University of Arizona Head Basketball Coach Lute Olson today announced that he intends to extend his leave of absence through the end of the current basketball season. Coach Olson cited personal family matters that required his attention.
Said Olson: "After consultation with my family, I have decided to extend my leave of absence for the remainder of the current basketball season. I do this with great reluctance, because I care greatly about The University of Arizona, the basketball program and the players on this team. But there are personal issues within my family that need to be addressed, and I must devote my full energy to that.
"I plan to return to coach at The University of Arizona next year. In the meantime, my heart will be with the team, the coaches and staff. Our student athletes are in great hands, and I wish for them nothing but success with the remainder of the season.
"To our basketball fans and the community, I ask your patience in allowing me the time to attend to my personal situation. I am most grateful for the statements of support and prayers that have been offered, and look forward to a return to more normal activities in the months ahead.
"Thank you again for your support and understanding."
In response to Coach Olson's announcement, UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood said: "All of us at The University of Arizona want what is best for Lute and his family. He has brought immeasurable good to our program and the University, and we want him to know that we are supportive and wish him nothing but the best as he tends to these issues."
Livengood announced that Kevin O'Neill will serve as head coach for the remainder of the season. "Kevin has done an absolutely superb job stepping in for Lute," said Livengood. "We have enormous confidence in his ability to lead the team in Lute's absence."
"I have spoken to the team, and they fully understand Lute's decision," said O'Neill. "We have some great student athletes on this team. It has been a challenge for them to deal with the uncertainty surrounding all this. But they have handled it with extraordinary grace, and are fully focused on the season ahead."
Olson has been the head coach at the UA for 24 years and in that time led the Wildcats to the 1997 national championship, four Final Four appearances, 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and 11 Pacific-10 Conference titles. Olson has the nation's third-best winning percentage over the past 20 seasons, and he is one of just 25 head coaches in NCAA history to win 700 or more games. He owns a career record 780-280.
O'Neill returned to the Wildcat program in May of this year, after spending the last seven seasons in the NBA as a head coach, assistant and consultant. He served as an assistant coach at UA from 1986 to 1989, and has been head coach at a number of universities, including Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern.
The Wildcats play Saturday on the road against the University of Illinois and return home on Dec. 16 against Fresno State.