Arizona coach Lute Olson applauds and cheers his team in the first half of their Pac-10 tournament championship game against Southern California in this March 9, 2002 photo, at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Just past his 70th birthday, Lute Olson begins another season as coach of the Arizona Wildcats, looking to forge another Pac-10 title contender after a frustrating 2003-04 season.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon
TUCSON, Ariz. Lute Olson turned 70 last month, not that anyone would know it by looking at him or his basketball program.
He remains a towering, imposing presence, in excellent physical shape thanks to regular workouts and brisk 70-minute walks each morning in the hills around his home. The white hair is still perfect. And the basketball talent keeps rolling in to Tucson.
''I feel good,'' Olson said. ''I think how old you are is probably a state of mind as much as anything else.''
He is entering his 32nd season as a major-college coach, the last 22 at Arizona. A basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2002, Olson signed a four-year contract extension early this year that will carry him through the 2008-9 season.
''Coach O is a teacher,'' senior center Channing Frye said. ''He could be 90-something, and he's still going to be teaching.''
Olson has an overall record of 711-249, and his Wildcats are on a string of 17 consecutive 20-win seasons. But last year was one of his most difficult.
A team loaded with talent but lacking depth, Arizona was 20-10, 11-7 in the Pac-10, and was knocked off by Seton Hall in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats lacked the on-court leadership that Olson has had on his best teams, and there was an obvious lack of chemistry.
''It's no secret,'' said Jim Rosborough, Olson's assistant for 25 years. ''We had some kind of knuckleheads last year.''
Some of those players return. But, with added depth, Olson can bench someone who isn't behaving properly.
Senior guard Salim Stoudamire acknowledges he's had a sometimes rocky relationship with his coach.
''I was spoiled growing up,'' Stoudamire said with a laugh, ''so I'm kind of a brat.''
But with his college career nearing an end, Stoudamire said he's going to try to avoid any confrontations with the coach.
''I think my freshman year was my best year as far as our relationship because all I did was listen to him,'' Stoudamire said. ''I thought every word he said was wisdom. My sophomore and junior year, I kind of disagreed with him on some things and we'd clash.
''This year, I'm trying to revert back to my freshman days and just listen to what he says. He knows what he's doing. He's a Hall of Fame coach.''
The lack of depth prevented Olson from benching players as a discipline tool last season, but he says that won't be the case this year. So the famous cold stare will have a bit more force behind it.
''Coach may not even say anything,'' Frye said. ''He'll just look at you, you know, like 'What are you doing?' You know that look. Even if you don't look at the bench, you can feel it in the back of your head.''
Many thought Olson would retire after Bobbi, his wife of 47 years and a major part of Arizona's basketball program in her own right, died during the 2001-2002 season. The team went on to make it to the Final Four, losing the title game to Duke.
And Olson kept coaching.
''I do what I do because I enjoy working with the players,'' he said. ''There are offseason things that I'd like to defer to somebody else. But when it comes to the start of practice, that's why I started coaching and that's why I'm still coaching.''
He married Christine Torretti in April 2003, and kept working. No one has noticed any change in his style or determination.
''It's the same fire, the same intensity,'' Rosborough said.
For years, opposing coaches have used Olson's age as a recruiting weapon.
''A lot of people said some mean things,'' said freshman Jawaan McClellan, a highly recruited guard from Houston, ''not even about retiring, but that he might pass away.''
The tactic obviously has not worked. This year's team features three of the top high school recruits in the country McClellan, Jesus Verdejo and Mohamed Tangara. Sophomore Mustafa Shakur, who grew up in Philadelphia, sought out the Wildcats on his own because of Olson's reputation with point guards.
Arizona has produced 24 NBA draft picks since 1989.
''I have good parents. They know what's best for me,'' McClellan said. ''My dad, he's never told me wrong. He told me 'If you want to play professional ball one day, then this is the right choice for you.'''
When, or maybe if, the time comes to retire, Olson has said he would never announce it until after a season. He has no use for a farewell season and all the attention it would bring.
That's just his reserved manner, the product of a strict upper-Midwest upbringing.
His favorite time of year comes in late October, when the bouncing of balls echoes through McKale Center, signaling the start of another season of great promise.
''I think the guys on the court know that I'm into it, and this is what I enjoy doing,'' Olson said.
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