At 68, Olson Has No Designs on Retiring

Times Staff Writer

At 68, Lute Olson is at the peak of his game. His Arizona Wildcats are the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and Olson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last June, though he missed the ceremony to attend his son Steve's wedding in Italy.

"The night it was happening, it was like 2:30 in the morning in Italy, and I was probably sound asleep at the time," Olson said.

The Wildcats, preparing to try to win their second national championship under Olson, will be in Los Angeles next week to defend their Pacific 10 Conference tournament title.

And in a bit of news, Olson, widowed in 2001, will marry Christine Toretti, 48, a Pennsylvania oil and gas executive and Republican activist, on April 12, shortly after the Final Four.

Question: You've been ranked No. 1 for much of the season and could enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1-seeded team for the fifth time. Yet Arizona's championship came after a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10, in 1997. Is there any different approach as a top-seeded team, and despite the advantages in the bracket, are there ways it's harder to win as a No. 1?

Answer: Well, if you look at the history of it, it has not been very often that the No. 1-ranked team has been able to go through and win the whole thing.

I think with the fact that the seniors on this team were in the championship game a couple of years ago, they really have a feel for what it takes. They've done a great job with the younger guys in terms of talking with them, telling them what to expect and what it will be like. I don't think it will affect our preparation.

Q: You've been opposed to the Pac-10 tournament ...

A: I still am, and the reason is we play 18 games in the league. To play 18 and the tournament, I think, is really ridiculous. We're asking a lot from student-athletes. There's so much talk from the Pac-10 and the presidents about how to cut back on days [of class] missed. Yet through this tournament, it costs us an additional three days of school.... I just think the people getting hurt in this are the student-athletes. I feel at times the conference talks out of both sides of its mouth.

And if you check it out, people say, "Well, it gives another team a chance to get in [the NCAA tournament]." That's a bunch of garbage. More teams have been eliminated as a result of conference tournaments than have gotten in.

Q: We've all seen what marvelous basketball sense Luke Walton has. But tell us about Bill as a player's dad. How different is he from the funny but smart-aleck, opinionated NBA commentator we see on TV?

A: With Bill, I've told him he should write a book on how to be the father of a Division I player. He's been absolutely super, as far as never interfering with anything.

He likes to get on Luke -- they banter back and forth. I think Bill likes that, and Luke gets a kick out of it. As far as the relationship with our staff, Bill is a model dad in terms of supporting what we're doing.

Q: Segueing to UCLA, even Steve Lavin has shown interest in handicapping the race for his successor. What qualities do you think it's going to take for the next coach to succeed there?

A: I don't know what that's going to take, because I've said many times I think the three toughest jobs in the country are UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky. The expectation is that you should win the NCAA title every year, and you'd better win it by substantial points. I think it's near to impossible for anybody.

Q: Your wife Bobbi was such a big part of the day-to-day program that the court at McKale Center is named for both of you. How has the program changed without her?

A: I don't think the family atmosphere has changed, beyond the fact Bobbi is not here. She really was the Team Mom. My daughter, Jodi, and my son-in-law live with me, and when we have functions at the house, Jodi is a lot like her mom and it makes for a really nice atmosphere when the players come over.

But it's not the same. Bobbi always rode the team bus and was always around. When she felt I was being tough on a player, she'd talk to that player and say, "Just let me know what the problem is, and I'll get it straightened out."

Q: Jason Gardner said before the season that now that you're in the Hall of Fame and have won a national championship, it's time for you to collect championships. What drives you now?

A: Well, it's not that we're working any different, but with the emergence of the program and the national championship and being in the finals again two years ago, our recruiting now is such that we're able to go have a shot at kids anywhere in the country.... We signed a kid out of Houston [forward Ndudi Ebi] and it's the first time we've ever beaten Duke on a player. At least the way it stands now, depending on how others rate it, it will be the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. We have a higher profile than before. Now, if we can start collecting national championships, I don't know....

Q: Do you envision a time in your life without basketball?

A: Basically, what I've gone on is this: As long as I have my health -- and I work out daily -- and as long as I feel I can communicate with the players and am able to do a good job with them, and third, as long as I enjoy it, I don't envision not coaching.

I never imagined I'd coach as long as I have. When I came here from Iowa, I thought this would be a nice place to coach, and when I decided to give it up, it would be a nice place to be. At that point, I was thinking I'd be here maybe 10 or 12 years and maybe give it up. Now I'm in my 20th, and I'm still going.

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