Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Lute Olson is the Poker Face of college hoops

Tucson Citizen

TUCSON, Ariz. - He's as serious as serious gets and as stoic as ever. But that's how Lute Olson lives his life when he's on the basketball court. Mr. Poker Face.

While most everyone involved in Saturday's 96-95 double-overtime Arizona win couldn't control themselves in victory whooping and hollering in mass hysteria - including the fans - Olson just gave his usual shrug, quickly going to shake Gonzaga coach Mark Few's hand.

There was no dramatic fist pump, high jump or victory pose. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Anything else of course might be criminal to Olson, who prides himself on being a flat-liner when it comes to showing emotion publicly while on the court.

"My philosophy has always been that if the kids are going to maintain their poise and composure on the court, then they shouldn't see a raving maniac on the sidelines," he said. "On the other hand, if they get used to seeing that, it probably isn't a distraction to them."

Olson feels if the players see too much excitement or commotion from the coach, it'll rub off. This is the reason why he doesn't show it. On the interior, however, Olson is different.

"Like I've said, what shows on the exterior doesn't necessarily show what's going on," Olson said, just days before he and his team continue its journey in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. Arizona faces Notre Dame on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., in the Sweet 16. It's Arizona's seventh Sweet 16 appearance in 10 seasons and 10th under Olson.

"I feel our job as a staff is to make sure that we are there providing the adjustments that need to be done."

Even after all the adjustments have been made and the right things fell into place like they did over the weekend when Gonzaga's Blake Stepp missed the possible game-winner in double overtime? "I was happy to see that shot not fall," he said, with that ever-present straight face.

Arizona players are used to Olson being stoic. That's who he is. When he won his first and only NCAA title in 1997, it took Bennett Davison to muss Olson's always-perfect hair, providing the public with a seldom seen disheveled look. When he won his 500th game of his career on a 75-foot Miles Simon shot against Cincinnati in 1996, all Olson did was shrug. Win no. 600 was no different, beating Stanford here for the Pac-10 title in dramatic fashion in 2000.

"In any big game, or for any game for that matter, or big shot, I've never seen Lute do anything out of character," said Richard Paige, the team's sports information director.

Olson's players said the same, although they've seen him get emotional outside of games.

"He can get emotional in practice and with us," said Rick Anderson, the brunt of many Olson outbursts. "In games though, it's more of a sigh of relief."

Game instruction and getting on the referee withstanding (those are givens for a coach), he's very calm, Channing Frye said. "I think that calmness helps us out," Frye said.

"I've seen him get excited," said Jason Gardner, not recalling when that happened. "He's the captain of this ship and at times he doesn't show too many emotions. He's more of a business person; he's more about thinking about the next game."

Just as he did Saturday night after the Wildcats escaped with the win to advance. "He came into our locker room looking like we had just won by 15," Gardner said. "He was telling us the things we need to do so we won't have close games like that. I respect that. He's a Hall of Famer so..."

Then Frye remembers just recently when Olson showed a wide smile but it came off the court.

"He did smile when we found out he had a fianc»e," Frye said.

Olson promptly said, "Things like that" make him smile.

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