Ageless wonder

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – In what is supposed to be the sunset of his career, Lute Olson still rises before sunrise for an hour walk. Later, he may lift weights or hit an elliptical machine or do both, anything to continue to defy not only time and looks but all conventional coaching wisdom about what is possible at 72 years old.

Then, of course, there is the Arizona coach's signature silver hair, seemingly never out of place.

"I don't know if it is ever messy, even when he wakes up," guard Mustafa Shakur said. "I need some of that to get myself intact."

Olson appreciates the humor. He appreciates that a guy like him – born in the 1930s in rural North Dakota – is still cool enough to trade jokes with a 22-year-old Philly kid named Mustafa, let alone have his grooming habits respected.

It is not supposed to work like this in college coaching. The 70s are a cruel age for legends, a time when almost every other coach has seen his program begin to slip away. Whether it is ill health, loss of passion or the ever-present negative recruiting, maintaining excellence at this age is nearly unheard of.

Yet here is Olson as his Arizona Wildcats prepare for USC on Thursday and a showdown with No. 3 UCLA on Saturday: They are 13-3, ranked No. 11 and are assuredly on their way to a 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament. Olson believes his talented group is good enough to compete for an 11th Pac-10 title, a fifth Final Four and, indeed, a second national championship.

You want to define Olson by a number? Try those numbers.

"In terms of my age being used against us in recruiting, that's been done for 10 years," he said. "The interesting thing is all of the coaches in the league (who were) involved in that are no longer in the league.

"I'm the only one left."

This is about as much bravado as you are ever getting from Olson, who is as dignified as he looks. He isn't much for grand proclamations, he doesn't court the media and he never makes a spectacle of himself. In a lot of ways, he is still a humble kid who grew up on a farm, Hall of Fame or not.

But you can forgive him for laughing at all those hot-shot coaches who trashed him on the recruiting trail through the years, only to get run out of the Pac-10. "The only consistently good program in the West the last 23 years is Arizona," he notes. And it isn't changing – that's the thing. Olson isn't just maintaining excellence, he keeps ramping it up with another top-five recruiting class en route next season and another group of teenagers to keep him young.

One of these days – or one of these decades – Olson is going to retire and college basketball is going to finally fully appreciate him. It's not just the longevity that has made him one of the greatest of all time. It's the geography.

In 1983, he dared to leave Iowa, which he had taken to the Final Four, to try to jumpstart this dead program in the desert. The season before UA went 4-24, 1-17 in the Pac 10. "That was only because an opponent's shot at the buzzer didn't count, or they would have been a perfect 0-18," Olson noted.

He immediately turned it around to the point where Arizona now has the nation's longest NCAA tournament streak, including a trip in 1997 when the Wildcats won the NCAA title. And he did it without some mass of local talent to recruit.

"I think in my first 23 years we had five guys from Arizona," Olson said of a state with more retirees and cactus than point guards and power forwards. "Every other guy was from somewhere else."

To mix what was then a bad program in a tough league with so-so fan support and no local talent is a recipe for disaster, not dynasty.

"When you combine 20 years of sellouts and 22 years in the NCAA tournament, I don't think even I could have ever thought that was possible," Olson said. "That would have been ridiculous."

Maybe it is because he is way out here in the Southwest, or maybe because he is so low key, or maybe because he just makes it look easy. But what Olson has done has to go down as one of the most significant accomplishments in college basketball history. In terms of building an unlikely powerhouse, there is nothing really comparable.

Arizona's NCAA tournament streak is second all-time to North Carolina's run from 1975 to 2001. But Carolina was a long-established power by 1975, not some fledgling program. Regardless, Olson could tie the mark in 2011.

He'd be 76 then, which sounds old until you realize he'd probably look 46.

At an age when most coaches find the gap between them and recruit seems impossible to bridge, when age slows work ethic, hunger and perhaps sideline senses, when the fear of retirement keeps the best players away, Olson just keeps rolling. He is famous on the summer recruiting circuit for being the last one out of an AAU tournament, often after midnight, often after coaches far younger are gone.

"He has so much energy, you don't think of his age," said Shakur, who came all the way from Philadelphia to play for Olson.

Olson says he is not just healthy, but also young at heart because of this team. It boasts not talent, but a bunch of good guys. One of his secrets through the years is recruiting not just the best players, but the best competitors.

"This team is a lot of fun to be around. There are a lot of personalities on it," Olson said. "And everyone works hard. You don't have to be on someone to work hard. They compete in everything they do. It's just a fun team."

Last week, Olson ran the kids, each at least 50 years his junior, through a spirited practice. Out on the floor he stopped action during a 5-on-5 play to point out the tiniest things. He barked orders, handed out praise and switched things up without the use of a practice schedule or chart. Right after, he hustled off to his radio show, then a speaking engagement and then back to the office for some film work.

He sure didn't look like a guy who is older than many of the snowbird retirees that fill the McKale Center.

"People ask, 'How much longer are you going to coach?' " Olson said. "I say, 'Hey, I still have a passion for it, and as long as I have my health, I'm going to coach a long time.' I tell recruits I'll be here longer than they will."

Why retire, especially with a natural leader in Shakur pushing a team Olson thinks is capable of winning it all, capable of – at 72 &ndas; making him No. 1 again?

"They have a chance to be right up there with any team I've had," he said.

Sunset. Sunrise.