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Remembering Lute Olson: Better than the best

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Kevin B. Klaus | The Daily Wildcat

UA men’s basketball head coach Lute Olson directs legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden into McKale Center prior the Wildcats’ practice yesterday afternoon. Wooden requested of Olson, who is one win shy of tying Wooden’s career Pac-10 wins record, to attend a UA practice this season.

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. 23, 2005, by Amanda Branam


Legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden visited the UA men's basketball team at practice yesterday as the winningest coach in Pacific 10 Conference history, with Arizona head coach Lute Olson right on his heels. By the end of this weekend, the top two names on that list may switch places.

"It's kind of ironic," said Olson about the timing of Wooden's visit. "Coach Wooden asked me a year ago if he could come here and watch a practice, and it just didn't work out."

If the Wildcats can get out of Washington with a sweep this weekend, Olson will have 305 conference wins to Wooden's 304. The Wildcats would also clinch their 11th conference title for Olson, the program's third in five years.

Sitting in the stands at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, where he only lost twice in 27 seasons with UCLA, Wooden looked on as Olson's Wildcats defeated the Bruins 83-73 on Feb. 12, bringing Olson to 301 conference wins. 

For Wooden, who won 19 Pac-10 championships and 10 national titles and is considered by many to be the greatest college coach of all time, winning a lot of games is simply just a matter of time.

"We both had to have some longevity, or we wouldn't have got that much," said the 94-year-old Wooden with a smile after the game, poking a little fun at his own age and Olson's, who turned 70 on Sept. 22.

"I've always admired him; he's a good friend of mine. He's going to get more (wins), and that's fine," Wooden said of Olson.

If Olson does surpass the record this season, it would be the second big milestone for him in 2004-2005. 

On Dec. 11, the Wildcats defeated Utah 67-62 for his 1,000th coaching win.

Olson's win total - now up to 1,017 - spans 47 years of coaching at high school, junior college and NCAA Division I schools. He started his coaching career at Manohmen High School in Minnesota in 1956-57, where his team went 22-3. His teams have ended a season with a losing record just six times in his career and only once since coming to Tucson. The Wildcats were 11-17 overall during the 1983-84 season, his first at the UA.

RELATED: Remembering Lute Olson: One more to go

How have Olson and his teams been so good for so long? 

The general consensus among former and current players is that it seems to be Olson's consistency, no matter what the situation. While the type of player in college basketball has changed, the names on the jerseys constantly change, and certainly the game of college basketball has changed, Olson, it seems, has not.

In a time where some believe older coaches can't relate to college athletes as they could in the earlier part of their careers, Olson's still appears to get through to his players.

Big game or not, small or large margin of victory, ugly loss or a close loss, Olson's post-game talk with his players surely stays the same: These are the adjustments that need to be made. Make them, and play better.

"A lot of things that Wooden has said through the years has really been meaningful to me, but one of those things he always talked about was that a peak was always followed by a valley," Olson said in a press conference before the Washington game on Jan. 27 in McKale Center, which the Wildcats won 91-82.

"You'd better stay emotionally on one level because if you get too high, then you are going to have a very deep valley."

Later that week, Olson's players experienced an emotional peak, beating the Huskies for their fifth straight conference win. The valley came just two days later, as the Wildcats lost at home to a mediocre Washington State team, 70-63.

Before the team's next home game against California on Feb. 3, Olson had the scores from the 1987-1988 season posted in each player's locker. The average margin of victory in McKale for the '87-'88 team was 23.5 points a game. Olson felt his current team was capable of that, but was not protecting their home court very well. They went out and defeated Cal 97-76.

Since Olson posted the scores from the '87-'88 team, the Wildcats have won six straight, defeating opponents by an average margin of 17.8 points per game. The team is shooting 80.8 percent from the line in that stretch (80 for 99). 

No trouble getting the message across to college athletes here.

Though it took a lot of patience and even some game suspensions for attitude and disciplinary problems, Olson has even persuaded senior guard Salim Stoudamire to see things his way. Stoudamire is having the best season of his college career, and said after Sunday's Oregon State game that his relationship with Olson is the best it has ever been. Olson later agreed. 

RELATED: Remembering Lute Olson: On top of the world

Stoudamire also said it would be special to clinch the conference title and break the record for Olson with a win against the No. 14 Huskies because they are such a good team.

"It's also special for coach to have stuck with us regardless of how we have reacted to him when he has given us criticism and things of that nature," Stoudamire said. 

Junior forward Hassan Adams also wants the team to get the record for Olson this weekend, but said the most important focus for the team and for Olson is the conference title.

"It's a team thing. He knows (it's about) getting that title," Adams said. "We're not going to change anything. We're just going to go in there with the right mind, the right mindset to just jump on them and play Arizona basketball."

Through his longevity, Olson has established what playing Arizona basketball means over the last 22 seasons. It has won him a national championship, at least a share of 11 Pac-10 titles, 18 consecutive 20-win seasons, four Final Four appearances, seven Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards and two National Coach of the Year awards.

As Wooden said, longevity plays a huge part in getting to where Olson is. It is also about having fewer valleys than peaks and flat ground - consistency, both physically and mentally, on the court and off. That has been Lute Olson basketball for the last two decades- the accolades and records, like his players, just fall in line.


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