Kevin O’Neill sees his UA wins disappear.
Tucson Citizen photo

The Lute Olson Era has finally ended.

We thought it ended March 16, 2007, the date of Olson’s final game as coach. Or maybe you preferred March of 2009 when the last of Lute’s former assistants said goodbye. But it turns out the true final day of Lute Olson’s direct influence on Arizona Wildcat Basketball was July 29, 2010, the day the NCAA handed out punishment for the violations committed beginning in 2006.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

When you’re writing the final chapter in a legend’s career you’re looking to have him go out on top. Exit with a bang. Parades and speeches and all that.

For a while it looked as though it might happen. Even after the collapse against Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight (in hindsight the mortal wound to Lute’s program) it looked like Coach O would have one last shot at glory.

The 2008-09 UA hoops team was supposed to feature Brandon Jennings, Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise. You can do a lot of damage with four future NBA players in the same lineup.

But instead of driving the float in Lute’s parade Bayless went pro after one year, Jennings went pro after zero years, and Olson’s health forced him to go unpro.

When the program started slipping Lute started dabbling in the dark side of recruiting, asking a booster group to fund a shady tournament for prospects. He turned the Rebounders into Offensive Rebounders.

As a result Kevin O’Neill officially has zero coaching wins at Arizona. It’s fitting, even though none of the violations were committed under KO’s watch. The Russ Pennell season was a no-pressure feel-good year when everyone knew what was going on. Lute Olson was gone, the assistant coaches were going to be gone, and the two best players were heading for the draft. The nothing-to-lose crew went on a surprise Sweet 16 run.

O’Neill’s lone season was just the opposite. Lute was on a leave of absence and no one knew why or for how long. It was a year of confusion and frustration. And now the record books show it’s a year of all losses.

The official stat ledgers also show that the Cats didn’t have a 25-year NCAA tournament streak after all. This would have been great information to have a year ago so the UA faithful didn’t have to spend the entire season worrying about losing something that didn’t exist.

It retrospect it’s good that the Wildcats’ streak didn’t extend another couple years and break North Carolina’s record. Losing the second-best mark is embarrassing but getting stripped of an all-time record would have been a disaster. USC football wouldn’t be nearly as shamed if Reggie Bush had finished second in the Heisman voting.

Lute Olson’s script had gripping exposition and a thrilling climax. He just couldn’t figure out how to finish it.

There would be no storybook ending. Bobbi’s team came up one win short in 2001. A final Final Four slipped away in 2005. Now the final chapter of a hall of fame career is one of infractions and sanctions.

A Storey book ending.

This isn’t the conclusion anyone wanted but it could have been much worse. The UA doesn’t have to take down any banners. It doesn’t have to disassociate itself from Lute Olson in any way. Kevin O’Neill’s record and Jamelle Horne’s stats take the fall, Sean Miller cleans up the mess and Arizona keeps its basketball legend.

One last rebound for Lute.