NCAA hands down sanctions on the program Lute built

The long wait is over.  The NCAA just handed down its report on what sanctions will be imposed on the University of Arizona basketball program for violations that go back to 2007.

The sanctions take a toll on today’s Wildcat basketball program.  But they also put a black mark on the legacy of a truly great coach.

Arizona had self-imposed a number of penalties back in February, but the NCAA committee on infractions levied a few more of its own.

The self-imposed sanctions included a reduction in the number of recruiting visits by prospective players and coaches and a reduction in the number of scholarships available for the 2011-12 season.  The school also disbanded a booster group at the center of the violations and implemented changes in the rules going forward.

Arizona had proposed limiting official visits by recruits to 19 over two years and reducing recruiting days for coaches by 10.  The NCAA reduced the number of official visits by recruits to six this year and six next season and cut 10 recruiting days for coaches.

The committee also determined that the school had used two ineligible players in 2007-08.  So the Cats will have to vacate any wins involving those players and also suffer the loss of a scholarship for 2012-13.  The program will be on a two-year probation and must undergo institutional re-certification.

Reducing the number of evaluation days for the coaches and limiting recruiting visits are probably the two elements of the sanctions that will hurt most, and will make Sean Miller’s rebuilding efforts more difficult.  Schools are typically allowed to bring in recruits for 12 official visits a year; the NCAA ruling essentially cuts that in half.

But fans will still be able to watch the Cats on television and the program is still eligible for postseason play.  If would have been a much bigger blow had the infractions committee taken away either.

So the basketball program will recover in time.  But what has all of this done to the legacy of one of the best coaches ever in the college game?

Any time a story is told about this period in Wildcat basketball, it will likely include the phrase: “Violations from the Lute Olson era…”.

But without Lute Olson, the program would never have reached the heights it attained.  Not only reached the heights, but stayed there year after year.  That’s the hard part… not letting down once you get to the top.

When Olson accepted the offer to take over the Arizona program in March of 1983, it was little more than a blue and red mirage in the southern Arizona desert.  The year before, the Cats posted a 4-24 record and had never gained national attention.

Olson coached the Cats to a 21-10 record in just his second season and took the team to the NCAA Tournament, the first of 24 consecutive trips.  The next year they went 23-9, won the Pac-10 title, and got that national attention.

Then Olson went on to make four Final Four appearances and win the 1997 national championship.  The coach, who is one of just 25 head coaches to win 700 or more games (786), entered the college Hall of Fame in 2002.

He had always been a winner, logging a 180-76 (.703) record in 11 years coaching high school and then going 103-22 (.824) during four years at the junior college level.  He is right behind the legendary John Wooden for career winning percentage in Pac-10 games.

What he did for the University of Arizona went beyond statistics.  He energized a moribund program and turned it into one of the most consistent winners, as fans expected their team to be in the playoffs each year.  That excitement he created resulted in sell-out season-ticket sales each year.

But he made a mistake after all those years that turned all of his work upside down.  He allowed the promoter of a basketball program to have access to a Wildcat booster organization and encouraged the boosters to support the promoter.  In the end, the NCAA said he failed to monitor his program’s compliance.

Olson, who was in his early 70s at the time, was dealing with a number of health issues and was still recovering from the loss of his wife of 47 years.  Bobbi Olson died in January of 2001.  Olson remarried in 2003, but he found out he couldn’t replace Bobbi, and the second marriage ended not long after it began.

He had also suffered a stroke around that time that might have affected his ability to make decisions the way he had throughout his career.

Working through it all, he managed to post a 20-11 mark during his last season, 2006-07.  He took a leave of absence the next year, generally regarded as a medical leave, and had intended to return for the 2008-09 season, but abruptly retired as practices began.

A mainstay of Olson’s coaching philosophy, as he explained on many occasions, was to build success in the program by finding good people, not just great players.  He and Bobbi opened their home to players and made them feel a part of the family.

He was fortunate to have recruited a lot of good players, who were also great athletes.  Through the years, his system produced 52 NBA draft picks.  Thirty-one of those played for him in Tucson.

That should be his legacy.  Not the one mistake in judgement made by a man struggling to hold it together through personal tragedy and ill health.

Before he retired, Olson took full responsibility for his role in the violation of NCAA rules.  That, in itself, says volumes about the man.

The Wildcat basketball program will recover.  Time to move on and let someone else start the tradition all over.

Sean Miller took the Cats to a 16-15 record in his first year and finished fourth in the conference, and he’s been enjoying some recruiting success, despite the sword that’s been hanging over the program.

Administrators said they aren’t going to appeal the NCAA decision.  That rolls away the prevailing fog of uncertainty and means that Miller gets a new start.

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of his career.

Time to renew hope for the Wildcat faithful.