Maybe the letter Lute Olson approved was an innocent mistake. Maybe he didn’t realize that asking for financial support to help a tournament would be construed as a violation.
But in an interview with ESPN.com in October 2008, Olson said the following: “I think that was my fault. That wasn’t anyone else’s fault. It was my error and it was a big error. But I guess in 26 years you are allowed to make a mistake once in a while anyway, and that’s not to say I haven’t made a lot of them but in terms of that, that was a big mistake on my part.’’
Olson’s admission was apparently the only time he talked about the letter. Paul Dee, the chair of the NCAA’s committee of infractions, said on Thursday that Olson was not interviewed as part of the investigation.
At first Dee said that Olson’s participation was minimal, but then he was corrected on the call. Olson wasn’t interviewed at all. Dee also said the ailing coach's health played a part. "I can’t say his condition didn’t come into play ... when someone is ill you take that into consideration."
Olson suffered a minor stroke before he retired in 2008. He wasn't aware of it at the time, but it was eventually determined that something was wrong.
Yet, despite not interviewing the man who committed the violations, Dee and the COI put a "failed to create an atmosphere of compliance and monitor the program" on Olson.
A number of coaches with Arizona ties who were contacted Thursday didn’t want to comment on the record, but none believed this would affect Olson’s legacy. It shouldn’t. He is a Hall of Fame coach who helped resurrect a program into a national power. He put multiple players in the NBA. He won a national championship. Olson’s tenure at Arizona will be remembered for the on-court success more than anything else.
But the lesson learned here is that Olson should have retired a year earlier. Nothing good came from the end of his tenure. He couldn’t control his health obviously. But he could have done a much better job of controlling the program.
This is not a new trend. Let’s see how the situation at Connecticut unfolds this fall. The Huskies will go in front of the committee on infractions Oct. 15. Like Olson, Jim Calhoun wasn’t named in the notice of allegations that deal with recruiting violations. Olson did admit to sending a letter requesting money from boosters to fund a high school recruiting event in Tucson. His fingerprints are on this case.
Calhoun’s aren't in the case that deals with the recruitment of Nate Miles and whether the staff knew agent/former manager Josh Nochimson was setting Miles’ recruitment up financially. Two assistant coaches are gone after being accused that they lied to investigators.
If Calhoun is tagged with a failure to monitor charge and a lack of compliance, it will end up being a stain on his illustrious career as well.
Olson has been out of the public spotlight. Having Dee say on the conference call Thursday that applying any kind of show-cause wasn’t appropriate because Olson had retired was rather sad. Does that mean Olson could have received it had he not retired or been ill? The thought of him getting a show cause to end his career over something that didn't have any effect on his program would've been even more pathetic.
That’s why the Miles case is relevant here. If that case taints Calhoun toward the end of his career, it would make no sense. Miles was so unnecessary to UConn's chances to compete for a national title that recruiting a player with excess baggage will prove to be costly and not worth the ultimate price. The Huskies still reached the Final Four in 2009 without Miles.
Arizona didn’t need the Cactus Classic to remain relevant on the national scene. The whole episode was just so unnecessary. But Olson’s role in it has now been officially documented -- and it has been recorded by the NCAA for everyone to see.
Now it's up to everyone to decide for themselves if this at all taints a legendary coach's legacy.