Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Arizona's Twin Tragedies

October has been a cruel month for a broad range of people. But it has been particularly brutal for those of us who live in Tucson, Arizona.

We have participated fully in the worldwide stock market meltdown which has come on top of major problems in the real estate market which have hit our Sun Belt city pretty hard. Virtually nothing is manufactured in Tucson. Many of the people who have made money here have made it in real estate as the population has exploded from 250,000 to more than a million residents in just 40 years.

But for many in southern Arizona, twin insults have been added to injury in a major way.

First, our own John McCain has seen what once was a close presidential election turn into a landslide victory for the other guy. Now the polls show that Obama is not only winning all the toss-up states, he might even carry Arizona as well.

Second, our own Lute Olson who brought a national championship to Tucson and put the University of Arizona basketball program on the map suddenly announced his retirement from coaching just a couple of weeks before the season is about to begin.

There is a sad similarity to the way in which these stories have played out over the last year.

In the first place, each of these men is in his 70s and they are somewhat similar in appearance with distinctive white hair that each has had for a very long time.

But what is truly striking is that each of them spent their entire lives in the service of others and earned the admiration and adoration of thousands of people for their accomplishments.

John McCain was a true American hero who had earned the respect of millions of people for his heroism and public service. Lute Olsen was the most loved and respected sports figure I have ever known. Over a 25 year period, he brought the U. of A. basketball program from the outhouse to the penthouse. His team won the NCAA basketball championship in 1997 and over a 15 year period the Wildcats were a perpetual contender.

He and his late wife Bobbi became local legends in Tucson known for their warmth and civic-minded community service.

In short these are two men who became deservedly known throughout Arizona and the country for their great abilities, competence, and values.

That's what makes the events of the last year so tragic. And there seems to be a spooky and instructive set of similarities to the story lines.

The McCain situation is pretty well known by now. He came from way behind to win the Republican nomination. In May, he staked out the moral high ground promising to run a clean campaign. His theme was that he had a history of putting Country First and that he had the experience and the temperament to be president and commander in chief on Day One.

But, as we all know, McCain lost his way. He made a series of decisions that flew in the face of his principles and now he is in a position to not only lose the election but to lose his legacy.

Instead of being remembered as war hero and a maverick, he will be remembered as a confused and angry old man wandering around the stage during the debates and for picking the least experienced, least "Ready on Day One" running mate in history.

Lute also has lost his way. When I moved to Tucson seven years ago, a good year for U. of A. basketball was measured by whether they reached the Final Four. A couple years later, it was measured by whether they made the Sweet Sixteen. For the last two years, it has been measured by whether they made the NCAA tournament at all. The program has clearly been in decline.

Like McCain, Olson always claimed that he would put the interests of the program ahead of his own private agenda. But a year ago,a couple weeks into the basketball season, he suddenly announced that he needed to take a leave of absence and he put an assistant coach in charge of the team. No details were given other than to assure people that the leave had nothing to do with his health.

Against all odds, the team made the NCAA tournament. Then, a week before the tournament, Olson announced that his problems WERE health related but that he would be coming back next year.

The team lost recruits and had a hard time retaining some of their current players but Lute assured them and us that things would be fine. Now, a week before the start of this year's season, Lute has announced his retirement effective immediately--for health reasons.

More recruits have already walked away and it is clear that the program will have to rebuild itself from square one.

One man is in the sports world and the other is in politics. But their situations are sadly connected in that they both show how quickly a lifetime of good work and a great legacy can be destroyed when people get let their selfish desires to overwhelm the greater good.

It is not Olson's fault that he got sick and McCain is not to blame for running into the Obama juggernaut.

But each man seemed to lose his compass. Each of them developed a sense of entitlement due to their seniority and feeling of being above the constraints that mere mortals have to deal with. And now each will be remembered as much for the way in which they limped off the field long after their prime had passed and dragged thousands--or millions--of people who were counting on them down with them. That's sad because each of them has accomplished so much and deserved better.

I'm sure my mother told me many wise things over the years. Somehow I don't remember most of them. But one that has stuck in my mind forever is that you should leave the party while you're still having a good time.

After watching the sad story lines of Lute Olson and John McCain unfold this year, I would expand that advice to include everyone else who is at the party. If you hang around and are still having a good time but you're making everyone around you miserable then you stayed too long.


Baseball Observer said...

You are just full of it Larry Gellman. Lute didn't lose his way, being human caught up with him, but hopefully he will recover and have many happy years ahead. McCain may have dropped some clunkers, but picking Sarah Palin was not one of them. To the contrary, it was a brilliant move that revitalized the Republican party. It may not pay off this year for McCain, but ultimately it may have saved the party. McCain will do just fine with his beautiful loving wife, family, and 7 or 8 homes.
Finally, the Wildcats will begin a new era, and if Dunlap ends up becoming their coach, you will see several final fours in the near future. That guy is a genius at getting the most out of players and finding guys that will excel in his system.
I'm looking for great things for Lute, John, and the 'Cats. The future is so bright....

Larry Gellman said...

I hope you are right but I fear you are mistaken at least about their legacies.

No doubt McCain will be wealthy and comfortable but I believe he has tarnished his enduring reputation with some of his choices and behavior during this campaign.

I am more critical of Lute. For the last couple years he was clearly aware that the quality of both his health and his teams were deteriorating.

In his job, the ability to recruit 14 and 15 year old kids is the key. His recruiting and coaching have clearly slipped over a number of years. The right thing to do would have been to make sure there was a good transition to a next high quality coach. He never went that way. All his actions lately have been to preserve his rights to stay as long as he wanted. Now this year's team and the whole program are stuck in a very bad position that could have been avoided.

Part of that was due to bad luck, but part of it was due to bad judgment.

Once again, I fear the legacy will suffer.

Anonymous said...

Thee are wealthy people in Arizona who do not now, and never have, owned real estate.

Larry Gellman said...

That's fair and true. I made the change.

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