We spoke on the eve of March Madness in 2001, during one of the most difficult and rewarding basketball seasons of the 34 he spent as a Division I head coach. Lute Olson was 67 then, not quite two months removed from perhaps the most difficult episode of his life: the death of his wife, Bobbi, from ovarian cancer. Perpetually so composed he seemed to have been assembled rather than born, this was one occasion when emotion naturally slipped from his control.
“Being busy is so critical at this point. And in this job, it seems like you’re busy all the time,” Olson said, his voice cracking periodically. “It’s been good therapy just to have a lot of work to do.”
This was not the Lute Olson we will remember now that he has left us, passing away late Thursday at age 85. We tend to remember the familiar, and in the picture we’ll retain of him, he best can be described as regal: uncommonly tall, impeccably dressed, impossibly handsome. That did not change during his retirement years, when he remarried and became a courtside fixture at Wildcats home games.
“His shirt was never wrinkled. Even in practice,” Josh Pastner told Sporting News. “On the staff, we all had to have our shirts tucked in, because that was his way.
“The entire time I was there with him, he never said a curse word. Never said a curse word to officials. There could be no foul language in his gym. The way he commanded respect from the players without ever using a bad word was amazing.”
Head coach of Arizona’s 1997 NCAA championship team, a Final Four entrant on four other occasions, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame, owner of a 780-280 record, conference champion in the Big Ten and Pac-10, there was little Olson did not accomplish as a college basketball coach and few honors he did not attain.
Pastner, now the head coach at Georgia Tech and both a player and coach under Olson between 1996 and 2008, insists Olson still is underrated. Because unlike many of the most respected and honored coaches in the game, he achieved his greatest success at a program with no established basketball tradition and a meager regional talent base from which to draw.
Arizona joined the Pac-10 only five years earlier, making the significant step upward from the Western Athletic Conference. As members of the WAC, and before that the Border Conference, Arizona had been to the NCAA Tournament three times. Period. Olson matched that by his fourth season, part of a run of 25 consecutive NCAA appearances. Olson was in charge for the first 23 of those.
At Iowa, Olson inherited a program that had gone 41-55 in the previous four seasons and won 20 games by year three, returned to the NCAAs in year five and then made the tournament in each of his last five seasons. His 1980 team reached the Final Four and might have won the title but for the fact that its best player, guard Ronnie Lester, injured his knee in the national semifinals.
“He didn’t take over something that was already moving,” Pastner told SN. “He built two programs literally from scratch. I don’t think people realize how much the did for Tucson as a city and the state of Arizona. He pretty much put Tucson, the whole city, on the map. He elevated the city. Everybody knew that cactus logo on the court at the McKale Center.
“Around the state, he was kind of like one of the Beatles. The way he carried himself, he was like a movie star.”
During his time at Arizona, Olson had 14 McDonald’s All-Americans play for him, but there were so many other prospects he noticed who were not as highly regarded but became major stars. He had 34 Wildcats players chosen in the NBA Draft, including such lightly regarded prep prospects as: Steve Kerr (who started at point guard for the Wildcats’ 1988 Final Four team and won five NBA titles as a player); Channing Frye (No. 87 in the high school class of 2001, played 12 years in the NBA and won a championship); Jordan Hill (3-star prospect, played eight NBA seasons) and Gilbert Arenas, (No. 99 prospect in 2002, a three-time NBA All-Star).
“I think he’s the best ever at evaluation of talent,” Pastner said. “He never got involved in recruiting rankings. He believed his own eyes.
“I really believe he was the best practice coach. When he was in Long Beach, he used to go to John Wooden’s practices. If you watched his teams early in the season, you could see how prepared they were. Everything was about being fundamentally sound.”
My first personal encounter with Olson was, indeed, early in the season. My first real college basketball assignment was covering the Duquesne Dukes for The Pittsburgh Press in the 1987-88 season, and they opened that year at the Great Alaska Shootout against Olson’s Wildcats.
All the entrants were invited to a Thanksgiving night party, and the coaches made short speeches about their teams. I remember the Duquesne coaches thinking Olson came off as, shall we say, exceedingly confident about his Wildcats. The next night, Arizona beat the Dukes, 133-78. Led by Kerr and all-time great Sean Elliott, the Wildcats were exceptionally prepared for the start of that season. And they ended it in the Final Four.
That was the year in which Lute Olson’s Arizona legend began. It will endure into the future, though he is gone now.