COLLEGE BASKETBALL '87-88 : MIRACLE WORKER OF SORTS : IN PRAISE OF LUTE OLSON : Coach Turns Lowly Arizona Into a Pacific 10 Power

Times Staff Writer

He came to town like a barnstorming preacher, a silver-haired, silver-tongued personification of promise, telling the good people of Tucson to believe in his philosophy of recruiting good, wholesome young men, to follow those good, wholesome young men in their endeavors on the hard court at McKale Center, and to trust in the inevitable resurrection of the University of Arizona's basketball program.

Those who heeded the word of Coach Lute Olson have season tickets today. Those who hesitated--oh, ye of little faith--are watching the Wildcats on live TV.

There is not a seat to be had this season as the Wildcats aim for the Pacific 10 title and beyond.

So just how did this man of miracles take a basketball team that was down and out in the middle of the desert from last place in the Pac-10 in '83--the Wildcats won just one conference game that season, over Stanford on a controversial call--to the title in 1985-86, when they won it by beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion for the first time?

The same way he did it at Iowa, where he took a perennial also-ran and turned it into one of the country's top programs, stringing together 20-win seasons and taking each of his last five Hawkeye teams into the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. playoffs--a Big Ten record for consecutive NCAA berths.

He did it with classy players. Good kids. He took what he calls the "family" approach. He considered attitude equally with height. And he considered how all the personalities would mesh, what would be the chemistry of the team. He signed kids with heart. Kids who made their grades.

It sounds too simple. It sounds too hokey.

But it works.

Take Steve Kerr, for example.

Kerr is a 6-foot 3-inch blond kid from Pacific Palisades who used to be a ballboy for UCLA. He was not recruited by UCLA. He was not recruited by anyone.

Olson still had a scholarship to offer him in August of 1983 because Olson had taken the job at Arizona just before the signing deadline, and most of the star players were spoken for.

But what a great call that was, signing Steve Kerr, who is now the heart of a very good Arizona team.

Kerr is not quick and he can't jump, but he can shoot. There are lots of guys like that. But Kerr is the hustling kind who always makes the play, the smart kind of ballhandling guard who coaches on the floor and makes the right decisions, the leader who steps forward when the game is on the line and takes charge.

The Wildcats might have won the Pac-10 title last season if Kerr hadn't been out with a knee injury suffered during the World Championships in the summer of 1986. Arizona lost several games in the final minutes, when his experience and maturity were missed.

"Steve Kerr is the ideal player, the kind of kid you win with," Olson said. "Now, don't misunderstand me. You could not win with five Steve Kerrs. You need talents like (6-8 junior) Sean Elliott. But you need a Steve Kerr on your team."

Steve Kerr is needed on and off the court. He's needed in the recruiting effort.

Olson perpetuates an amazing tradition when it comes to recruiting--beyond scouting high school games, beyond being the one who picks up recruits at the airport, instead of sending an assistant.

Olson allows his players the power of veto if they think a prospect won't fit into the program.

In the Big Ten, they tell of the time that Olson was recruiting a 7-foot center who went on to become an All-American and is in the National Basketball Assn. today, but who was dropped by the Hawkeyes because the players didn't like his attitude and didn't want to play with him.

It is said that Olson once dropped a prospect because he was abusive to a waitress.

Now, understand, this is all in the interest of winning. It goes beyond winning points with mothers and university presidents.

Olson believes that strength of character eventually wins on the court, in the close games. And that the camaraderie of a team is important if those individual youngsters are to be expected to play as one.

Once the program has a nucleus of good kids, they, better than anyone else, can judge who will fit and who will not fit. "Good kids attract other good kids," Olson said. "Jerks attract jerks."

And, Olson has discovered, having good kids on the floor helps in another way.

"I have found that loyalty of the fans to the team is in direct proportion to the people who are on the court," he said. "The fans get hooked on players they like and respect. There will always be people in the stands when you're winning, but you will still have those loyal supporters in the years when you're not so good if they are coming out to see good kids that they care about."

Which brings us back to Steve Kerr. In his freshman season, his father, Malcolm Kerr, the president of American University in Beirut, was assassinated. That same week, Arizona played archrival Arizona State, and Olson gave Kerr the option of sitting out. Kerr decided that he should play.

Before the game, there was a moment of silence in honor of Malcolm Kerr, and Steve could not hold back the tears. Nor could many who saw Steve's pain. Steve then came off the bench, made 5 of 7 shots and scored 15 points in a victory over the Sun Devils.

When then-Sun Devil Coach Bob Weinhauer was asked, later, about the emotion of the game, he said: "It's hard to say I felt good for Kerr, but I wasn't as upset as I should have been."

If an opposing, losing coach was affected, imagine the bonding affect Kerr's performance had on the hometown crowd.

When Olson took the job at Arizona, the Wildcats were coming off a 4-24 season during which they had drawn an average crowd of just 5,500.

Last season, the Wildcats drew an average of 12,720 to McKale, which seats 13,124. That broke the Pac-10 record for attendance of 12,515 set by UCLA in 1973, when John Wooden was coach and the Bruins were in the midst of their NCAA title streak.

This year, it looks as if the Wildcats will top that. With the exception of a few single-seat season tickets, there was no public sale of season tickets. The few available packages went to folks on the waiting list.

They also sold out their tipoff luncheon twice. So many people were upset that they didn't get one of the first 700 tickets that the Wildcats decided to have two luncheons.

"I tried to tell people," Olson said. "When we first came here and we were trying to get some awareness among the people that there had been a coaching change, we spoke to every group that would listen. I took this approach--get on board now and get your season tickets because in a couple of years you won't be able to get in the place.

"The ones who listened are happy with their seats and the ones who scoffed are watching on TV."

Now that all games are sold out, all games are televised live, even locally.

Wildcat basketball is big in Tucson. But Olson doesn't take all of the credit for that. Even when he was making the surprising move from Iowa, he kept saying that there were basketball fans in Tucson. He just needed to go in and wake them up.

"This is a great basketball town," Olson said. "There are a lot of people here now who grew up in the Midwest, and a lot of people who enjoyed watching basketball here in the past.

"Coach (Fred) Snowden did generate great community support with his personality and his ability to bring in players who were fun to watch. I felt that if we put a good team on the court, people would come out."

The people started coming out the first season Olson coached the Wildcats, and his team went a surprising 11-17.

Lots more were jumping on the bandwagon when the Wildcats made a strong bid for the Pac-10 title in '85, needing just one victory over UCLA to win it and coming up short when Olson did not start center Pete Williams and forward Morgan Taylor because they had missed a curfew. By the time he let them play, it was too late.

Yes, there were some who said that he was nuts to risk a whole season over minor violations, but there were just as many who backed him for standing firm with his team.

Arizona was 21-10 that season and went to the NCAA tournament.

In his third season, he beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion for the conference title. His '86 team was 23-9 and, again, in the NCAA tournament.

Last season, with Kerr out, the Wildcats finished second to UCLA in the Pac-10 but still made the tournament with an overall record of 18-12.

That's a lot of success for a guy with such an idealistic philosophy.

His 1980 Iowa team played in the Final Four.

Olson's teams have been in the NCAA tournament eight of the last nine years, the only exception being his first season at Arizona.

"I don't think my philosophy is the only way to go," Olson said. "It works for me. It's been good for me and our programs. This is what we believe in.

"It hasn't won us an NCAA title and it has gotten us to the Final Four only one time, so some coaches who have other philosophies and who have been there a lot would tell you that it doesn't work.

"I know that I have to do what I feel comfortable with. This is the way I've done it since I started coaching preps 31 years ago."

After a three-sport career at Augsberg College in Minnesota, Olson started coaching preps in Minnesota. He then coached preps in Anaheim and Huntington Beach for six seasons. He led Long Beach City College to three league titles and to the '71 California state junior college title.

In his one year of Division I coaching before taking the job at Iowa, he was 24-2 at Cal State Long Beach. At Iowa, he not only built a winner but brought in so many fans that they had to build a $24-million arena.

He was a statewide hero and had the fans chanting "Lute! Lute! Lute!"

So some felt betrayed when he moved to Arizona.

That move came as quite a surprise. Olson had passed up a chance to go back to California when he rejected an offer from USC in '79. And he had a six-year contract when he left to take over the struggling program at Arizona.

At Arizona, he was having to start all over, moving from the top of the Big Ten to the bottom of the Pac-10. Even he admits, "A lot of people thought the old guy had lost his wheels."

But, he keeps explaining, he likes the state, he likes a challenge and he knew the potential.

He says he likes the teaching involved with coaching young people. He was a counselor when he was coaching high school ball, and he has a master's degree in education psychology and guidance.

That's why he never talks about moving on to the NBA, where, he says, it's more management than teaching.

"I'm not saying that there are no good coaches in the NBA," Olson said. "There are. But it's a different situation."

And it's hard to convince general managers to draft short players with heart who want to play team ball.

No, more likely he will finish out the five-year contract he has at Arizona, which will take him through '92. He'll be 58 years old, he'll be ready to retire in a town that he and his wife and his family all love.

And he'll be hitting the Olympic year just right.

He coached the '86 World Championship team and is often mentioned as a possible coach for the '92 Olympic team.

Fittingly, he did with the U.S. team in '86 the same thing he had done at Iowa and at Arizona. Lack of interest, some key injuries and a couple of early pro signings left the national team with a group that was not quite the cream of the crop.

So Olson set off for Europe with some willing youngsters--including three of his Wildcats, one of them Kerr--who were not expected to have much of a chance.

Victories over Yugoslavia, Brazil and the Soviet Union gave the United States its first world championship in 32 years.

Weeks earlier, after the United States had beaten West Germany, West German Coach Ralf Klein summed up the national team and all of Olson's teams when he predicted that it would win because, he said: "It always improved every game, day by day, and by the end of the tournament, we'll have the best team.

"Maybe not the best players, but the best team and the best coach."

So if Lute Olson says buy tickets for the 1992 Olympics . . .

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