I have a big place in my heart for the University of Arizona. My girlfriend is from Arizona. I have a long history with that damn desert and I love it. I applied and was accepted to the University of Arizona. I can sing the fight song. I think the rally cry “Bear Down” is effing awesome. Unless they are playing USC, I tend to pull for them. I one time ran two miles through a desert in Tucson after buying booze underage at a 7/11 and being kicked out of a party that was broken up via helicopter. Tucson and the U of A are totally awesome.
That’s why I am happy and sad right now.
Last night I got a lot of texts telling me USC basketball coach Tim Floyd had flown out to Tucson and accepted the job as head basketball coach of the Wildcats. I was initially bummed. Tim Floyd can recruit. He’s taken USC from a joke in basketball to a very respectable program on the rise. Three trips to the Big Dance in four years and over 80 wins in that time frame. If you followed the teams before, those numbers are great. Especially the consistency. We get to see a Trojan in the NBA that doesn’t suck in O.J. Mayo, whether we paid him or not. We get to see guys like DeMar DeRozzan wanting to play at USC. We don’t see the guys like Scalabrine (Boston Sucks) on the team anymore. We don’t have Sam Clancy. We have young, superfly talent and the belief that we can actually win 20 games a year. This isn’t football. We’re really happy to be competitive.
So when Tim Floyd was leaving, I was thinking “good hire, Zona” because they are a team that lost its identity. For 25 years, Lute Olsen made them the jewel of the desert. When he arrived, the Wildcats were lowly. They were not much to look at. But Lute Olsen quickly changed things and they won their first Pac-10 title in 1986. This is a big deal because it means you have to go through UCLA and the iron gates of Westwood. And Lute could do it. He did it 11 times in his tenure. He won the conference tourney four times (and they haven’t played it most of the time he was there). He’s been Pac-10 coach of the year 7 times. He and the Mike Bibby led Wildcats even won a National Title in 1997. Lute Olsen put the school on the map. He had created a proud, proud tradition in a city that lives and dies by Wilbur Wildcat and his hardwood exploits.
But then Lute started to age. His teeth grew long as did the seasons. His second marriage began to dissipate and it took its toll. He took a season off due to personal reasons and later it was revealed he had an undiagnosed stroke. The strangest part though was watching the once-great program fly headless. Even this year, a largely unguided Wildcat team found their way into the tournament and did their very best to make Lute proud. Although not a total victory, still, Arizona and the tournament have become synonimous and however it happened, it happened. It will be written in the books.
But then something strange. First, rumors of Pitino coming to Tucson followed by silence and the feeling that it wasn’t for him. Then yesterday, Tim Floyd is offered the job as head coach at U of A. Tim Floyd meets with Athletic Director Jim Livengood after USC AD Mike Garrett grants Livengood permission to talk to Floyd. Floyd flies back to LA with 24 hours to decide. ESPN picks up the story that Floyd is gone. Done deal. Suddenly today, the story retracts. Floyd is staying at USC. I hear rumors that U of A balked last minute. I hear rumors that Floyd changed his mind. Either way, it is Arizona’s student and the proud desert town of Tucson I feel remorse for.
It’s not about Tim Floyd or Rick Pitino. It’s not even about Lute Olsen or the 40 pt loss in the tournament. It is about the isolated city 90 miles south of Phoenix sleeping in Mexico’s hammock, it’s heart beating to the tune of “Bear Down Arizona”, it’s gaze firmly cast on what is coming next through the Sonoran Desert. It is about Wildcat Nation.
To go to Tucson is to understand how important this school is to the city. You will see Bibby and Arenas jerseys. The homes of wealthy local business men have autographed basketballs from Lute. Fathers proudly wear t-shirts with the iconic mountainscape logo the school uses sometimes that oddly looks like almost every view from campus towards Sabino Canyon. This quiet and beautiful place with people that love their team so, so much that right now this is actually breaking my heart. Even with my Trojan blood, I cannot root against these Wildcats.
No matter what happens, I can assure you right now it is quiet on Campbell. Speedway is silent. The orange beverages at Eegees are melting and Dirtbags is unusually quiet. Even if just for a minute, the most diehard Wildcat would tell you for a few seconds the wind got knocked out of them.
The Floyd hiring would have been one direction to move in. The best direction? Who knows. But a direction? Yes. Lute and Bobbi Olsen Court is full of ghosts still. It is walking memories when it should be a new coach in there with new players reminding them of what was built in that lonely desert. What was built was a champion. What was built was a program that clawed its way from obscurity and became something proud. A quarter century of excellence and it is now at a crossroads whether you like it or not. Right now, Arizona must decide do we build or do we die.
There may be more facts, but right now the apparent reality is that Arizona wanted a school known more for football’s head basketball coach. They wanted the coach from a school where the majority of the student body considers March to be spring football practice. They wanted the coach from a school that looks forward to winter because it is the end of bowl season, not the beginning of basketball season. This should have been a no-brainer for Floyd, but for whatever reason, the basketball school did not get its man.
I should be happy about it, and in my own way I am. I think Tim Floyd has more to do at USC and I think in time, with the kind of yeoman effort Lute Olsen was willing to give, USC could find its way into a Final Four, or maybe even a title. But Arizona is a giant sleeping monster that no one can seem to wake up.
I hope it is not quiet in the desert for long. I hope this just goes away. I want Tucson to be London and not Rome. It should be somewhere that keeps rebuilding and never quits. Lute would demand it be that way. Arizona needs to find an answer and a good one. They need it now. This is the crossroads. What will those 25 years of greatness mean? Will I be an old man having to explain to my son that for a quarter century, Arizona was dominant. Will they be like Notre Dame in football and fall from grace? Will they be UCLA in basketball, or USC in football? Will they bounce back into new eras of prosperity?
Here is one guy hoping they do. I hope they sort all of it out and get a coach who can rally the troops. Here is one guy hoping the desert stays warm and the big red Sonoran sun sets proudly over the kingdom Lute built.