Lute Olson has been the face of Arizona basketball, and rightly so, for the last quarter century or so. Olson led the Cats to an NCAA berth in all but his very first season at their helm, including four Final Fours and one title, in which nobody expected Jason Terry to be nearly the NBA prospect that Miles Simon was (whoops). But the last few years of Olson’s tenure were wrought by controversy and sudden departures from the program, even as the team succeeded on the court. And while nobody accused Olson of taking leaves of absence for the hell of it - not when he had things like a divorce and a stroke going on - it could be that his final, sudden retirement might have been akin to that of a captain abandoning a sinking ship.
That’s because the NCAA has announced a full-scale investigation into Olson’s activities with a premier recruiting event, the “Cactus Classic” (BECAUSE THEY’RE IN ARIZONA, GET IT?), according to the ARIZONA DAILY STAR. The event is a big deal for the program, as six members of the team have participated in the event (a seventh AU commit to do so, Brandon Jennings, went to Europe instead, and you might remember how thrilled he is about that). And while the event isn’t officially under the University’s jurisdiction, Lute sure tried to put some fingerprints on the money trail:
The NCAA began initially looking into the matter last year after the UA reported a secondary violation, a minimal NCAA infraction. The letter, on UA letterhead, was signed by then-coach Lute Olson. It asked private donors to give money to support the 2008 version of the spring event, which annually brings in hundreds of recruitable elite athletes.
The former coach initially denied signing the letter.
Under NCAA rules, a school or athletic representative cannot offer, provide or arrange financial assistance, directly or indirectly, to pay for a recruit’s expenses for any period prior to his university enrollment.
The denial is probably the key to the case that Olson and Arizona were knowingly up to something fishy, rather than making honest mistakes. And sure, it may seem odd that the coach’s choice of stationery is a factor in this case, but to the NCAA and its cabal of lawyers, it only strengthens the case that Lute was acting as an agent of the program as a whole. Why is that important? It’s one more reason why Arizona can’t escape the sanctions that come down (if any do, mind you) as a result of the investigation.
One factor may be the money that does (or doesn’t) go to any player. Unless the NCAA can show any of these UA athletes actually receiving any financial assistance to go to the tournament, then the matter of student eligibility goes to the wayside:
UA’s self-report noted that, according to NCAA bylaw 13.15, eligibility of a student-athlete shall not be affected if the value received was $100 or less. The UA also said it was only a lower-level infraction because it did not involve a specific prospective player and that [Jim] Storey said he had “zero response” from those who received the letter.
So yes, the students may be in the clear, but the fact that the efforts took place at all means the program will probably face some trouble.
One last point to make: it seems increasingly likely that the link between “fan network” sites, like the RIVALS.COM and SCOUT.COM affiliates, are getting to be far too close to the athletic programs they cover than the NCAA would (or should) like. While GOAZCATS.COM, Arizona’s Rivals affiliate, purports itself as the “totally unofficial UofA fan site,” the truth probably isn’t that simple. Storey, the founder of GoAZCats.com, is also the head organizer of the tournament for which Olson “allegedly” tried to raise money. Olson also introduced Storey at a boosters club meeting last year, then left as Storey began fundraising efforts for the University. We’re not compliance experts here at SbB, but we are pretty sure that this sort of business won’t be ignored once the NCAA launches the investigation.