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The greatest coach in Arizona basketball history has died. Lute Olson, the man who guided the University of Arizona to an unlikely 1997 NCAA Tournament championship, died Thursday at the age of 85, according to the university. Olson, who suffered a minor stroke in 2019, had been in declining health in recent months.
A 2002 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Olson retired from coaching in October 2008 with a career record of 781-281. His 589 wins with U of A made him the winningest coach in school history, an honor he also held in the mid-1980s with Iowa basketball when he surprised many by leaving his thriving Hawkeyes for a downtrodden Wildcats program. But that decision wound up turning Olson into a college basketball legend.
The silver-haired savant took Arizona to four Final Fours (1988, 1994, 1997, 2001) and seven Elite Eights. He guided the Wildcats to 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, an NCAA coach-and-school record only recently broken by arguably the greatest coach in college basketball history, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
His 781 wins are 14th on the all time list for men’s Division I basketball. Olson turned the Wildcats into a powerhouse, transforming his program into one of the 10 biggest and most successful ones in the sport for most of his tenure. One of the enduring images that goes along with the 1997 title is CBS capturing one of Olson’s players, Bennett Davison, messing up his hair upon upsetting No. 1 Kentucky to give the team its first and only national championship. Arizona made history that year by becoming the first — and still to this day only — team to defeat three No. 1 seeds in a single NCAA Tournament.
That ’97 title was all the more memorable and surprising due to Arizona’s reputation in the NCAA Tournament prior to that year. Olson frequently had teams seeded No. 1, 2 or 3 but often found themselves the victim of a first- or second-round upset. In a year when Arizona was perceived as merely fairly good, but nothing special, Miles Simon, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry helped Olson and the Wildcats achieve college basketball immortality. Arizona knocked off blue bloods Kansas (probably the best team in the sport that season), North Carolina and reigning champion Kentucky en route to winning it all. It also needed overtime to beat Providence in the Elite Eight.
Arizona defeated Kentucky 84-79 in overtime, doing so without making a field goal in the bonus session, the only time that’s ever happened in Final Four history. That Arizona win, 23 years ago, is the most recent national championship for a team in the Pac-12.
Olson won 46 games in 28 NCAA Tournament showings. He is one of only 14 men’s coaches to take two different schools to the Final Four. Olson coached Arizona for the final 24 seasons of his career. He won 11 Pac-10 conference championships, and in his final 20 seasons, according to the University of Arizona, Olson had the third-best winning percentage of any coach in men’s college basketball.
Olson won 327 games in what was then known as the Pac-10; his victory total still stands as the most in conference history. The only coach in league lore with a better win percentage than Olson was a man by the name of John Wooden.
Robert Luther Olson was born on a farm on Sept. 22, 1934, in Mayville, North Dakota. Olson lost his father to a stroke when he was 5 years old, an affliction that would in part force the end of his coaching career more than 65 years later. As a teenager, Olson was a great athlete. He won a state basketball title for his North Dakota High School, then went on to be a standout in football, basketball and baseball at Minneapolis’ Augsburg College in the mid-1950s.
Olson coached basketball at the high school level for 11 years in his 20s and 30s before moving on to junior college and eventually into the D-I rank. According to the University of Arizona, Olson was on the bench for 1,063 wins in his career as a head coach, dating back to his first gig with Minnesota’s Mahnomen High School in 1956 and including his time coaching junior college before working the sideline for his first year of D-I duty with Long Beach State in 1973.
Arizona courted Olson in 1983 after the then-49-year-old had made Iowa a nationally relevant program by taking the Hawkeyes to five straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 1980 Final Four, at a time when the tournament was composed of far fewer schools than the 64-/68-team format that made it the March Madness monolith it’s known as today. Olson inherited an Arizona team coming off a 4-24 season. Two years later it would win 21 games, and five years later Olson had the Wildcats in the Final Four for the first time in school history, led by players Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Anthony Cook and Jud Buechler — all of whom would go on to play in the NBA.
Olson coached eight consensus All-Americans and produced 34 NBA picks in 24 seasons at Arizona. There is still one player in the NBA who was recruited and coached by Olson: Andre Iguodala of the Miami Heat.
In 2009-10, college basketball debuted the Lute Olson Award. It is annually given to the best player who has been at his school for at least two full seasons. The two most recent recipients were Murray State’s Ja Morant and Oregon’s Payton Pritchard.
Olson left his post in 2007 due to health concerns before ultimately stepping down for good in the fall of 2008. His tenure ended with some schisms and bumpy behavior, as Olson unknowingly suffered a stroke that his doctor would later publicly state led to depression and irregular behavior. After planning on resuming his duties for the 2008-09 season, Olson retired less than a month before the season was set to begin.
The less-than-graceful end of Olson’s time with Arizona did not affect his standing in the community or with Arizona fans whatsoever. He remained beloved there, and at Iowa, until the end of his days. Getting the Arizona job in 1983 ultimately meant Olson would settle in Tucson, Arizona, for life; he lived there all 12 years following his retirement. Olson was an occasional sight to be seen at Arizona games as late as 2018. That same year the school unveiled a statue of Olson outside of the McKale Center.
Fifteen years earlier, in 2003, the school named the court at the McKale Center for Lute and his late wife, Bobbi, who died of ovarian cancer in 2001. Olson met Roberta « Bobbi » Russell in high school and by the time Olson was thriving at Arizona, the two were among the most prominent and beloved married couples in college basketball.
Olson is survived by his third wife, Kelly, five children (Vicki, Jody, Christi, Greg and Steve) and 14 grandchildren. His coaching legacy continues thanks to his granddaughter, Julie Hairgrove, who is an assistant with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and his grandson, Matt Brase, an assistant with the Houston Rockets.
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