The Wildcat Nation mourned the passing of Hall of Fame men’s basketball head coach Lute Olson in 2020. Olson led Arizona to a national championship and was an iconic figure in college basketball and Southern Arizona. He died Aug. 27.
“I joked when I was in high school that Tucson was where all the scouts stopped to gas up on their way to Los Angeles,” says former Arizona forward Sean Elliott. “No one was coming to watch college basketball in Tucson, and Coach changed that entire landscape.”
A five-time national Coach of the Year and seven-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, Olson guided the Wildcats to the 1997 NCAA championship and amassed a record of 589-187 during his 24 seasons at Arizona. He also led the Wildcats to four NCAA Final Four appearances and 15 Pac-10 regular season and tournament titles.
Former Arizona Director of Athletics Cedric Dempsey recruited Olson to Arizona. “I always kept a short list of top prospects in each sport. I followed Lute’s career ever since he was at CSU Long Beach,” Dempsey says. “In 1982, Lute had turned down USC, but since he was always at the top of my list, I decided to start with him.”
Olson was coaching Iowa at the time, and Dempsey flew to Kansas City for the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, where Iowa was playing Villanova. “Fans may remember Villanova fouled as time ran out, putting Iowa’s best player at the line to shoot two. If he made the first shot, the game would be tied.” The player missed both his shots. “That enabled me to interview Lute and [his] family, and the rest is history,” Dempsey says.
Arriving in Tucson prior to the 1983-84 season, Olson inherited a team that had won just four games the previous year. He turned things around in a hurry, leading the Wildcats to 11 wins in his first season and taking them to the NCAA Tournament in his second year, starting a streak of advancing to the Tournament for 23 straight years under his leadership. He also steered Arizona to 20 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins — the fifth-longest streak in NCAA history.
“Coach put the University of Arizona’s basketball program on the map,” says Arizona Vice President and Director of Athletics Dave Heeke. “Yet his legacy extends well beyond the court. He impacted thousands of lives, inspiring young men to reach beyond their potential and instilling service to others as a cornerstone of a person’s character.”
Player development was a key part of Olson’s programs at Arizona, and he coached 31 players who went on to play in the NBA. Twelve of them were selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
“Coach O meant the world to me and my family,” says former Arizona guard Reggie Geary. “At every major event of my life and countless others’ lives, Coach was there to guide, encourage and celebrate our biggest accomplishments. As a player, he saw my value and allowed me to blossom in his system. As a coach, he gave me my first professional job.”
Olson’s success on the hardwood led to a response from the Tucson community that is still felt today. Every season since 1984-85 — his second at Arizona — the Wildcats have led the Pac-12 in attendance, an active streak of 37 consecutive years. The court inside McKale Memorial Center was named in Olson’s honor in 2000 and officially became the Lute and Bobbi Olson Court in 2001 to honor Olson and his wife of 47 years after she passed away.
“In my 40 years in Tucson, no person has done more for this city than Lute Olson,” says Brian Jeffries, current play-by-place voice of Arizona Basketball. “It went beyond victories and championships. He galvanized this community with his dignity and genuine love for his players and all who knew him.”
“Lute was Tucson,” says Mike Candrea, Arizona Softball Hall of Fame coach. “He taught me how to brand our sport and run it with business principles. He was a great recruiter who was always willing to spend time and share his passion for coaching and the process he used to build a culture of excellence. He could work a room as well as anyone I have ever known.”
In a series of ads for Bank One in the 1990s, Olson was the calm, cool and collected counterpoint to Arizona State basketball coach Bill Frieder. “I look back on our times with so much joy,” says Frieder. “The commercials were so much fun and were instrumental in bringing the schools together. Lute and I proved that you could compete hard on the court but be civil to each other after.”
Olson was one of the best coaches in Pac-10 history, securing 327 conference wins — still the most of any coach in conference history. Olson’s Pac-10 conference winning percentage of .764 is second only to former UCLA great John Wooden, among those who coached in the conference for more than three seasons.
“Since I arrived in Tucson almost 12 years ago, I have been asked hundreds of times ‘What made Coach
Olson so successful?’” says Arizona Head Basketball Coach Sean Miller. “Having asked his former players, coaches and people in our community the same question, I came to a final conclusion: He had no weaknesses as a coach.”
Olson’s coaching success extended to the international stage. As head coach of Team USA, he led the United States to the gold medal in the 1986 FIBA World Championships.
He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, and into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and again in 2019. Olson received the Naismith Award for Outstanding Contribution to Men’s College Basketball in 2013.
“Coach just had a presence about him that his former players can tell you about,” Sean Elliott says. “He was a legend in the city, and he was a legend to us as players, too. If you were around him in practice, you almost felt like he was immortal.”