In 1982-83, the Arizona Wildcats won just four men's basketball games. After the season, they hired Lute Olson as their coach and by his second season, 1984-85, he had them in the NCAA tournament.
They haven't missed it since.
It's one of the most remarkable runs of success in college basketball history. The 23 consecutive appearances ties Olson with North Carolina's Dean Smith (1975-97) for the longest such streak by a single coach. Only the Heels' 27-year streak (1975-2001) is longer for a program and, of course, Arizona is still in progress.
And not to take anything from Carolina, but the Heels had been an established power for decades when they started their streak. Olson built his out of nothing in the middle of the desert.
It would be like Oregon State suddenly making every tournament between next season and 2032 – not to mention reaching four Final Fours and winning 11 Pac-10 titles and a national championship along the way. You'd bet the house against it ever happening.
But en route to NCAA bid No. 24, almost the entire thing has come undone.
Olson skipped the season without explanation leading to rampant speculation that ranged from wild to wilder. The transition to one of his assistants caused the boat to rock in every direction, and the team stumbled through an unsettled and uncertain season that appeared mismanaged in every single way.
After 23 years that were generally as calm as the Arizona weather, run by the gentle former North Dakota farm kid, this was a tempest in Tucson.
And now for Selection Sunday comes the most unexpected and foreign of feelings – nerves.
Arizona just might not hear its name called. The NCAA streak just might end.
Living on the edge
It might not of course. No one knows until 6 p.m. ET Sunday. But for the first time since 1987, Arizona is on the edge of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Its record is 19-14. It won just four of its last 12 games and two of those were against lowly Oregon State. If the Wildcats get in the tourney for the 24th consecutive year it will be by the slimmest of margins, aided by a historically weak year in college basketball and a stretch run that saw so many tournament contenders choke away last chances.
Not that Arizona won't take it; keeping the streak alive, continuing something that not even UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Duke or anyone else has managed. It also would provide at least one positive on a season with so many negatives.
It started Nov. 4 when Olson announced he would be taking a leave of absence. He denied it was health related but refused to provide any details. That, not surprisingly, sent the rumor mill into full spin, with the focus on any number of scenarios each more intensely personal than the one before. A month later he announced he'd sit out the entire season and then the following day filed for divorce in a move that either was or was not related.
He was replaced by assistant Kevin O'Neill, who had been Olson's chief recruiter back in the 1980s when they first started this improbable dynasty. Arizona produces few top line players now and virtually none then.
"I think in my first 23 years we had five guys from Arizona," Olson said last year. "Every other guy was from somewhere else."
O'Neill was a colorful personality and a tireless, innovative worker who could lure in the players. He was invaluable to the rise of the program.
He used to put a stick of bubble gum in recruiting letters just so the kids would open his amidst the flood of mail from rival schools. When he was head coach at Tennessee and was recruiting a Nashville guard named Ron Mercer, he found out the bus Mercer's mother used to ride to work and occasionally would get on it one stop early and ride with her just so she knew how much he wanted her son (Mercer went to Kentucky anyway).
O'Neill, 50, is a bulldog – acerbic and confrontational, all rough edges. He's the antithesis of Olson, which is why they often were their best together. O'Neill went on to coach Tennessee, Marquette, Northwestern and the NBA's Toronto Raptors all with some level of success. But he also quickly wore out his welcome in each spot. KO is an acquired taste.
Last fall Olson chose to bring him back and groom him as a successor, a move that upset the easy-going environment of the program. O'Neill might be the perfect person to succeed Olson, an excellent coach who is a combination of old and new. But even so there was sure to be some hurt feelings with such a major change in the culture of the program.
To have it happen in this environment, on an interim basis, was the worst possible situation.
Most thought Olson was done, but now he's back, announcing recently he would coach the team next year. Although he said his original departure was not health related now he says it was. That left a million new questions, some of them about how O'Neill would handle stepping back into an assistant role, what players would stay or leave (for other schools or the NBA) and what it all meant going forward.
Keeping the streak alive
The most immediate concern is the streak. Understandably Arizona takes great pride in it and while few around the program think the team will be much of a threat for another deep March run this year, they at least want to be there. They are pinning their hope on their typically strong nonconference schedule (No. 2 SOS in the country) to help them. Most mock brackets, including Yahoo! Sports, have the Wildcats in. Although, just barely.
"We deserve to be there," O'Neill said.
Whether or not Arizona can get there and push the program's streak one closer to Carolina's record and allow Olson to return next year and break the tie with Dean Smith, this has been a season to appreciate just how exceptional Olson has been.
It's been like a living wake.
Despite being in the Hall of Fame, Olson's profile isn't as high as a lot of lesser accomplished coaches. Part of that is Arizona's off-the-beaten-path location and late-night games. Part of it is Olson's humble personality.
But whatever happens, this is the Sunday to acknowledge perhaps the greatest building job in college basketball history. Olson took over a dead program and turned it into a constant of March like virtually none other.
Then he left and all hell immediately broke loose.
- Arizona Wildcats
- Lute Olson