Now we know: Lute Olson suffered strokePosted: Updated:
Retired University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson, 74, has suffered a stroke in the past year. His doctor, Stephen Knope, made the startling announcement at an afternoon news conference Tuesday at the University of Arizona.
Knope was joined by members of Olson's family. Knope says an MRI just yesterday confirmed that Olson had suffered a stroke.
Knope also told reporters that he was the one who recommended Olson retire. Knope says Olson did not support the recommendation, but eventually agreed.
Knope told reporters the stroke impacted Olson's judgment and caused a "severe depression". It was during treatment for the depression, treatment Olson failed to respond to, that led Knope to investigate the possibility of a stroke.
Knope says the stroke involved the frontal lobe of Olson's brain. Knope says it did not impact Olson's "motor functions".
Olson's doctor also revealed that in the past few years, Olson suffered some difficulties with his heart. Knope said a blood clot from that went to the brain causing apparently causing the stroke.
Just last Friday, the UA announced assistant coach Russ Pennell would serve as interim head coach this season. Late Tuesday, Pennell issued a statement saying, "We miss Lute. The Arizona basketball family will always support him. Today's news, as odd as this may sound, is comforting only in that he now knows what he's up against as he works to return to good health."
Mike Dunlap, an associate coach who reportedly turned down the interim head coaching position, told Fox 11 Sports Force's Brandon Nash, "I think it's a relief for him first and foremost. Second, is we just know he wasn't fully well. He was fighting through every day and did a great job. I think that's the honor part and the dignity of Coach -- he is just a warrior."
UA basketball player Kirk Walters told Nash, "Everyone has to be thankful that it wasn't a large stroke. I know how devastating a bad stroke can be and we're all lucky that didn't happen. I never saw this coming."
There had been widespread speculation over the past year that Olson had some sort of a medical issue. His actions, usually dramatic and with little notice, were very unlike his first 24 years at the UA where he built a basketball program from virtually unknown into a national powerhouse. His leadership brought a national championship, four appearances in the NCAA Final Four, ten Pacific 10 Conference Championships, and 23 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
When Olson announced a leave of absence for the 2007-08 season, he hinted at medical reasons, but never provided any details. Shortly after that announcement, word came that he was divorcing his second wife, Christine.
In April, Olson announced he'd return for the 2008-09 season. In a contentious news conference, Olson blasted some media outlets for their reporting on his leave. He also said Kevin O'Neill would not be coaching with him, even though the University had signed an agreement with O'Neill naming him Olson's successor.
A week ago today, Olson held a pre-season news conference where he announced he was "energized" for the new season and looking forward to working with his team. Two members of the team, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise, returned for the season rather than go for the NBA draft based on Olson's assurances he'd be their coach.
But just two days later, last Thursday, the University announced Olson's immediate retirement. The timing couldn't have been worse for the University. Practice for the season had already started. The first scrimmage is November 8th. Three top recruits for the 2009 season immediately withdrew their commitment.
Word of Olson's departure leaked hours prior to any official notification to the University. Athletic Director Jim Livengood held a 5 p.m. news conference Thursday to say he'd learned "moments before" that Olson was retiring. The story first broke on ESPN by analyst Dick Vitale. There were various reports that the word had leaked out of Nike headquarters in Oregon. While Olson was among the highest-paid state employees (approximately $730,000 in base salary, paid with athletic department earnings), he earned more from Nike through endorsements and other programs.
After Dr. Knope's announcement, Livengood issued a written statement saying, "Our hopes and prayers go to Lute Olson and his family for a swift and full recovery. He has meant the world to this university and college basketball for a quarter century. His Hall of Fame legacy speaks for itself."