Olson lets hair, detractors down Ariz. free spirits muss coach's stiff image

April 02, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The lasting image from Arizona's 84-79 overtime victory over Kentucky in Monday night's NCAA tournament championship game did not come from Miles Simon, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, or from Mike Bibby, the first freshman point guard to play a prominent role in his team winning the title.

It came from A. J. Bramlett, the team's sophomore center and one of many free-spirited Wildcats players.

It also came from Arizona coach Lute Olson.

It happened as the final buzzer sounded and the celebration on the Arizona bench was about to begin. As Olson started to walk up the side court to shake hands with Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, Bramlett mussed his coach's white hair. The hair that always seems perfectly coiffed and never moves out of place.

"The guys on the 1994 team had done that on the podium after they won the regionals, but when they lost [to Arkansas] in the semifinals, people thought it was bad luck," said Bramlett, sitting in the team's cramped dressing room at the RCA Dome early yesterday morning and hugging the championship plaque awarded the Wildcats. "We had planned this all along."

Though Olson did manage to straighten out a few stray hairs before shaking Pitino's hand, then put on the 1997 national champion cap he was quickly handed, that incident highlights the change of a coach often portrayed as a stiff and arrogant whiner, a coach who is distant from his players and defensive with the media.

It has been the loosening of cold-hearted Lute.

"It's far and away the best coaching job he's ever done, the best I've ever seen him around a group of young kids," said longtime assistant coach Jim Rosborough, who has worked for Olson during the past eight of his 14 years at Arizona and previously was an assistant under him at Iowa.

Rosborough and others attribute the fun-loving attitude of this year's players, in particular Bibby, Bramlett and junior forward Bennett Davison, to Olson's new, more down-to-earth approach and, perhaps, Arizona's amazing run to its and his first national championship. Junior forward Michael Dickerson sees a huge difference, even from last year.

"He's changed a lot from what I've seen," Dickerson said on the eve of the championship game. "In the past, you couldn't even bounce a ball in practice when he was about to start talking. You'd be afraid to talk with him sometimes. But now you can joke with him."

Not that Olson is about to turn into Mister Rogers with his players or become media-friendly. In fact, Olson said he doesn't think he has changed that much this season -- "Just ask last year's players," he said tersely -- or that his reputation for whining more than winning will ever go away. Even after he leaves. And he's not just talking about leaving Arizona.

Olson was asked Sunday if he thought some of the pressure was taken off his team after coming from behind to survive its first-round NCAA tournament game against South Alabama, thus avoiding the fate and subsequent criticism that had befallen he and the Wildcats in the past. He admitted that it might have been a factor in his team's run, which by the time it was done included wins over the top three seeds for the first time in history.

"Well, I think they felt that from everything that they're hearing or reading or seeing," said Olson, whose two previous Final Four trips with Arizona had been overshadowed by a string of first-round upsets against the likes of 12th-seeded Miami of Ohio in 1995, 15th-seeded Santa Clara in 1993 and 14th-seeded East Tennessee State in 1992.

"So I think they feel the pressure. But there isn't anything I can do about it. What I try to talk to them about is that some of these guys were in grade school at the time that our first-round loss occurred. But it's amazing, there are 32 first-round losers. It's not that they're not going to hear it again because I was going to say that [it will happen] until they put me in my grave. But it will happen beyond that, too."

Olson's defenders may not outnumber his detractors, but they are vocal in their support.

"There doesn't need to be a change in reputation because he's done things his way: he's done it cleanly, he's done it fairly and he's done it well," said Rosborough. "If it all means that winning a national championship gets an albatross off from around his neck, that would be the only change that needs to occur because it didn't deserve to be there in the first place."

On the eve of his first NCAA championship game, Olson spoke about his image.

"Images are in other people's minds," said Olson. "If you ask the people that know me, it's not the stoic thing. I guess I should come out and look like Bill Frieder with my hair messed up and tie loosened, and then I'd probably be a good old boy. But I am who I am."

For a moment Monday night, Olson looked like Frieder, his friend and foil at Arizona State. As he walked toward Pitino, his hair was out of place and he had a silly grin on his face. But knowing that the cameras were still rolling and a nation was still watching, Olson patted at his hair and made sure that not a single white strand of his coiffed head was out of place.

He was back in character.

Not quite cold-hearted Lute, but not quite Mister Rogers, either.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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