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Debate!: Who you got? Lute Olson or Jim Calhoun

Sep 14, 2012, 11:05 AM EDT

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In 2008, Lute Olson retired from coaching at the ripe old age of 74, having spent the past 25 years taking Arizona from a West Coast afterthought and turning them into a national championship program that was a mainstay in the top 25 through the majority of his tenure. Just four years later, Jim Calhoun retired from UConn having built the Huskies into one of the nation’s premier basketball programs when no one believed it could be. 

Both Calhoun and Olson single-handedly built programs from the ground up and turned them into national players in locations where basketball wasn’t a priority. But here’s the question of the hour: who was more impressive? Whose is the better “program builder”? Raphielle and I will now do our best sports bar impression and argue this out. Hopefully, things stay peaceful. 

Rob: UConn basketball was nothing prior to Jim Calhoun arriving on campus from Northeastern in 1986. In their seven seasons in the Big East up to that point, UConn had managed to make just a single NCAA tournament and, when Calhoun was hired, were coming off of 9-19 season. Within four years, Calhoun had managed to win the NIT, take home the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and advance to within a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from the Final Four. As of his Thursday retirement, UConn had won 10 regular season conference titles, seven conference tournament titles, made four Final Fours and taken home three national championships. Those 25 years are packed with more history and tradition than all but a handful of programs have managed to put together since James Naismith invented the sport.

Raphielle: When Lute Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983 the Wildcats were just five years removed from joining the then-Pac-10, and it would be an understatement to say that the Wildcats he found weren’t equipped to be a factor in the conference. That changed quickly. He took a team that won four games with little talent and pushed them to 11 in his first campaign, and from that point forward Olson would fail to reach 20 wins in a season just twice: 1986-87 and 2007-08. Like Calhoun with Bridgeport’s Chris Smith, Olson’s most important recruiting victory early on was keeping Tucson native Sean Elliott in the Old Pueblo. By the time Elliott was a junior (Olson’s fifth season) the Wildcats were in their first Final Four. From that point forward it was almost as if Olson ran a conveyer belt from McKale Center to the NBA, and a number of those players had a tangible impact at the next level. Olson won 608 games in his 25 seasons at Arizona, which works out to an average of 24 wins per season (24.3 to be exact), 11 Pac-10 championships, five Final Four appearances and a national title in 1997. And we can’t gloss over him taking the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances (yes 1999 was vacated but that’s a bit silly) either.

Rob: I’ll give you consistency. The fact that Olson was able to get Arizona to 23 straight NCAA tournaments is downright mystifying. Calhoun had some ugly season mixed in with his national titles. But the key word in that sentence is “titles”. Plural. Calhoun won three of them, and while there may be some element of luck when it comes to his 3-0 record in national title games, the fact of the matter is that Calhoun was able to capitalize when he had the talent on his roster.

And while Olson’s track record of getting players to the NBA is inarguable, it’s not like Calhoun was winning with future all-Euroleague players. He sent just as many players to the next level. What’s most impressive about Calhoun’s pros is that there weren’t many that entered the program as guaranteed lottery picks. Andre Drummond was a pro, everyone knew that. The same with Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva. But Jeremy Lamb wasn’t a top 10 recruit. Ray Allen was overlooked coming out of high school, and he went on to become the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Emeka Okafor chose UConn over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and went on to become national player of the year and the No. 2 pick. Ben Gordon was the No. 3 pick that year, and he was closer to a top 50 recruit than he was a guaranteed NBA all-star.

Raphielle: Oh here we go with the “titles” talk. Yes titles are important, there’s no denying that. But let me ask you something: which power forward are you taking, Robert Horry (7 titles) or Charles Barkley (0 titles)? There’s the flaw in that argument, because winning a championship involves a certain level of luck in addition to skill. Were there a few forgettable “one and done” trips for Olson? Yes, but to get your team to the tournament for 23 straight years is a major achievement. And in those 23 trips the Wildcats’ average seed was a 4-seed (4.4 to be exact).

As for the NBA talent we can argue that one all night as both programs have sent many players to the NBA to not just occupy a roster space but make things happen. But which school is known as “Point Guard U”? I’ve got love for Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best but we’re not talking Georgia Tech here. That would be Arizona, with players such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner have run the show at one point or another. When it comes to “unexpected” pros, how many thought Gilbert Arenas would become what he was (pre-idiotic gun incident) when he was in high school? And he’s got a nice list of off-guards/wings when looking at players such as Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala and Miles Simon (just to name three).

Rob: The Robert Horry-Charles Barkley comparison isn’t fair. Players are much different than coaches. The better comparison, in my opinion, would be who would you rather have coaching your team in the NBA: Pat Riley or Lenny Wilkens?

There’s no denying Olson’s success with point guards (can’t believe you didn’t mention Kenny Lofton in with that group). That also just so happens to be the only position where UConn doesn’t have a storied history when it comes to producing NBA players.

Thus far, we’ve determined that Olson was really good at putting together teams that earned four seeds and sent point guards to the NBA while Calhoun could develop off-guards, wings and big men while building teams that won titles. That right?

Raphielle: Pat Riley was the epitome of smooth, so I’ll give you that argument. I didn’t mention Lofton because he went pro in baseball; I’d think that his raw athleticism (didn’t play baseball until his junior year and ended up getting drafted despite limited PT) had more to do with that.

And I notice that you conveniently left out Olson’s title in your wrapping up of the discussion. That suddenly not count? Yes Calhoun has more, that’s been established, but do we really just say “well Lute produced point guards and 4-seeds”? Winning titles is about luck in another aspect: recruiting. If your school produces guards at a higher rate it’s going to be tougher land the elite big men that generally win titles at the college level (Duke 2010 being the most recent exception). Just ask Villanova’s 2006 team what happened when they ran into Joakim Noah, Al Horford and company. But back to Arizona, in the Final Four trips they lost the Wildcats ran into Stacey King (1988), Corliss Williamson (1994) and Carlos Boozer (2001). Those great big men at the pro level? Hell no, but they were damn good in college. All I’m saying is that in a one-and-done scenario you have to be careful to completely gloss over how much of a crapshoot the tournament is.

Rob: Changing gears a bit, the most interesting part about the debate between Calhoun vs. Olson is how similar their exits were. Both found themselves caught up in NCAA red tape (Calhoun because of Nate Miles and the APR, Olson because of the Cactus Classic) while battling health issues, which eventually became too much and resulted in a September retirement.

The difference, however, is that UConn ended up with Calhoun’s “coach-in-waiting” — Kevin Ollie — getting a chance at the job, while Mike Dunlap couldn’t work things out with the Arizona brass to take over for Olson. It worked out for the Wildcats, however, as their interim coach led them to the Sweet 16 (quite Olson-esque, eh?) before Sean Miller took over and became arguably the best recruiter in the country this side of Coach Cal.

More institutional pull = better coach, right?

Raphielle: Yeah but Calhoun also finished out “in his office” so to speak, so I wouldn’t be so quick to make that correlation. More difficult to have a say when you’re not around on a consistent basis. That led to Olson not getting his wish of Dunlap being the man more than anything. Arizona mishandled that situation for three years and frankly lucked out that Sean Miller was available (oh, he landed Rondae Jefferson today). And Ollie got a 1-year contract, which while it’s something that he’s more than used to given his NBA career it’s not the best situation to have on the recruiting trail. So sure Calhoun “won” in getting his guy the job, but we’re really not going to know how big of a win it is until next March when their season ends and Ollie is evaluated.

So who’s got the “juice”? Guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one.