what would have happened if Dunlap had led the Wildcats to an NCAA tourney run. Now? Come on. If you're an athletic director, why would you take a chance on Dunlap if he wasn't going to take the gamble and coach a program that needed his direction? It's not even close who is more qualified on the staff to lead the team between Pennell and Dunlap. Going with Reggie Geary, who played at Arizona and had coached professionally like Dunlap had, would have been a better choice than Pennell.

Had Pastner stayed, he would have been a sound choice over Pennell. Don't give me his youthful looks, either. Joe Pasternack, who looks younger than Pastner, is doing just fine with New Orleans, thank you, despite being in only his 30s as he enters his second year coaching the Privateers.

The announcement of Arizona recruits now going elsewhere is no surprise. Washington, according to the Seattle Times, is the first beneficiary, picking up the top player in Arizona's once-committed class in point guard Abdul Gaddy.

Arizona better get the bank ready. If it wants to lure Mark Few of Gonzaga or Jamie Dixon of Pitt, it will have to pay hefty buyouts, a salary of well more than a million per year, and guarantee at least eight years because of the current state of affairs. The program can come back within a few years if it is handled correctly. But the landscape atop the Pac-10 has changed: UCLA rules the league; USC is getting comparable talent; everyone else is playing catch-up. Arizona has dropped back in the pack. Making the right moves from this point forward is critical in ensuring it doesn't mess up the next decade.

Final nugget

• It's nice to see that the Mountain West has finally woken up from its slumber and its adverse reaction to anything that smells of mid-major. The announcement of a nonconference challenge in 2009-10 with the Missouri Valley Conference is the perfect scheduling gimmick to generate interest early in the season, ensuring a home game every other year for teams (one road game results in one home nonconference game the next year) in a time when it's hard to get quality nonconference games -- especially at home. The MWC ran away from the BracketBuster event because it didn't want to be associated with anything mid-major. But the best part of the BracketBuster event according to the majority of coaches I've talked to is that it locks in a home game every other year against a decent opponent. Schools don't have to worry about scheduling at least one nonconference game, and that can alleviate stress in scheduling.

Matchups such as Creighton-UNLV or BYU-Southern Illinois or New Mexico-Bradley are all quality games. These teams would gladly schedule these types of games if they could in a given year. So mandating they occur between the two leagues makes perfect sense.

• Saw former NBA forward Vin Baker on Tuesday night. He looks to be in fantastic shape, and the one-time Hartford star forward said he's on the verge of signing a deal to play in China under former NBA coach Bob Weiss. Baker said he still has the itch to keep playing. He has been working out with the Hartford Hawks and UConn Huskies, getting big men Malcolm Campbell, Genesis Maciel (both at Hartford) and Hasheem Thabeet (UConn) ready for the season on their respective campuses.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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