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Remembering Lute Olson: On top of the world

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File Photo/The Daily Wildcat | The Daily Wildcat

Head coach Lute Olson will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Olson, who is entering his third decade as coach of the Wildcats, will be in Italy during the ceremony for his son's wedding. His speech will be broadcast on tape at the ceremonies.

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 Sept. 27, 2002, by David Stevenson.


For the gray-haired legend in the blue blazer and shimmering khaki slacks, basketball is as straightforward as it can be. 

It comes easily to him, obviously, considering he has more than 600 career wins.

For everything he has done in his 29-year career as a head coach, it will all come together tomorrow when Lute Olson will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame — on tape because he is in Italy for his son's wedding.

The ceremony will come 19 years after Olson adopted a hapless Arizona program and began turning it into a national powerhouse. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the nation in many preseason polls. 

But the success he has now didn't come easy; actually, it was anything but for the once-skinny kid from Maryville, N.D.

Olson inherited an Arizona program in 1983 that had never been to the Final Four and was coming off of a 4-24 season.

Arizona was in great position to recruit prospects from California, where he coached in Long Beach, both at Long Beach State and Long Beach Community College, but Olson also kept a pipeline to Chicago and the Midwest. The only problem was, as happy as Olson was to be in Tucson, persuading players to feel the same way and go to a team notorious for losing, in a city known for football, was another issue all together.

Olson pitched to recruits his well-rounded experience, for which basketball was simply just a part. His focus was on education and self-growth, along with improving as a player, especially on the defensive side of the basketball. At the end of every semester, he recognized his players who performed well in the classroom by reading off their grades in front of the team.

Olson made good on his promises, and eventually Arizona began to get its foot in the door and become a player in the national recruiting scene. 

But, results were not immediate. The Wildcats failed to qualify for post-season play in Olson's inaugural year, posting an 11-17 record, only the second time in his career that a team under his tenure finished under .500. In 1984-85, Olson's second season, the Wildcats, led by sophomore guard Steve Kerr, went 21-10 and made the NCAA tournament. It would be the first of 18, consecutive years UA would see post-season play.

The following year, freshman Tucson native Sean Elliott, considered Olson's most prized recruit, added another dimension to the team, as the Wildcats won their first Pacific 10 Conference dimension to the team, as the Wildcats won their first Pacific 10 Conference championship under Olson. 

Arizona basketball would never look back. 

With Kerr and Elliott on the floor, the Wildcats put Arizona on the map. In the 1987-88 season, Kerr's senior and Elliott's junior year, Olson's team amassed 35 wins against three losses. 

The same duo led the Wildcats to their first ever Final Four appearance, and Olson's second appearance in his coaching career. He also made the Final Four with Iowa in 1980.

RELATED: Remembering Lute Olson: At long last, Olson has reason to smile

People were starting to notice basketball in the southern Arizona.

"He raised the bar at Arizona where his kids play at a high performance all the time," said Jay John, a former UA assistant and current Oregon State head coach. "He's gotten his kids to perform year in and year out and you had to play your 'A' game, no matter what game you played in life."

But it is not all about basketball for Olson. 

Throughout his Arizona coaching career his teams have been well-disciplined, with a sense of class and grit that goes beyond basketball. He teaches them about life and the importance of community service. 

Off the court he takes them to banquets and local schools to teach his players the value of community service. Every year the players read to second and third graders for an afternoon once a week. They also visit children with cancer, making them realize that walking across campus to turn in a paper for a class is easier than battling chemotherapy.

"We'd always sign autographs for the kids and then we would speak to classes or school sports teams to give them some motivation," said former UA guard Matt Muehlebach, who played for Olson from 1988-91. "It isn't an easy thing to do to incorporate time for community service in college, but the players and I realized that it's something that isn't hard at all."

With his program established, Olson's team continued to excel. Three more Final Fours followed the trip in 1988, and in 1997 Olson guided a young team to the National Championship when his team beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, all No. 1 seeds and the three most successful programs in NCAA history.

Olson's career record of 663-235 translates into a .737 winning percentage that ranks sixth among active coaches. He ranks third all-time with 24 seasons with at least 20 wins.

In his less than 20 years in Tucson, he has become one of the most recognizable figures in southern Arizona, and he is not done yet. 

"I've been here for nine years and he's been an outstanding coach and a great person," said UA director of athletics Jim Livengood. "He is an extremely good staff member that cares about UA, which is why we are very fortunate to have him."


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