Recently retired Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Lute Olson had a stroke, probably within the past year, his doctor said Tuesday.
An MRI exam, or brain scan, taken Monday discovered the stroke, said Olson's personal physician, Steven D. Knope. It hit the frontal lobe, but only affected some decision-making functions and not motor skills, Knope said.
Olson, 74, has also suffered from atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm, for eight years. Although that condition has not been dangerous enough to take Olson off the job, Knope said, it could have produced a blood clot that prompted the stroke. Strokes occur when blood fails to reach a portion of the brain.
Knope said he advised Olson to retire before last week "to take care of health concerns," saying he noticed Olson's changes in behavior and trouble handling his increasing workload as the basketball season drew near.
"I think everyone understands an illness like a stroke simply made it medically impossible" to coach, Knope said. "And for that reason, we obviously had no choice but to advise him to step down."
However, the MRI that confirmed the stroke was not taken until four days after Olson retired.
About 780,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year, according to the American Stroke Association. Olson's case is not unusual, according to James C. Grotta, chairman of the neurology department at the University of Texas medical school in Houston.
Grotta estimates 20 or 25 percent of people in Olson's age group likely have a lesion on their brain that was caused by a stroke.
While obvious signs of a stroke include partial paralysis, weakness, slurred speech or impaired vision, strokes in the frontal lobe can be "more subtle," because it takes longer to detect a personality change, said Robert P. Goldfarb, a consultant in neurosurgery for both Western Neurosurgery LTD and Carondelet Neurological Institute.
Goldfarb, speaking generally and not about Olson's case, said frontal-lobe stroke patients often exhibit behavioral changes.
"Somebody who's usually pretty logical might have poor judgment or poor insight into certain things," he said. "They may be easily distracted, or have some impulsive type of behavior."
Grotta said the magnitude of the personality change makes it easier to detect a problem.
"If it gets to the point where it's interfering with one's social interactions and it hadn't before, that's more than just a little personality change," he said.
After 24 seasons as men's basketball coach, Olson cited "stress and anxiety" after taking a season-long leave of absence. During that time, he went through a divorce from his second wife, Christine Olson, but Knope said that did not cause the stroke.
"He had a stroke in the frontal part of his brain that has resulted in some severe depression as well as some changes in judgment that, in retrospect, probably didn't appear for several months," Knope said.
Olson said during his preseason media day Oct.21 that he felt more "energized" than at this time last season, but retired two days later.
On Sunday, Knope said Olson took a "mental status exam," a series of questions that test how well the brain is working. He scored almost perfectly, Knope said.
"You can have seemingly normal function in many areas, yet when you look at the pressures imposed by coaching a basketball team, there's something called executive function and being able to put together pieces. It became clear he was having difficulty with that. He knew something was wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it," Knope sad.
Olson did not attend Tuesday's news conference, and Knope said the three family members who did attend - daughters Jody Brase and Christi Snyder and grandson Matt Brase - would not comment.
Reached at her Tucson home, Christine Olson said she did not understand why Knope did not order an MRI before this week, saying she told divorce attorneys throughout their proceedings that the divorce should not happen because Lute Olson had changed.
"I contended all along that the man I married was not the same," Christine Olson said. "Now it explains what happened, and it's very unfortunate."
"Thoughts and prayers go out to Lute and his family for an incredibly speedy recovery and the quality of life he deserves," Livengood said.
Interim head coach Russ Pennell said "We miss Lute" in a statement.
"The Arizona basketball family will always support him," Pennell said.
"Today's news, as odd as this may sound, is comforting only in that he now knows what he's up against as he works to return to good health," Knope said.