Remembering Lute Olson: Lute Olson's 500th win milestone in life as coach, family man, private citizen
Arizona men's basketball coach Lute Olson, left, sits with interim head coach Kevin O'Neill.
Legendary Arizona men's basketball coach Lute Olson died Thursday, Aug. 27, at the age of 85. As part of its coverage looking back on Olson's life on and off the basketball court, the Daily Wildcat presents this story from our archives.
Originally written on Feb. 13, 1996, by Adam F. Jarrold
Coach Lute Olson is a bit superstitious, and the tie he wore against Cincinnati might have had something to do with Miles Simon's 60-foot desperation shot falling. When Olson wears a certain necktie and does not win, that "baby is used for other purposes."
Olson earned his 500th win as a Division I head coach on Sunday. Poetic justice, perhaps.
He says the pressure he puts on himself to win is 100 times greater than pressure from anyone else. He realizes he is a man driven by competitive perfectionism, and vows never to cheat his players by not giving them everything he's got.
"I'm a Virgo, and my wife says I definitely qualify," says the Arizona head basketball coach. "I'm a detail person, a perfectionist, and everything has to be in its place."
His office, filled with neatly hung plaques and perfectly placed pictures of his family, reflects his penchant for order.
"In the office, he is outwardly calm and reserved," says Lydia Lubben, his administrative secretary of 12 years. "He is very explicit, precise, and efficient. He writes a letter, and doesn't fix it. He doesn't have to."
When former UA Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey needed someone to turn the Arizona basketball program around, Robert Luther Olson was high on his list. Olson had earned a reputation at the University of Iowa of being able to dig a program out of the trenches.
Olson started at Iowa in 1974 and inherited a team that had just finished in last place in the Big Ten. Under Olson's leadership, the team went to the Final Four six years later.
When he came to Arizona in 1983, he faced the same sort of predicament: a team that had stumbled through the previous season with a 4-24 record. Olson turned the team around rapidly, and took Arizona to the Final Four in 1988 and 1994. In his 13 years at the UA, he has led seven teams to Pacific 10 Conference titles.
Now, at age 61, Olson is in his 23rd year of college coaching, and he just joined an elite field of 65 who have also broken the elusive 500-game barrier.
"He's at the pinnacle of his career here, and I think he's at his happiest here," says wife of 42 years and high school sweetheart Bobbi Olson. "The years that we lost in the first round of the NCAAs were the worst times."
On game days, Olson prowls the sidelines dressed in a well-pressed, double-breasted suit. His tie is taut, and he paces with arms crossed.
"For a third of the game he isn't even facing the court, which is extremely unusual in the coaching profession," says George Kalil, president of Kalil Bottling Co. who has missed only two games in the last 23 years. "He is usually talking to three or four players as a group based on something that just happened."
Olson's chalky-white hair shines in McKale Center's spotlight.
"Lute's been blessed by the hair fairy," says Dale Radtke, his barber for the past 12 years at El Continental Barber Stylist in the El Con Mall. "It's thick, and it shows up white because of the light's reflection."
His hair is part of the reason why some call him the "Silver Fox."
But many follow the fox around like bloodhounds. In his last few years at Iowa, his wife recalls how Olson repeatedly had the fork pulled from his mouth so people could talk to him or get his autograph.
"He was becoming a bit testy at all the attention that was being paid to him by the media and fans. I don't fault the fans at all, but some just don't know how to go about it sometimes," she says. "He doesn't seek the attention, and he just does his job everyday and tries to do it the best he can."
Olson says his relationship with the media has been good for the most part, but notes the exceptions. The Arizona Daily Star ran a story in 1985 about a conflict of interest with the purchase of team uniforms that Lute recalls as being a "complete fabrication." The Star ran a retraction, the newspaper's sports editor was fired, and the writer who wrote it resigned.
"Obviously we had done a good job in turning the program, but it seems with the Star that anything successful is something they try to knock down," Olson says.
Greg Hansen, a sports columnist at the Star, has written for the paper throughout Olson's tenure. He wrote a column in 1991 that accused Olson of not being available for his players in times of crisis, namely Khalid Reeves who at the time was involved with a sexual assault charge.
Lute has not spoken to Hansen since and refuses to, and Hansen admits that there is friction between the two.
"His image comes before the team. It comes first and foremost, and it has been that way since the day he came here," Hansen says. "He is always available to be interviewed, but it's not like you can 'talk' to him anyway. He is very calculating and cunning with what he says. That's why he speaks so slowly in a public setting."
Olson says, "My position with the media is that I am going to cooperate with them as much as I can unless they give me a reason not to."
"We're going to have a good relationship as long as it's an honest relationship. I don't deal with dishonest people whether they're in the media or anywhere else," he says.
Olson also cited this year's media coverage of Joseph Blair's academic ineligibility as having a major effect on whether or not Blair could get a grade change. Blair was declared ineligible after he received an "incomplete" in one class last semester.
"The media coverage violated Joe Blair's rights to privacy, and they eliminated whatever chances he had (at getting a grade change) that any other student had."
When Kentucky twice offered Olson a job as head coach, he said that his frustration with the media played a role in his considering the offers. In the end, however, he decided to stay at Arizona mainly because his "family kept him here."
"I look at him as being a little shyer," says Jody Brase, the second of Olson's five children. "He handles the limelight very well, but he's not doing the job to be in the spotlight."
"His philosophy has always been, 'Whatever you do, do it the best you can,' and that's why he coaches. He enjoys the pressure and likes the challenge," she says.
"He is a teacher, and he knows the game," says Assistant Coach Jessie Evans, who has worked with Olson for eight years. "He's been in every situation, and players know that he is a knowledgeable person."
Olson says he is not interested in the challenge an NBA career might afford. Teams have contacted him about whether he would take certain jobs when they opened up, and each time he has immediately declined.
"The fun in coaching is taking young people and seeing them progress in a lot of different ways," Olson says. "I want to work with a team where you don't have individual egos getting in the way or agents telling the guys they have to score more or get more money. It was never an arena where I thought I would be successful."
Former UA forward Chris Mills moved on to the NBA and currently plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "He was a father figure that always had his office open and time to talk," he says.
Lute's success at Arizona is rewarded with a salary of $523,223. Some say his nickname should be "Loot."
But Lute gives back. "He is always going to a dinner, or a breakfast or something that pertains to the community," says Paul Weitman, president of Royal Buick and one of Olson's close friends.
He stuffs turkeys for the Salvation Army's Thanksgiving dinner, and he has donned a chef's hat several times as a celebrity chef for The Blake Foundation for cerebral palsy research. In the past eight years, he has helped raise $800,000 for the Arizona Arthritis Center.
"People put a mystique on Lute as a person who is untouchable. But when you meet him, you realize that perception is exactly the opposite," says UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood. "He is down to earth, warm, genuine, and as competitive as the day is long ."
Lute advocates clean living and according to those closest to him, he practices what he preaches. He sets high standards for himself and those around him. He takes pride in being surrounded by good people and hard workers. His secretary has never heard him use profanity.
Ernie Anderson coached Olson when he played college basketball. "In school, he was a fabulous individual with a terrific work ethic. He put himself through school by working in the summers hauling 7-Up."
Lute's childhood forced the construction of a strong work ethic early on. He was the youngest of four children and grew up on a small North Dakota farm. Albert Olson, his father, died of a stroke when he was 5, and his brother Amos died in a farming accident 6 months later. His mother Alinda had an eighth grade education and worked hard to support the family by herself.
To make ends meet, Lute stocked pop machines and napkin holders as a first and second grader while she worked as an assistant cook at a local cafe. He was driving by age 8, and he knew he wanted to be a coach when he was in high school.
He started playing basketball in the fifth grade, and lettered in baseball, football, and basketball at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn. He spent his Christmas breaks delivering mail and his summers away from school hauling soda for the Minneapolis Bottling Co.
He graduated in 1956 with a double major in history and physical education with a coaching certification. He coached at five high schools during the year and taught driver training during the summers. Then, he went to Long Beach City College in 1970 and took them to three league titles. After one year at Long Beach State he moved to Iowa.
"He is the hardest worker I've ever seen, and he expects the same from his players," Bobbi Olson says. "He told me how he went out from practice recently and told one of the players, 'If you're going to practice like this, you might as well leave right now. You're a leader, and you're going to affect everyone else on the court.'"
"Bobbi is my best friend," says Olson, who met her in a church choir when he was 16. They were married in college three years later, and are a perfect match.
"He keeps his personal and professional sides very separate," says Jim Livengood. "His family is the most important thing to Lute, and even though he cares about his job and this university, in my opinion, he has his priorities in the right order. This is really a special man."
"I conduct myself as if he was a banker," Bobbi Olson says. "It doesn't impress me or make me angry, or affect me one way or another. I just feel like that's his job, and I try to handle myself in a way that helps him."
Lute and Bobbi take a walk every morning they can around the foothills near their Northside home. They watch Coach or Cheers together at night. Slip Cat Ballou in the VCR or find some country western music on the tuner, and you will see Lute relaxed.
To their 11 grandchildren, he is Papa Lute, and she is Mama Bobbi. He says he is a family man that loves his time with her and the kids. He was Tucson's 1995 Father of the Year.
"He doesn't have a lot of things that let him escape from his work. He makes time for his family, and that's his release," Jody Brase says. "He wouldn't be as good as he is right now without Mama Bobbi. He really functions better when she is by his side."
And so Lute Olson finally got his 500th win.
Ed Saugestad, Augsburg College's current head hockey coach, played college football with Olson. He recorded his 500th win in January and says, "It sure beats losing."
Yes, Olson will probably use the tie he wore on Sunday for another big game. Bobbi will be there along with thousands of fans. His suit will be pressed, his arms will be crossed, and his hair will shine white as it always does.
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