Arizona fans were relieved to see Lute Olson back at the helm and as the face of the Wildcats once again. Although he didn't go into much discussion or detail to clear the air about his leave of absence, it appears as though it was justified and the length of it had a lot to do with not wanting to disrupt the team and affect the players halfway through the PAC-10 schedule. Kudos on that, Lute. In his press conference Lute Olson appeared and acted younger than he has since marrying Christine. I for one, believe that he is now ready to take this Arizona program back to where it was 7 years ago, to the top of the Nation and a pre-season favorite for a National Title. That is of course if Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger both return, but that's another topic entirely.
But before we can jump ahead to the future and anticipation, there is something else that came out of this press conference. The public announcement that Kevin O'Neill will not return as an assistant coach for Arizona, and thus closing the door of a black mark on Arizona's program since Olson took the helm back in 1983. Kevin O'Neill was accepted with open arms and great expectations to shore up the defense as an assistant coach. In a season that had more drama, bumps and bruises, and uncertainties than any year in recent memory, Kevin O'Neill failed to even do what he came in to do: shore up the defense. The defense was just as half-hearted as ever, and time after time Arizona failed to get the stop when they really needed one.
Within 24 hours of the press conference the Arizona message board is aflurry with people celebrating the dismissal of Kevin O'Neill. Two guys have even started a fund raiser to help pay for his salary if KO fails to land another job somewhere else. Frankly, these die-hard fans have every reason to celebrate. In accordance with Arizona standards, this season can be considered a black mark on Arizona's program. The standards are simple: Beat ASU, beat UCLA, win 20 games, win the conference, and at the very least get to the Sweet 16. By those standards, Arizona had a lot of failures: They were swept not only by UCLA, but an inferior team in ASU, they barely made the tournament and were quickly ushered out, and most importantly for the first time in 21 years the Wildcats failed to win 20 games.
With that kind of failure, fans want someone to blame, and it's always going to be the head coach, or in this case the interim coach. Being an interim coach doesn't give you a free pass or an exemption from liability. Kevin O'Neill constantly failed this year, and not even because he was being held to Lute's standards or coaching style. While yes, the slow down game plan was an aggrivating change in and of itself, it was more than that. O'Neill failed to coach the team to their strengths (which was to get out and run). He failed to use the bench the way he could have. No there were no starters or real scoring threats (outside of potential in Horne and Johnson), but each player brought something to the table that O'Neill missed out on. O'Neill failed to use his timeouts properly, constantly not having enough at the end of the game. He failed to draw up successful final-shot plays to give Arizona the win. Most importantly he failed to accept the blame as his own.
With that kind of horrendous coaching resume' for this year, it's no wonder than Arizona fans are glad to see the blame being placed, and being placed by the real Arizona coach onto the interim. The firing of O'Neill gives Arizona fans an sense of justice, and provides appeasement for a bismal season filled with controversy and aggrivation. In several months or years when fans look back on this year it will be forever known as the "Dark year of Kevin O'Neill." It wasn't Lute's team, and it won't be marked as much by Olson's leave of absence, his divorce, or the health issues, but by the failures of Kevin O'Neill. And for an Arizona fan, I'm perfectly happy with the blame and the pain being placed squarely on his shoulders.
As far as that fund for KO, I'll make a trip to Nogales and buy a box of chiclets to donate to the cause.