Friday, March 25, 2005

A Night for the Aged

Originally published on AOL Hometown

I hate to see missed opportunities, and I saw a big one last night during the first night of the men's NCAA basketball tournament Sweet 16 games. I’m not referring to Oklahoma State's John Lucas, who missed a potential game winning shot at the buzzer vs. Arizona. No, I’m thinking of sponsorships.

Where was Geritol, or Metamucil, or Wilford Brimley extolling the virtues of Quaker Oats Oatmeal? After all, the theme was age last night, and plenty of it. Prowling the sidelines without the aid of a walker were head coaches 64-year old Bob Knight of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State’s 69-year old Eddie Sutton, and the dapper 70-year old Lute Olson of Arizona.

Anytime I watch Bob Knight coach, and the television cameras always make sure we catch his every gesture and utterance, I just feel the joy and fun sucked out of a game. When I see someone in a public forum, be it a speaker, an entertainer, an athlete, or a coach, I am drawn to someone who appears to enjoy what they are doing. I can not recall ever viewing Knight in that way.

As I see the General during the game, it appears as if he is fulfilling an obligation by coaching when he would rather be fishing. It also looks like he could use some Metamucil, but maybe that’s just me. The good folks at Indiana gave Knight the opportunity to go fishing in 2000, but he chose to continue his pursuit of Dean Smith’s career victory record and preaching the gospel of his way to play basketball to the unenlightened.

Knight demonstrated again this season that he is one of the great coaches in the game, taking his Red Raider team far beyond what their level of talent would lead you to believe they could achieve. I just find it difficult to root for a bully who would walk up to me and shake me down for my lunch money.
Sutton, on the other hand, seems to be a good ‘ol boy you could lean over the fence and talk to on a Saturday morning while you are doing yard work. It’s easy to picture him with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth telling tales and making you chuckle.

Don’t let that Eddie of Mayberry persona make you sleep on Sutton’s accomplishments though. He has led the Cowboys and Arkansas to the Final Four, and took Kentucky to the Elite Eight before being pushed toward the door in the wake of a recruiting scandal involving star Chris Mills. Early in his career, he took Creighton to the NCAA Tournament, making him one of only a handful of coaches to dance at four different schools.

After Oklahoma State was eliminated last night, Sutton indicated he would be back to coach the team next season, which promises to be a challenging one after losing six seniors from this year’s squad. The good news is that the assistant who is in charge of wiping the drool from Sutton’s face during the game will still have a job.
When I look at Arizona’s Lute Olson, I just hope I look as good as he does when I’m 70. Olson has been a bit cranky at times this year, complaining about his team, particularly star guard Salim Stoudamire, not receiving enough recognition from the “East Coast biased” media. The more I see Stoudamire play, the more I realize he might have a point, especially when Salim shook off a sub-par night to calmly drain the game winning shot last night. By the way, Salim, dude, your hair—shave it, braid it, trim it, just do something with it please. It might give you a couple extra inches on your vertical.

Of the three venerable coaches last night, Olson trumped the others by leading his team to a victory in a great game against a veteran Oklahoma State team. His career is a remarkable model of consistency. He built the Iowa program up to the point where they made five straight NCAA tournaments and reached the 1980 Final Four. Then, after taking a year to clean up the mess at Arizona, he has led the Wildcats to 21 consecutive NCAA appearances. The Cats have reached four Final Fours and won the 1997 National Championship.

After recently losing my wife, I have a special place in my heart for a man like Olson, who lost his beloved wife and partner Bobbi to cancer in January, 2001. Not only did he avoid falling apart, he returned to lead Arizona to the National Championship game that April, where they lost to Shane Battier’s Duke squad. I respected that accomplishment at the time, but having walked a few steps in his shoes myself, I now have a deep admiration for Olson. He had to deal with his loss in a very public forum yet still managed to not only keep himself together, he made sure his young players stayed focused enough to complete one of the best seasons in school history.

If I have to pick between two people to succeed, I’ll take the man with the inner strength and quiet grace over the playground bully any time. With Arizona’s win and Texas Tech’s loss, I found Thursday night to be a very satisfying night to watch basketball


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