Cats hope for Olson-like success in FB successor

Twenty years ago, Arizona endured Ben Lindsey, and then replaced him with Lute Olson. Sunday, UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood pulled the trigger on the football version of the same thing.

There are those who believe that without Lindsey, there would be no Lute. Olson actually turned down the UA job the first time it was offered. He accepted the position when then Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey snuffed the disastrous Lindsay tenure after one season.

It took Livengood two and a half years to do the same thing. While on the surface, an overall record of 10-18 doesn't seem as bad as Lindsey's terrible 4-24 tally, the John Mackovic era at Arizona managed to take the program into a heretofore uncharted spiral.

When Mackovic was trotted to the masses on December 4, 2000, the ever-positive Livengood said, "John Mackovic is exactly what the University of Arizona needs right now in our football program, in our university, in our athletic department, in Tucson and in Arizona. All you have to do is look at his background, his record, and he's been successful and won every place he's been. And he's done it the right way; there have been no shortcuts."

In my opinion, at that time, Livengood wanted two people: the anti-Dick Tomey and the Olson of Arizona football. At the time, Tomey had so polarized the community that a change probably needed to be made. So Livengood opted for a man who presented himself with suit and tie. He opted for a man who had a reputation as an offensive mastermind. But he also opted for a man who happened to be aloof and downright condescending. I believe what he never anticipated was the loyalty Tomey's players held for their befallen coach. He also couldn't have anticipated that Mackovic would alienate those players almost immediately.

Wildcat football has been a national laughing stock since the player revolt in November, but problems could be traced to Mackovic's initial season. For me, the date of destiny was October 13 in Corvallis. Arizona got completely mauled by Oregon State. So what? Arizona's been mauled before. But the UA appeared to so obviously have thrown in the towel that it seemed to reflect the first of many bad omens to come.

Omens that went far beyond just rubbing players the wrong way. Arizona football slipped from consistently frustrating competitor to doormat in shockingly rapid time. And the reasons are seemingly endless. Two poor recruiting classes—Tomey's last and Mackovic's first—that really set things back. An amazing array of injuries. Some reports suggest Arizona lost two dozen potentially eligible linemen over the course of the last five seasons. You can't win with those kinds of odds. An ineffective offense. An uninspired defense. Brutal special teams play. An inability to relate to players.

Only one word could sum up Arizona's problems: Everything.

He was Captain Bligh in year two, and like Bligh, somehow managed to stay afloat, to fight another day. And damn if he didn't rally the troops to knock off Cal in the only bright spot of an otherwise dreary season.

But there was no troop rallying in his short-lived third campaign. In the preseason, Arizona was picked to finish 10th in the conference, and after one week of hope in an opening season rout of UTEP, it spent the rest of September playing like the league's only sure bet. Ironically, the UA played hard in its overtime loss to TCU Saturday, but by that time the inevitable was clear. Rapidly dwindling attendance, mass fan apathy and two straight TV blowouts had taken its toll. If was no longer an option. The question was when.

Livengood answered that inquiry Sunday. Far beyond his $900,000 buyout, Mackovic had become a drain to the program. And with no real hope in sight, Livengood had to pull the plug.

The timing seems odd, and it went against Livengood's own philosophy of waiting until the end of the year to evaluate the situation, but while unconventional, it could be a benefit for the program as a whole. It's a job many up-and-comers might consider. Good school, good location, good weather, top-flight conference, new facilities, desire to succeed, an Athletic Director with a reputation for patience.

But there are drawbacks too. Apathy toward Arizona football is at an all-time low level. Fans gave Mackovic a chance for about 15 games. Interim coach Mike Hankwitz has a reprieve for the remainder of the season. After LSU, Oregon and Purdue, there's no way it can get worse.

But Arizona desperately wants a winner. It wants to be taken to new heights. It wants the stigma of the Rose Bowl lifted once and for all. But it won't wait forever.

Livengood will get one more shot to make it right. He has to get it right. Already, Livengood has hired and fired the Ben Lindsey of Arizona football. Now he needs to find its Lute Olson. Or more accurately, he needs to find someone who can be his own man. The man who can bring the program out of the shadow of men's basketball, and out of the shadow of the Pac-10.

If he thinks it's been tense so far, imagine what lies ahead. For Livengood, the stress has just begun. He can't afford to get it wrong this time. And neither can the university.

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