Lute Olson: The Mother-Approved Coach
Lute Olson of the University of Arizona is the kind of basketball coach a player would like to bring home to meet his mother.
Something about Olson inspires an unusual degree of trust. Perhaps it’s the home-grown Midwestern charisma he has used in luring good recruits to rejuvenate previously dismal programs at both Iowa and Arizona.
It’s really no mystery why the man is such a parent-pleaser. Olson enjoys discussing graduation rates as much as shooting percentages, with justifiable pride.
At Iowa, 93% of the players he recruited graduated. In 11 years at Iowa and Arizona, fewer than five of Olson’s approximately 40 recruits failed to graduate.
Olson, 50, has been described as clean-cut, straight-shooting, above-board and by-the-NCAA-rule book. He also makes a striking physical impression, a strapping 6-foot 4-inch figure with Paul Bunyan-sized hands and a head of ice-gray hair.
“Without making him out to be a mystical-type figure, it is the presence of the man,” said Jim Rosborough, a longtime Olson assistant and now a Tulsa assistant.
“You’re aware of him immediately when he walks into a room, probably the way your movie stars out there in Los Angeles command attention when they enter the room.
“As somebody said in Iowa years ago, if we could have recruited all the mothers who wanted to come, we would have had a great team.”
Laker guard Ronnie Lester, perhaps the best player to grace the Iowa court in the Olson era and a member of the Hawkeye team that went to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in 24 years in 1980, remembers his first impression of the coach.
“Coach Olson, he’s a pretty big guy,” Lester said. “When you first see him, you’re probably going to respect anybody that big.”
Recruiting and scouting have always been among Olson’s fortes--not just a part of the job, but almost a lifelong hobby. He rates basketball prospects the way a connoisseur would judge fine wines, going beyond the obvious surface qualities to test their character.
“He’s the hardest working coach I’ve ever been around, and I’ve seen nine or 10,” said Butch Henry, Arizona assistant athletic director. “No one even approaches the energy and time he spends recruiting.”
Olson says the upcoming crop from Southern California, members of the high school Class of 1986, will be the most exceptional recruiting vintage in more than a decade. He should know. He has sat through a staggering total of at least 200 high school games a year.
Olson developed a particular respect for Southern California players in the early days of his coaching career at three Orange County high schools, as well as Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach.
By no coincidence, his California connection has supplied 10 of 14 Wildcat players he has signed. Meanwhile, he was credited with acquiring two of the best groups of new players in the Pacific 10 in his two years at Arizona.
“Southern California is the main place we’ll look for players,” said Arizona assistant Coach Scott Thompson, a former Olson player and assistant at Iowa. “He has always felt there were good players over there.
“I think he feels at home in California. He really respects the coaches in Southern California because that’s where he formulated a lot of his coaching ideas.”
Olson came to California as an assistant at Western High School in Anaheim in 1962, guided Loara to an Orange League title in its first year of varsity competition, and spent five years building Marina into a Sunset League champion and power.
His Long Beach City College teams of 1969-73 went 104-22, won three Metropolitan Conference titles and a state championship. His only Cal State Long Beach team went 24-2 in 1973-74.
His local influence still stretches from Brea-Olinda, where Coach Gene Lloyd patterned his offense to Olson’s, to Katella, where Coach Tom Danley remains a friend and admirer of two decades, to Fountain Valley, where Coach Dave Brown did his student teaching under Olson’s guidance at Marina.
“This area has been very good to me in the past, and it continues to be good to us,” Olson said last weekend in a trip into Orange County to watch talent in summer leagues and camps.
“In fact, this year is a very good year here, one of the best years since that group that included Bill Cartwright, David Greenwood, Bill Laimbeer, Roy Hamilton and James Hardy (in 1975). And there’s not just quality, but quantity.”
Talent alone, however, never got anybody a spot on Olson’s roster.
“Too often college coaching tends to look at physical ability No. 1,” Olson said. “To me, the physical end of it is the most overrated.
“The players with great physical ability who don’t have the character or mental capabilities can be the worst kind because the alumni will look at all that talent and say, ‘Why in the world can’t you coach them?’ ”
Therefore, being chosen as one of Olson’s players is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for character and attitude.
Olson recruits players the way he would adopt a child into his family, except that instead of a copy of Dr. Spock, he carries the NCAA rule book when he goes to meet them.
Indeed, he refers to his basketball team as his family--one of his daughters actually married one of his players at Iowa--and his basketball family has yet to embarrass him, on the court or off.
“Lute does a lot of checking on the background of a kid before he ever goes to recruit him,” Henry said.
“If a kid has a questionable background, they won’t even mess with him. They will not recruit a questionable character, no matter what the basketball talent is.”
Said George Wine, Iowa sports information director: “Lute always got good people. His teams were kind of like family, and he was pretty good at screening out the bums.”
“Lute didn’t get caught up in seeing a good player with a bad reputation, and thinking he could change them. He never had any problems with his kids. They never did anything that would embarrass the team or the school.”
Said Olson: “Through the years, we’ve been very, very fortunate--and I have to knock on wood as I say this--in that we’ve never had a kid in any kind of difficulty. We don’t get calls on kids saying this guy is causing problems in the dorm, or in town.”
All this is a consequence of a collection of homespun, tried-and-true philosophies, the world according to Lute:
- “If you start with good people, you’re going to get a good product.”
- “A person who doesn’t have the proper attitude will find a way to screw up the program. A bad person will get you. It may take a while, but he’ll getcha.”
- “Good people will draw good people. Jerks are going to want to be with jerks.”
- “It’s no different with coaches than it is with players: The only way to be successful is to work as hard as you can work.”
- “You can’t teach morals and ethics on the floor and having somebody doing other than that off the floor.”
- “It’s a lot better to have a degree and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.”
- “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
Said Henry: “With Lute Olson, what you see is what you get. He has definite priorities and philosophies in life and in basketball--and he sticks to those.”
A psychologist would probably find it easy to trace Olson’s values and work ethic back to the way he and his family overcame tragedy and financial setbacks in his childhood.
Olson was born on a grain and livestock farm outside Mayville, N.D., in 1934, a second-generation Norwegian American. He was named Robert Luther, but the nickname Lute replaced Robert early on.
When he was 5, his 48-year-old father died of a stroke. His oldest brother, a college senior, had to come home to work on the farm.
Nine months later, Olson’s brother was killed in a tractor accident, forcing his mother to sell the farm and leaving her with three children under the age of 13 and their blind grandfather to support. Lute held various jobs from the age of 8.
Olson has never shared the details of his childhood with his players, but it has left an indelible mark on his approach and expectations to this day.
“My childhood was one where you had to work if you wanted anything extra,” he said. “I think it wasn’t ever a case of getting something for free.”
In high school, he played center on the North Dakota state championship basketball team, and lettered in four sports.
On basketball scholarship at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, he also was captain of the football team, and worked part-time on the midnight shift in a service station. He also handled a summertime distribution route for a soda company to help support his wife, Bobbi.
In his first coaching job at a school with a graduating class of 40 in Mahnomen, a tiny town of 1,200 in Minnesota, his basketball team won the school’s first league championship in 34 years.
If there is a pattern in his 28-year coaching career, it is the willingness to take a risk by joining a new program, such as Loara and Marina, or an unsuccessful program. Iowa had finished last in the Big 10 before Olson came in 1975, and Arizona was in the pits at 1-17 in Pac-10 play prior to his arrival in 1983.
“I guess for some reason or other, I have gotten into these situations, and each was a case of going in and building it the way you wanted it,” he said.
“That was not the case at the Long Beach schools, but the other programs had been down, and I liked the challenge of it.
“When I took the Arizona job, a lot of people questioned whether I’d finally gotten senile to leave a school with an established program that had consistently been in the top 15 in the country the last three years, been to five consecutive NCAA tournaments and to the Final Four.
“People wondered why I’d do that, but I look at job potential, and I felt the potential was there to be not only as good as Iowa, but even better. And I said I’d be disappointed if we didn’t lead the Pac-10 in attendance in two years.”
Last year, as the Wildcats were on their way to a surprising finish one game behind conference co-champions USC and Washington, the fans gave their team an overwhelming vote of confidence. Arizona led the conference in attendance, averaging nearly 12,000 fans per Pac-10 game.
After finally regaining community support, Arizona nearly lost Olson this spring when a local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, printed an erroneous story about his financial relationship with an athletic company.
In the wake of the controversy, Wildcat fans picketed the newspaper, set up subscription cancellation booths in local shopping malls and withdrew advertising. The newspaper printed a front-page retraction, admitting its story was incorrect.
Olson said he was especially stung because he had always gone to such lengths to ensure that his program was ethically above reproach. Disgusted by the situation, he responded by accepting an interview for Kentucky’s vacant coaching position, an announcement that sent tremors of dismay through Tuscon.
In the end, he said turned down the Kentucky job in favor of his newly popular, profitable and competitive Arizona team.
But there are other measures of success in Lute Olson’s eyes. When he arrived at Arizona, seven of the nine returning players were on academic probation.
Today, the team has a better grade-point average (2.7 or B-) than the university as a whole, with only one player below a C, and four above a B.
Sophomore forward Rolf Jacobs from Fountain Valley High School, the 1984 Sunset League Most Valuable Player, illustrates the Olson Effect.
A C+ student in high school, Jacobs has done better in college.
“I was concerned about how I was going to do in college,” Jacobs said. “It was questionable to me whether I could cut it.
“But I got a 3.2 (B+) my first semester at Arizona, and it was because of study sessions. I did really well. I was really surprised at myself and what I could do if I really put myself to it.”
Said Henry of Olson’s methods: “He’s no John Thompson with a deflated basketball on his desk to remind students there is life outside basketball.
“He doesn’t use gimmicks, but the effect is the same. The end result is he’s going to get what he’s after.”
His goal of helping his players learn is accomplished in mandatory daily study sessions, while his goal of “making them better people” entails community service, such as Special Olympics work and visits to the children’s ward of local hospitals.
One drawback of his popularity around Tucson, as in Iowa City, is the unrelenting attention from the public.
“He’s a person who likes to do the job, but not do it in the limelight,” Rosborough said.
Said Wine: “Lute is a little more private than most basketball coaches. Most of them, you get the feeling they do a lot of standing around in hotel lobbies, waiting to be interviewed. Lute is not like that.”
In fact, some neighbors at an Iowa resort lake once gave Olson a disguise as a gag gift at a party. There was the floppy hat, the glasses, the bulb nose and shaggy mustache.
Olson even experimented by wearing the big hat and the dark glasses when he took his pontoon boat for a ride.
“The first boat that passed us, it was, ‘Hi Coach! How ya doin’?’ ” he recalled.
“It gets very difficult. I’d like to be able to go in to coach, do the job, and when I leave to be with my family, just be Joe Blow around the neighborhood.
“It would be helpful if I had normal brown hair and wasn’t as noticeable . . . It’s not what I’d like, but I also recognize that it generally means people like the program and what we’re doing.”
Ronnie Lester saw Olson’s Arizona team play at USC and UCLA last season, and it reminded him of Iowa teams.
“He seems to get more out of his players than is really there, more than they might look like on paper,” Lester said.
Said Olson: “They may not be as big, maybe they can’t jump as high, maybe they don’t have some of the things other teams have, but no one is going to play harder--no one.”
‘Too often college coaching tends to look at physical ability No. 1. To me, the physical end of it is the most overrated. The players with great physical ability who don’t have the character or mental capabilities can be the worst kind because the alumni will look at all that talent and say, ‘Why in the world can’t you coach them?’ ‘