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December 14, 2007TUCSON, Ariz. ? The man running Arizona's basketball program works from a room the size of a janitor's closet. One day, perhaps, the lush office down the hall will belong to Kevin O'Neill. But right now its doors are locked ? and they will be for the rest of the season.
"Nobody goes in there," said O'Neill, the Wildcats' interim head coach. "People know better. That space is off-limits to everyone until Lute comes back."
Problem is, folks around here aren't sure if Lute Olson will come back in any sort of permanent fashion. After coaching Arizona for the past 24 years, Olson is taking a season-long "leave of absence" to deal with personal issues that include a highly publicized divorce.
Olson said he intends to return in 2008-09 but, deep down, the feeling in Tucson is that his legendary career is nearing its end.
"Whether (it happens) tomorrow or next week or next year, I can't give you a time frame," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said. "But like anything you want to do correctly, we need to start planning for the what-ifs and whens as far as Lute's retirement."
In some ways, the Wildcats already have.
For more than a month after his decision was announced, Olson's leave of absence was the dominant topic of conversation among Arizona faithful. Lately, though, people are talking less about Olson and more about how well the Wildcats are playing without him.
Arizona will take a 6-2 record and a No. 21 national ranking into Sunday's game against Fresno State. The Wildcats rallied from a 20-point deficit to upset ninth-ranked Texas A&M last week. Six days later they went on the road to defeat Illinois in Chicago.
"We're 6-2 and we should be 8-0," senior Jawann McClellan said. "The bottom line is that we're winning. It's a lot of fun to be an Arizona basketball player right now."
At the center of it all is O'Neill, the former NBA and college head coach who Olson hired last spring to help improve Arizona's defensive play.
Considering his experience and $375,000 salary, O'Neill was easy choice to become the Wildcats' interim head coach when Olson's problems arose.
In just eight games, O'Neill has impressed administrators ? not to mention his players ? to the point that he's already being hailed publicly as Olson's likely successor.
"As we work through things ? maybe in the very short order ? he can be our head coach," Livengood said. "I have an incredible amount of confidence in Kevin O'Neill as a head basketball coach as it relates to Arizona.
"I don't think that anybody else could've done the job that Kevin has done in this situation."
Reclining in his office chair, even O'Neill shakes his head when discussing the circumstances that led to his current role. In 18 years in the profession, he said he's never encountered such a bizarre scenario.
"If I were a 35-year-old assistant who had never been a head coach, this would've been a tough thing to go through," O'Neill said. "There is no blueprint for how to handle this one."
Or rather, there wasn't.
Rumors run wild
A few days ago, when he was eating breakfast at a restaurant near campus, Livengood was approached by an Arizona fan.
"So," the person asked, "what's really going on with Lute?"
But that all changed Dec. 2, when Arizona announced that Olson's leave of absence would span the entire season. A day later it became public that he'd filed for a divorce from his second wife, Christine ? although multiple sources have confirmed that Olson is dealing with other issues, as well.
"It's got to be a little bit of a distraction," McClellan said. "Everyone had been spreading rumors about what was going on with Coach O. Those rumors ended up being true. You hate to see any man go through something like that."
Even so, a handful of Wildcats players were frustrated with Olson's decision. McClellan said the team went through a "period of hurt." Sophomore Chase Budinger sensed that some of the Arizona's older players felt betrayed.
"Coach Olson has been a mentor to all of us," Budinger said. "When we found out he wasn't coming back, it was a big hit to us as players. Just not having his wisdom in practice and his knowledge of the game ? it affected it us. He was a father figure to a lot of people.
"I think the players that have been here for awhile were hurt more because they've been with him longer. They really got to build a deep relationship with him. Especially the seniors, not having him here for their last year, it affected them. He was their mentor, their head coach."
Even after his leave of absence became permanent, the buzz about Olson continued to hover over the Wildcats' program. Olson, after all, is an icon in Arizona. Not just because of his 1997 national championship and four Final Fours, but because of his charitable work throughout the state.
Livengood said he's literally questioned about Olson's situation at least once an hour everyday. Classmates continue to ask Arizona's players about Olson as they walk across campus ? and the Wildcats are curious, too.
"There have been quite a few occasions when a player has asked me how Lute is doing," Livengood said. "If one person is asking then four others are probably thinking about it.
"They really are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, because they want to call (Olson) and touch base with the person that recruited them. Yet at the same time they want to honor what he'd requested, which is his privacy."
Olson's decision to leave the team might have caused some uneasiness off the court but, on it, the effect has been the opposite.
Rather than let the situation damage their play, the Wildcats seem to have drawn strength from it. Arizona's only two losses came by three points to Virginia during the first week of the season and in overtime against No.3 Kansas in Lawrence.
Not bad for a team that has as much depth as a shot glass, a team that touts a freshman (Jerryd Bayless) and sophomore (Budinger) as its top two players.
"These guys have shown unbelievable composure," O'Neill said. "On the morning it was announced ? after Jim told the team what was going on ? I just said, 'OK, we've got shootaround in a few minutes. Go put your stuff on.'
"I haven't had to give these guys any pep talks. They don't want to hear it. They want to hear about how we're going to get better."
O'Neill brings intensity
As he faced the media at a press conference earlier this week, O'Neill took a deep, long sigh.
"I've mellowed so much," he said with a smirk. "It's unbelievable."
The line wasn't hard to buy considering O'Neill was wearing a pair of old sneakers, sweat pants and a wrinkled gray t-shirt. But at practice later that evening it seemed obvious he was only kidding.
One minute, O'Neill was horsing around with guard Nic Wise, play-punching him while the two joke about one of Wise's final exam. Moments later, though, O'Neill halted the workout to berate Wise in front of his teammates.
"You call that full speed?" O'Neill yelled at Wise during a full-court drill. "Get back (to the baseline) and start over!"
O'Neill has always been known for his intensity. That's why Olson hired him during the offseason. He said he wanted O'Neill to be "the hammer" for a squad that had developed a reputation for being soft.
Opponents shot 44.1 and 45.3 percent against the Wildcats the last two seasons. O'Neill ? the man Rick Carlisle labeled "the best defensive coach in all of basketball" ? knew his job was to fix it.
"Of course," O'Neill said, "I didn't know any of this other stuff was going to happen."
Luckily, the well-traveled O'Neill was prepared.
Included in O'Neill's nearly 30 years of coaching is a three-year stint as Olson's assistant from 1986-89. O'Neill left Tucson to become the head coach at Marquette. He eventually held the same positions at Tennessee and Northwestern before moving on to the NBA, where he coached the Toronto Raptors.
"The biggest difference in the NBA is what the players say to you when they come out of a game," O'Neill said. "In the NBA it's pretty direct. They say what's on their mind. In college they can only say so much.
"I love the NBA. Guys that haven't coached in the pros don't realize you make more decisions in one month of NBA games than you make in five years of college games. There are so many more possessions, play-calls, matchup things, substitutions ? it's way different."
Asked what he missed about the college game, O'Neill said: "Not much. I'm telling you, I loved the NBA. Arizona is the only (college) I was interested in working for."
The Wildcats couldn't have been more fortunate to land O'Neill, who has already helped Arizona sign one of the nation's top recruiting classes.
O'Neill, who had a role in the movie "Hoop Dreams," is well-known for his hard ? and sometimes zany ? work when it comes to landing prospects. Legend has it that he once wore a gorilla suit to meet a player at an airport. Another time he sent 1,000 letters to a recruit in one day.
O'Neill's intensity is paying off with the Wildcats' current team, too.
As fond as they are of O'Neill ? most of them refer to him as "K.O." ? Arizona's players are quickly learning not to test his power.
Forward Fendi Onobun was sent home, on game day, when he showed up a few minutes late for treatment on his injured shin. It's not uncommon for O'Neill to summon a wayward player to the McKale Center at 3 a.m. for conditioning drills, and O'Neill has already warned his team that it won't get any time off for Christmas if it performs poorly in its next two games.
"There are no doghouses, no grudges," O'Neill said. "If a guy screws up, he screws up and we move on."
On Monday, less than 24 hours after their win against Illinois, the Wildcats were back practicing at the McKale Center.
"He was right in our face, yelling," Budinger said. "He thought we looked lazy so he had us run. He's making us mentally tough."
Under Olson, Arizona played a high-scoring, fast-paced style but often had problems stopping its opponent.
These days the Wildcats still like to run but, instead of letting the Wildcats freelance on offense, O'Neill is calling for more set plays. And, defensively, Arizona is a completely different squad.
"We've got more structure," Budinger said. "He's changed the look of our team. We're not the soft players that everyone used to say we were. Last year it was, 'Yeah, they can score, but they can't stop people.' No one is saying that about us this year. I don't know what we would've done without him."
McClellan said he's noticed rapid improvement ever since Olson announced that his leave of absence would extend throughout the entire season.
"It was a decision that needed to be made," McClellan said. "We needed to know who was going to be our coach. They both have two different coaching styles. We needed to move on, and we have.
"We're a lot tougher than we've been in the past. The identity we have right now is all because of Kevin O'Neill."
Still Olson's team
There are plenty of people who would love for O'Neill to continue to serve Arizona's staff for years to come. Former players such as Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr list O'Neill as one of their best friends. And, obviously, the current team's feelings about him are strong.
"You have to give him credit for doing such a great job in the middle of all that's been going on around here," McClellan said. "A lot of people want to see him fail, because they want Coach O back, but he just keeps on going."
If that's the case O'Neill wouldn't know it. Right now the only thing on his mind is keeping the program intact during Olson's absence. Talk to O'Neill long enough and his respect for Olson is glaring. O'Neill said he still calls Olson "Coach," adding that he makes sure to sit up straight whenever Olson enters the room.
"The biggest challenge is replacing greatness," O'Neill said. "Lute is one of the all-time greats. You can never underestimate what losing greatness is like."
O'Neill said he talks with Olson regularly.
"Trust me," O'Neill said, "he's paying close attention to everything that's going on. I think the clarity of the situation will help Lute as much as anyone. Now he doesn't feel pressured to come back.
"Getting away for the remainder of the year will give him an opportunity to get everything straight. That way he can come back next year with both barrels blazing."
O'Neill said he isn't concerned with what would happen to him in that situation. He said he's too busy to think about the future. Other than wanting to coach until he's 75, O'Neill insists he has no "ultimate goal."
"I'm not caught up in whether I'm assistant coach or a head coach," said O'Neill, 50. "I just want to be in winning situations where I'm coaching good guys.
"I came in here on a two-year deal, thinking I'd be here for a couple of years and that would be it. That may or may not be true."
O'Neill responds quickly when asked if this team is "his."
"This isn't my team," he said. "If it's anyone's team it's Lute's team until he decides he doesn't want to coach anymore. That is the way I would look at Arizona basketball."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.