The tumultuous few years in which Hall of Famer Lute Olson approached retirement offered a glimpse into the future of Arizona basketball were the university athletic department to botch hiring his replacement.
Sean Miller’s on-court success since becoming Olson’s successor in 2009 may have only delayed that bleak future, if not exacerbated it. If the implication of assistant Book Richardson in Tuesday’s FBI arrests beget severe NCAA sanctions for Arizona basketball, the mid-to-late 2000s might even be a high-water mark for the program’s future. Wildcat faithful would need to look West to a former rival for the program’s likely fate.
As a child of the ’90s, I was first introduced to college basketball at the tail-end of UNLV’s run as a nationally prominent program. I was eight years old when I watched the 1991 Runnin’ Rebels — arguably the greatest team ever to not win a national championship — lose in the Final Four to Duke. It was a transition of power, with Duke taking the first step toward becoming a blue-blood program, and the beginning of the end for UNLV.
UNLV was a program, like Arizona before Miller, that owed its entire identity to one coach; one regime. The topic of blue bloods is a frequent one every college basketball season, and one of the unofficial criteria that I hold is a program’s ability to maintain success and relevance beyond a single coach.
North Carolina qualifies. Kentucky qualifies. Though Duke and Mike Krzyzewski are synonymous, the Blue Devils’ success under Vic Bubas in the 1960s and the solid footing the program should enjoy once Coach K retires means that Duke qualifies.
If Louisville doesn’t qualify as a blue blood, the Cardinals are close enough that the program can weather the storm if the NCAA comes down hard on Rick Pitino for its involvement in Tuesday’s findings.
Arizona basketball may not be so equipped. UNLV certainly wasn’t once it was removed from the individual responsible for the program’s prominence.
Under Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV reached four Final Fours in 14 years. The Runnin’ Rebels jockeyed for prominence in the West with Arizona, putting Tarkanian and Olson at odds at times.
Las Vegas became a college basketball hotbed, with games at the Thomas & Mack Center emanating the same festive atmosphere as a Cirque du Soleil production on The Strip.
More than a quarter-century after members of the ’91 Runnin’ Rebels were photographed in a jacuzzi alongside Richie “The Fixer” Perry, UNLV never recaptured that same aura. Yes, Lon Kruger restored UNLV basketball to a competitive level in the late 2000s, but the Runnin’ Rebels were effectively done as members of college basketball’s elite. A seat at a UNLV basketball game is hardly the toughest ticket to come by in Sin City.
Arizona basketball’s built its own rabid fan base since the 1980s akin to UNLV under Tark The Shark. The crowd’s different — Tucson lacks the glitz of Las Vegas — but McKale Center is the most difficult place to get a seat in the Southwest. That’s a direct result of the success established in the Olson years; Arizona doesn’t have the most rabid fan base in general. One need only look across Enke Drive to Arizona Stadium, where at the first sign of struggles, attendance for Wildcat football games plummet.
The UA football team drew its lowest home crowd in 20 years last Friday against a Top 25-ranked Utah Utes team. Arizona basketball would not be spared a similar fate if the wins stopped coming. And without a nationwide recruiting base, the wins would dry up.
Now, Doomsday hasn’t arrived for Arizona basketball. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander offers a concise breakdown, which includes U.S. Attorney General Joon Kim’s declaration schools weren’t necessarily liable for Tuesday’s revelations. But after FBI raids of ASM Sports, and more findings for the Justice Department still to reveal, the coming days, weeks, months might determine the long-term future of a currently top-tier program.