Tough to tell who’s in charge at Arizona - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Tough to tell who’s in charge at Arizona

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Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2008 8:33 pm | Updated: 8:50 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

One by one, Jim Livengood watches as his Pac-10 athletic director colleagues are bumped off for sins great and small.

Two months ago, Washington’s Todd Turner was let go for a “philosophical disconnect,’’ but in reality he was jettisoned because the school did not think he could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate Husky Stadium.

A year ago, a “mutual agreement’’ led to the departure of Oregon’s Bill Moos. Less agreeable, Moos was forced out because he could not co-exist with the school’s mega-money man, Nike founder Phil Knight.

In 2004, Cal’s Steve Gladstone announced he was leaving his athletic directorship after a bare three years. “At heart, I’m a coach,’’ he said. Cal eagerly allowed Gladstone to become the Bears’ crew coach.

I’m not sure any of those transactions had more potential volatility than dealing with Lute Olson’s bizarre leave of absence and the clumsiness Monday of his announced return next season.

If nothing else, Livengood carries on, a survivor in an industry of transience.

Since entering the Pac-10 as Washington State’s athletic director in 1988 (he was hired at Arizona in 1994) Livengood has outlasted 27 athletic directors. Only a handful of those — Ced Dempsey, Mike Lude and Ted Leland among them — left in good standing and on their own terms.

Livengood’s survival skills have been remarkable.

In his 14 years at McKale Center, his position has rarely, if ever, been in peril. The hiring/firing of John Mackovic could have taken out a less established AD, but Livengood benefited from a kinship with former UA President Peter Likins.

On the day Livengood told admired football coach Dick Tomey he was going to be relieved of his duties, it was not a maverick or impulsive move. Likins was sitting on the sofa in Livengood’s office that day, face to face with Tomey, supporting the transaction.

They went into the Mackovic business together. It is an AD’s survival technique to remember.

Not until Olson took his controversial leave of absence in November and the UA’s signature sports program openly foundered had Livengood been in a position to have his power tested in public view.

Who was in charge, anyway? Lute or Livengood?

It further became awkward and messy when Olson released the departure news through a public relations agency, not through the school, and on Monday when Olson announced he was returning but was a no-show for the press conference.

Instead, interim head coach Kevin O’Neill was placed in front of the TV lights and could not pretend to have any answers.

Any other school would have assembled the principals — Olson, Livengood and O’Neill — for one central news conference and been done with it. A united front. End of story.

Instead, the Garbo-esque Olson remains out of touch, except perhaps, by courier pigeon. Who’s in charge? At Arizona, it is still a four- letter word: L-u-t-e.

Behind the scenes, there has been great speculation that Livengood would insist that Olson retire, accept a contract buyout and transition into becoming a university ambassador.

Unless Livengood writes his memoirs in 10 or 20 years, we’re never going to get a forthright answer about that speculation. Ordering the 73-year-old Olson to retire would have required the public support of UA president Robert Shelton, or, barring that, the assistance of a university vice president or two.

The speculation ended last week when Shelton said, “Jim Livengood is the key point person on this. I try not to get between the lines of command.”

That was code for “Lute will decide.’’

It must be said that the sloppy handling of Olson’s leave of absence — in which he was not absent much at all — and the comical presentation of his announced return were not the result of Livengood’s inattention or lack of preparation.

The first part was that Olson did not follow the proper channels of procedure.

The second part was that Livengood has spent much of the last few weeks in Quincy, Wash., near his hometown. His 85-year-old mother, Bette, is desperately ill, and Livengood is the sole remaining survivor of his immediate family. (His father, Don, died last spring. His only sibling, Jerry, was killed while in college 45 years ago.) Livengood has made the 10-hour trip to and from Quincy several times to be in his mother’s hospital room. On Saturday, hospital officials placed Bette Livengood in the “DNR’’ category — do not resuscitate.

Remarkably, she has recovered enough to go home.

Livengood left Quincy about noon Monday and was somewhere between Spokane and Salt Lake City when O’Neill essentially said he didn’t know what the future held for him or UA basketball.

On Tuesday, Livengood was back in his office. He said he expects Olson will be able to “fully execute all duties’’ and that he’s on board and “excited for next season.”

There will be no great showdown. Olson, too, has been resuscitated.

The next trick will be to see if he can do the same for his once-great basketball program.

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