How MTXE almost didn’t happen

A 1978 Wichita Eagle story about the hiring of basketball coach Gene Smithson, part of our Shocker Summer nostalgia series, contained this passage:

Smithson, who was named Monday, was not among the 108 candidates that the Wichita State search committee worked with. Smithson said WSU contacted him for the first time Saturday. That would be hours after Bill Olsen, Louisville assistant, caught a plane back home to Louisville after spending the night in Wichita. Olsen’s departure came only four hours before a press conference scheduled to announce his acceptance of the job.

Bill Olsen?

That episode is a bit of Shocker history that escaped many. Smithson, of course, recruited some of the greatest Shockers and ushered in a landmark era, albeit one marred by NCAA probation.

It almost didn’t happen that way. What happened with Olsen?

Olsen, now retired, remembers Wichita fondly and was set to take the job, one he grew familiar with when Louisville and WSU played in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“It was one of the great places to go,” he said Thursday in a phone interview. “It was always packed and sold out. I thought there was great potential there.”

Olsen interviewed on campus and returned to Louisville, where he made a list of concerns for athletic director Ted Bredehoft to address, preferably in writing. Olsen, perhaps before most, saw Levitt Arena as an aging facility in need of an upgrade. He found the arena lighting poor and the lack of practice space troubling. He said Harry Miller, fired after the 1978 season, told him players had to live out of their gym bags and practice at other gyms in the fall (although Olsen wasn’t sure what activities took over Levitt, and in those days men’s basketball overwhelmingly out-ranked women’s sports).

Olsen sent WSU sports information director Joe Yates to check out an on-campus gym, presumably Henrion, as a practice site. Yates, Olsen said, measured the floor and reported it was too short for a college team.

“We were used to Freedom Hall, which was a great basketball facility,” Olsen said.

Olsen was offered the job and he returned to Wichita in early April 1978 intending to sign a contract. His salary, with TV and radio bonuses, would be around $50,000, more than Louisville coach Denny Crum made. But when he got off the plane, Bredehoft was nowhere to be found. Olsen checked into the Wichita Royale, under a fake name, and waited. He talked to Bredehoft the next day, and said the answers to concerns about Levitt Arena didn’t satisfy him.

“I did not feel comfortable taking a job when the AD did not meet with me the night before I was to sign a contract,” Olsen said.

So Olsen booked a flight back to Louisville. Three days later, WSU hired Smithson. Olsen, who started as an assistant at Louisville in 1969, became athletic director in 1980 and held that job until 1997.

While he never reached his dream of becoming a head coach, Olsen and his family happily stayed in Louisville. He helped Crum coach the Cardinals to an NCAA title in 1980 and oversaw another in 1986. He hired football coach Howard Schnellenberger in 1985, starting Louisville on its path to the ACC.

“It turned out well for us,” he said.