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Olson struggles to enjoy big moment In glory, Ariz. coach remains on defensive


INDIANAPOLIS -- There are many reasons to loathe Lute Olson. His hair is only one of them. No man past 40 years old should have such magnificent hair, and Olson is in his 60s.

The hair in question, impossibly white and thick and perfect, sits atop his head like a postcard snowcap atop a sun-tanned mountain. Imagine the "Police Squad" movie actor, Leslie Nielsen, coaching the University of Arizona basketball team. Then imagine Nielsen having no sense of humor and being suspicious of every stranger. That's your Lute Olson snapshot.

"I guess I should come out and look like [Arizona State coach] Bill Frieder with my hair messed up and tie loosened," Olson told writers here when asked about his stoic image. "Then I'd probably be a good old boy."

No, but at least it would make a person feel guiltier about loathing him.

In the Pac 10, fans abhor Olson because he paces the sideline with a scowl that won't quit and frequently speaks in condescending tones about other schools. In fairness, the man seems to have a good relationship with other conference coaches -- Stanford's Mike Montgomery was one of the first to congratulate Olson when Arizona beat North Carolina here at the Final Four on Saturday -- but the media are another matter.

Example? Sunday afternoon, with Arizona preparing to practice for its first NCAA title game, Olson was lobbed a soft question about whether Saturday's victory had finally earned respect for himself and his team.

"Well, if I talk about respect, then I become a whiner," Olson said. "All I've tried to do is say make your own determination. Over the last 10 years, Arizona has the best winning percentage of any team in America. We have been to the Final Four three times now in the last 10 years. We've been in the Sweet 16 six times in 10 years. You don't buy respect, you earn respect. If people recognize that, it's fine. But the thing about whining look at the facts."

Very well. We will look at the facts.

There. We have looked. We still say he's whining. Believe it or not, we came to praise Olson this morning. We truly did. But after watching his act Sunday, we once more ended up wincing and shrugging and shaking our heads.

Olson should be having the time of his life. His basketball team has performed splendidly this month, first with a beautiful ambush of top-ranked Kansas at the Southeast Regional, then a stunning comeback victory over favored North Carolina on Saturday.

In that game, Olson out-coached the practically canonized Dean Smith by making a few defensive adjustments while encouraging Arizona players to not lose faith in their jump shots even as the shots clanged off the rim right and left. The shots eventually dropped. Arizona won by eight.

"Coach gets mad if we pass up the open three-pointer," guard Miles Simon said. "That philosophy, that confidence, is great."

Olson deserves the compliments. He has won 533 games in his college coaching life -- 340 of them at Arizona and the others at Iowa and Long Beach State. He has developed a number of solid pro players (Sean Elliot, Damon Stoudamire, Steve Kerr). He does not curse at his team during practice. He has been married to the same woman for 43 years.

You'd think all this would make Olson a cheery fellow, but the lighthearted moments have been minimal. Sunday, when someone wondered if Olson -- despite his many accomplishments -- would feel unfulfilled without an NCAA championship well, he pulled a typical Lute diversionary tactic. Rather than make a self-deprecating joke, he launched into a self-serving soliloquy.

"Take a look at how many people have won an NCAA title," Olson said. "Then take a look at how many of those who have won it

have won it in states other than talent-rich areas. From Tucson to the nearest good recruiting area is probably about 500 miles away in Los Angeles. It's not an easy drive over with parents and kids to see the team play. We would love having it where we never had to leave the borders of our state, but that has not been the case."

(Remember, he's not whining.)

Eventually, after a few more side trips, Olson answered the question about feeling unsatisfied. He said it wouldn't make a difference in how he perceived his success whether he won a title or not. No one believes him.

While this is Olson's fourth Final Four trip, he is haunted by Arizona's string of first-round NCAA losses to the underdog likes of East Tennessee State, Santa Clara and Miami (Ohio). According to those who spend much time with him, Olson is forever defending those negative checkmarks on the SAT score of his coaching life.

He admits that getting to tonight's game is a huge relief for his players.

"I think they felt that from everything that they're hearing or reading or seeing," said Olson. "Some of these guys were in grade school when some of those first-round losses occurred. But they probably will hear about it I was going to say until they put me in my grave, but it will happen beyond that, too."

(Remember, he's still not whining.)

On another matter, when someone wondered why Olson's program had the lowest graduation rate of any Final Four team --it's a dismal 23 percent over the past five years -- Olson stepped up on his best high horse and complained it's that darn NBA which screws up the figures by demanding that Arizona players fly around the country for pre-draft workouts during spring term. In other words, "If I weren't such a terrific producer of pro players, we wouldn't have this problem.

"Probably if you look at schools that do not send many players on to play after college," Olson said, "you'll find their graduation rates will be much higher."

Still, we must remind ourselves, today is a Lute-friendly day. Whatever happened last night, taking an Arizona team that finished fifth in the Pac-10 into the final 40 minutes of the college basketball season was a swell achievement. Assistant coach Jim Rosborough has been with Olson both at Iowa and Arizona and says he's seen nothing like it.

"In terms of where we were in November and where we have gotten to now, this is the best coaching job I've seen in my 17 years with Lute," Rosborough said. "The players have been incredible. These guys have done a hell of a job. Just a hell of a job."

So has Olson. Love him or loathe him.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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