Lute Olson, the white-haired dean of the desert who built the University of Arizona’s basketball program into a rollicking national power, has died. He was 85.
Olson died Thursday night in Tucson, where he reportedly was in hospice care. He had been in declining health since his abrupt retirement in 2008, after which his personal physician publicly revealed the former coach had suffered a stroke earlier in the year.
Over a glorious 25-year run, Olson transformed the Wildcats from a sleepy operation that averaged 5,500 fans per game the season before his arrival to one that consistently packed McKale Center and led the Pac-10 Conference in attendance each season. The excitement peaked in 1997, when the Wildcats won the first national championship in their history, and the last by any team in what’s now the Pac-12.
Arizona went to four Final Fours and won 15 conference regular-season and tournament titles under Olson, who compiled a 589-187 record with the Wildcats and enjoyed 23 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. His 781 career wins, a tally that began with earlier coaching stops at Iowa and Long Beach State, rank 14th in NCAA Division I history.
“What Lute built in Tucson is as impressive a coaching feat as any in the history of college basketball,” former UCLA coach Steve Lavin said in a telephone interview. “Prior to his arrival, no one could have foreseen that the University of Arizona would become a sustained elite program decade after decade.
“Interestingly, Lute was old-school in terms of instilling the toughness, proper fundamentals and basketball habits into his players, yet he also demonstrated creative flexibility in his strategic approach. He had an element of the hip-pocket coaching style where he would surprise or catch opponents off guard because of something in reserve that he could go to in order to give his team an edge. He was as good as it gets and set the gold standard in the Pac-10.”
An inductee into both the Naismith Memorial and National Collegiate basketball halls of fame, Olson registered a Pac-10 winning percentage of .764 that was second only to UCLA coach John Wooden’s .817. The court inside McKale Center was named after Olson in 2000 and became Lute and Bobbi Olson Court the following year, adding the name of his first wife, who had died of ovarian cancer.
“He had no weaknesses as a coach,” Sean Miller, Arizona’s current coach, said in a statement. “He was a relentless recruiter. … He was an astute evaluator of talent. So many of his most accomplished players were not heavily recruited prospects.”
At Arizona, Olson coached 31 players who went on to play in the NBA, including Steve Kerr, a former UCLA ball boy who was not recruited out of Palisades High by the Bruins or any other major college program before Olson gave him a scholarship. Kerr was not athletically gifted, but Olson described recruits’ physical attributes as their most overrated quality.
“The players with great physical ability who don’t have the character or mental capabilities can be the worst kind,” Olson told the Los Angeles Times in 1985, “because the alumni will look at all that talent and say, ‘Why in the world can’t you coach them?’”
Kerr, now coach of the Golden State Warriors, tweeted a photo of Olson instructing him while he played for the Wildcats, adding, “It’s hard to put into words how much Lute Olson meant to me. He was an amazing coach & a wonderful man. Being part of the U of A basketball family changed my life forever. I will never forget Coach O.”
Olson retained an artful sense of humor in his later years even as he spoke in slow, halting sentences, often teasing his players and poking fun at himself.
“I just wonder if they got the hair right on the statue,” he cracked as his famous white mop flapped in the breeze in April 2018 at the ceremony to unveil his bronze likeness outside McKale Center.
The coach also explained that day what had brought him to Tucson after a successful nine-year run at Iowa in which the Hawkeyes made the NCAA tournament in each of his last five seasons, including a trip to the Final Four in 1980.
“When people talk about me coming here in ’83,” Olson said, “I ask them, ‘Have you ever spent nine winters in Iowa City?’”
Robert Luther Olson was born on a grain and livestock farm outside Mayville, N.D., on Sept. 22, 1934, enduring a childhood repeatedly beset by tragedy. His 48-year-old father died of a stroke when the boy who became known as Lute was only 5. Lute’s older brother Amos, then a college senior, returned home to work on the farm but died in a tractor accident nine months later.
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Known for his relentlessness, Olson was an undersized 6-foot-4 center on Grand Forks Central High’s North Dakota state championship basketball team. He later played football, basketball and baseball at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where also worked the midnight shift at a service station and manned a summer distribution route for a soda company.
His early coaching gigs were equally modest. At his first stop in Mahnomen, a town of 1,200 in Minnesota, his high school team won its first league championship in 34 years. Olson and Bobbi moved to California in 1962 for a series of jobs in which he helped build programs at Western and Loara high schools in Anaheim and Marina High in Huntington Beach.
Dave Brown remembered being warmly greeting by “this big, tall guy” when he showed up at Marina in 1965 as a novice teacher who was assigned to learn from Olson. Brown quickly envisioned a more lucrative future for the coach who drove a Texaco gas truck at night and taught driver’s education on Saturdays to make extra money.
“He just had that certain something,” said Brown, who went on to win 814 games at the high school level. “He always had that big smile, but he was hard-nosed. He really coached the kids hard, but they loved him, and he was a winner.”
Olson’s big break came in 1969 courtesy of the sports pages. Then 35 years old and aching for a college job, he read one morning that the coach at Long Beach City College was leaving and he applied for the vacancy. He got the job and won 103 games in four seasons before moving to Long Beach State for one season and going 24-2 with a team that included four players who went on to the NBA.
The coach was on his way as well, heading back east the next season to Iowa and eventually becoming an Arizona icon.
Olson is survived by his wife, Kelly, and children Christi, Greg, Jodi, Steve and Vicki. Services are pending.