Lute Olson was Arizona Basketball. Without him, the program is not what it is today.
Because of Olson, Arizona was able to land a coach like Sean Miller.
Because of Olson, the pressure is on Miller to deliver.
Olson’s passing last week understandably hit the Arizona and basketball community hard. He is a legend, with the accomplishments, accolades and a statue to back the claim up. It’s fair to say had he not made the decision to head to Tucson in 1983 “Point Guard U” or “A Player’s Program” would not be a thing, at least in the Southwest.
In 24 seasons, Olson’s teams earned 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and 11 conference titles. reached four Final Fours and got to the top of the mountain with that glorious ‘97 National Championship.
There were also a handful of earlier-than-expected tournament exits and of course painful Elite 8 losses, but that’s more or less the price you pay for being an elite program.
Greatness is expected and when it is not achieved, an otherwise excellent season can be viewed as a disappointment.
By now Miller knows that all too well.
Hired in 2010 as the first non-interim coach following Olson, Miller arrived with a pedigree and reputation offering hope that he could capably succeed a legend. Up to that point the power that was Arizona basketball was solely attributable to Olson’s greatness, and there was a legitimate fear that without him the Wildcats could slip into the same kind of rut that programs such as Arkansas, Indiana and Georgetown did once their legendary coaches were no longer at the helm.
It was possible.
Olson’s sudden leave of absence in 2007 led to a Kevin O’Neill-coached team that won 19 games and was bounced in the first round of an NCAA Tournament some don’t believe Arizona should have been a part of. The following year, with Russ Pennell leading the way, a late-season surge got the Wildcats into the Dance, where they reached the Sweet 16 before getting blown out by Louisville.
With Olson now then retired for good, it was up to then-AD Jim Livengood to find someone who could more or less take the baton and keep running with a program that had tripped a bit but had not yet stumbled to the ground,
Following a transition season in Tucson, Miller did exactly that, guiding Arizona to a conference title and the Elite Eight, finishing a Jamelle Horne (or Derrick Williams) three away from a spot in the 2011 Final Four.
With recruiting being taken to new levels and on-court success so quickly, it appeared Miller was the perfect guy to replace the man who built the program.
Though Miller stayed, that left a bad taste in some mouths. Nevermind that Olson himself at least considered leaving for Kentucky a couple of times. Miller was supposed to be the next Lute, and him leaving after two years — just when things were getting going — was not part of the plan.
But again, Miller stayed and after one more mediocre season began a run of tournament appearances that saw the Wildcats reach the second weekend. They lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 on a last-second shot and then, painfully, ran into Wisconsin in the Elite 8 in back-to-back years, losing both games.
Still, as the cliche goes, it was a matter of if, and not when, Miller would break through and get the Wildcats back in the Final Four.
Five seasons later, the best the Wildcats have done is a Sweet 16 loss in 2017, one that featured a late-game collapse against a Xavier team Arizona should have beaten. They’ve missed the tournament once and don’t appear to be on the cusp of a Final Four.
There is also that whole FBI investigation thing, which has yet to be resolved in really any kind of way.
So here is Arizona, mourning the loss of Olson 13 years after he coached his final game and 19 years since the Wildcats last reached the Final Four. Miller was close to getting them there thrice but has yet to break through, and now more than ever people doubt if he is the one to lead Arizona to the heights Olson once did.
Gone is the belief of his early days when the Final Four was a certainty; it has been replaced by considerable doubt, not just of whether or not Miller can get them there but also if he should even be allowed to be in charge of the program.
Unfortunately for Miller, a 285-100 record along with five conference titles, three conference tournament championships and three Elite 8s in 11 seasons is, while quite good, also not enough.
Looking back on Olson’s career and being reminded of what he accomplished only magnifies where Miller, up to this point, has fallen short.
That’s not to say Miller is incapable of, if not equaling Olson, coming pretty darn close. His .740 winning percentage at Arizona is just a smidge under Olson’s .759 and if you take out the last three seasons Miller would be sitting at a very nice .769.
But you can’t take away the last three seasons, all of which were disappointing in their own ways. You also can’t ignore the FBI scandal, the result of which will likely see a penalty the NCAA has yet to hand down.
To his credit, Miller has continued to recruit at a high level and the next team of his that takes the court, whenever it is, will feature another top-10 recruiting class, albeit with a different kind of flair than the ones that preceded it.
And while some may be down on Miller, what he’s accomplished at Arizona would be historic at many other schools and make him ripe for a lifetime contract.
But Miller is not at any other school. As he so eloquently states in the introduction hype video at McKale Center, “This is Arizona.”
Lute Olson made it that way. He built Arizona into a power and is rightfully remembered for the legend he is. While it would be unfair to hold Miller to that standard, going forward all we can hope is that Miller can start to carve out a legacy that is more than what it’s been.