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Olson quits at Arizona

Basketball coach, 74, abruptly announces his retirement after 24 seasons at the school but gives no reason.

October 24, 2008|Chris Dufresne | Dufresne is a Times staff writer.

Two days after saying he was energized to continue as Arizona's iconic basketball coach, 74-year-old Lute Olson abruptly quit Thursday, 20 wins shy of 800 career victories.

"This was not a decision that was made lightly," Olson said in a released statement. "I've had a wonderful run at the University of Arizona. I leave with a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished."

Olson did not say why he was resigning. He did not appear at a news conference to explain his decision and there was no mention of health concerns in the retirement statement released by the school.

Arizona did not name an immediate interim coach, although it was reported earlier Thursday that associate head coach Mike Dunlap would take over. Athletic Director Jim Livengood said a successor would be named soon.

What Arizona accomplished under Olson may not be replicated again in the desert.

"He's been a great leader at Arizona," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said Thursday. " . . . He built something special there."

The Wildcats won only one conference title in 29 seasons before Olson arrived in Tucson from Iowa in 1983.

Olson would post a record of 589-187 in 24 seasons and lead Arizona to the 1997 NCAA title and four Final Fours, the most recent in 2001.

Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott, Luke Walton and Richard Jefferson are among the many players who starred at Arizona under Olson, who forwarded 13 first-round picks to the NBA.

Arizona's 1997 run to the NCAA title was as improbable as it was exciting. The Wildcats finished fifth in the Pac-10 that year yet, as a fourth-seeded team, stunned No.1 Kansas in the Southeast regional semifinals in Birmingham.

Led by Miles Simon and Bibby, Arizona also defeated top-seeded North Carolina in the national semifinals and top-seeded Kentucky, in overtime, in Indianapolis, to win the national title.

Arizona returned to the NCAA finals in 2001, losing to Duke, and made another run in 2005 before blowing a big lead against No. 1-seeded Illinois in a regional semifinal game.

Thursday capped a strange year in Olson's life and for the Arizona basketball program. Shortly before last season, Olson announced he was taking a personal leave of absence for what he termed a non-life threatening medical issue. Kevin O'Neill took over the team and led Arizona to a 19-15 record in the school's 24th straight NCAA appearance.

When Olson returned in the spring, however, he announced O'Neill was no longer part of the staff. Olson also endured a contentious divorce and recently announced he was engaged again.

In 34 seasons as a Division I-A coach at Long Beach State, Iowa and Arizona, Olson posted 780 victories, which ranks eighth all time.

He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2002.

Times staff writer Diane Pucin contributed to this report.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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