Editors note: Lute Olson and the 1997 National Championship team will be in attendance at the Red-Blue Game in McKale Center on Friday for the 20th anniversary celebration of Arizona basketball’s lone title.
Lute Olson took over as head coach for the Wildcats in 1983. Olson had a successful coaching career preceding his run in Tucson. He led the Long Beach State 49ers to their best season in program history in 1974 when they finished as the No. 3 team in the nation, before leading the Iowa Hawkeyes as far as the Final Four and then heading to the Old Pueblo.
Olson was coming off of a Sweet Sixteen appearance with the Hawkeyes in 1982, and many around the country were surprised Olson left Iowa for the Arizona job. The Wildcats were coming off their worst season in program history after going 4-24 and winning only one game in the Pac-10 Conference.
Only three years after his arrival, Arizona captured its first Pac-10 title.
The legendary Wildcat head coach will always be known as a master of player development. The “Point Guard U” moniker began under Olson’s tutelage. Guards such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry all led lengthy NBA careers after playing under Olson.
Part of developing players is recruiting the right talent, something Stoudamire said Olson had a knack for.
“In 2016, we have a term that perfectly describes Lute. It’s called swag,” Stoudamire told the Players’ Tribune. “He’s going to walk into your living room when you’re in high school with that slick, white hair and that immaculate suit, and he’s going to tell you the truth.”
Olson’s first great team came during the 1987-1988 season with Arizona greats Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr. That team made it to Arizona’s first Final Four in 1988, and with that, the Wildcats were officially a powerhouse.
Olson led the Wildcats to their first national championship nine seasons later. Led by another talented point guard in freshman Bibby, the 1997 squad remains the only team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to the title.
After suffering numerous early-round defeats and crushing Final Four losses during his career, Olson finally had his title.
“For some reason, when you win it, some people start looking at it like you’re a successful coach,” Olson told the Tucson Citizen. “[The title] put the stamp on it. I didn’t have to answer that question again.”
Olson retired in 2008, and the program initially struggled in his absence before hiring current head coach Sean Miller. Olson is revered by his former players, some of whom even come back to coach under the legend himself.
Kerr was sure to mention Olson after he captured an NBA title as a head coach with the Golden State Warriors in 2015. Miller perfectly summed up Olson’s legacy during his introductory press conference, where he personally spoke to Olson:
“Just so you know, one of the reasons that I sit here today is because of the great legacy that you built and the feeling that the world and the nation have about Arizona basketball stems from you. You being here means the world.”
Olson’s legacy will live in Tucson forever, and you can still find him sitting in the same seat at every McKale Center game. Just look for the man with the pristine white hair and red sweater vest.
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