Softened Olson has final word With title, coach lets record speak for itself

December 13, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The chip is still there, but it's closer now to a pebble than a boulder on the shoulder. The guard has come down, at least in those moments when Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson chooses to reveal more about himself than he ever did before. So the question has to be asked.

Is Cool Hand Lute mellowing a little?

Olson would like you to believe this is the way he's always been, that the media's portrayal of him as arrogant, aloof and just plain unlikeable was a caricature rather than a living, breathing, caring portrait of a man whose biggest career decision was based more on family values than sheer ambition.

"Whatever image people are going to conjure up, they're going to do it anyway," Olson said recently. "Probably the best thing for me to do is -- I used to kid about it with [former Arizona State coach] Bill Frieder -- to come out with your hair mussed all over your head, your tie undone and looked like you slept in your clothes."

Olson smiled, knowing how far-fetched that would seem.

"People like that kind of image, but that's just not me," he said. "But anybody who knows me knows what we're all about."

This is what most college basketball fans know about Olson and the Wildcats (6-2), who take on Coppin State at 2 p.m. today in Tucson, Ariz. Since his arrival from the University of Iowa 15 years ago, Olson has been one of the most successful -- and criticized -- coaches in the country.

Before Arizona upset Kentucky at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis to complete a remarkable rags-to-riches run in the 1997 NCAA tournament, Olson and his teams were better known for early-round flameouts rather than three Final Fours and six Sweet 16 appearances in the past 10 years.

Olson was asked why he didn't lash back at his critics with a bunch of 'I-told-you-so's', as he had done in the past.

"To me, it isn't a case of what you say anyway," Olson said last week, sitting in the lobby of a Chicago airport hotel hours before his team's 90-87 loss to Kansas in the Great Eight Classic. "People are going to have their opinions and they're not going to change, so why waste your breath on them?

"The only thing I've ever said is look at the record before you make any statements. Do your homework. The last 10 years, Kansas and North Carolina have been in seven Sweet 16s and we've been in six. We have the best record in the country the last 10 years (274-64) and we've never ducked anybody."

Which is why the sixth-ranked Wildcats are playing the upstart Eagles at the McKale Center. Olson admits that he accepted Fang Mitchell's offer because no return game was required, but that's a lot more than most high-profile coaches would do with Coppin State these days.

The contract was signed before the Eagles became the Cinderella team of last year's NCAA tournament with an upset of South Carolina and a near upset of Texas. CBS picked up the game for one of its regional telecasts after the NCAA tournament.

"This is an awfully good basketball team," Olson said on the day Coppin State beat Missouri at Columbia, Mo. That's probably what Olson said before the Wildcats lost to East Tennessee State in the first round of the 1992 NCAA tournament, to Santa Clara in the opening round the next year, and to Miami of Ohio in the first round in 1995. Not that anybody was listening.

It was those losses, and Olson's reaction during the news conferences after them, that made him appear more than a tad defensive. It didn't matter that Olson had taken a program that had four straight losing seasons -- including 4-24 the year before he got to town -- to its first Final Four in 1988 after leading Iowa to the Final Four in 1980.

"I've coached against Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight and Denny Crum and they're no better than he is," Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick said. "Every aspect of the game is covered. You find me where he's been beaten badly in a game. He's one of the most complete coaches ever."

Olson's approach with his players seemed to change a bit last season. He became looser, and more tolerant of a team that liked to pull practical jokes off the court and were not always the most focused during the regular season. But Olson said he changed mostly because it was a young team.

"He lets you do what you want," said sophomore point guard Mike Bibby, who along with Final Four MVP and fellow guard Miles Simon are the stars of this year's team. "As long as you do what's expected of you, you don't have any problems."

Harrick, in his first year with the Rams after being fired at UCLA before last season, said that he saw two sides to Olson's personality during his eight years in the Pac-10. Despite a fierce competition between the schools, he and Olson became friends and spoke at each other's booster banquets on occasion.

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