Thirty years ago today, Lute Olson stood in front of a small group of reporters at McKale Center and mentioned the word “potential” when describing his new challenge at Arizona.
Practically all of the people in the room did not know anything about Olson and why or how he could bring out the potential in the downtrodden program.
The date was March 29, 1983, when former athletic director Cedric Dempsey officially hired Olson from Iowa and introduced him to Tucsonans. Seventeen days earlier, the Wildcats finished a 4-24 season under Ben Lindsey, who was fired after his lone season in Tucson. The UA’s 1-17 record in the Pac-10 that season stands as the worst in the program’s history.
During his nine-year tenure at Iowa he coached the Hawkeyes to a Final Four appearance in 1980, but he was not a household name, especially in Tucson.
“I feel the potential is here at Arizona,” said Olson, who knew that Fred Snowden took the Wildcats a game away from the Final Four in 1976.
“It won’t be a case of waving a wand and it suddenly happens. It will take time and it will be exciting. You build a program with good people. Good people in the long run will build a successful program. We will work as hard as we can to build a first-class program.”
With this being the 30-year anniversary of Olson’s hire at Arizona, I offer you …
The Top 30 Lute Olson Accomplishments at Arizona
1. National championship in 1997
2. Olson was selected for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on June 5, 2002.
3. Coached first team to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to the NCAA title.
4. Coached Arizona to four Final Fours.
5. Coached Arizona to its first Final Four in the 1987-88 season behind All-American Sean Elliott and fan favorite Steve Kerr.
6. Coached Arizona to 11 Sweet 16s.
7. Coached Arizona to seven Elite Eights.
8. In only his second season, 1984-85, Olson coached Arizona to its First NCAA tournament appearance in eight years.
9. His teams made 25 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament (two interim staffs with his recruited players carried the Wildcats that far in the last two seasons)
10. Olson tied North Carolina’s Dean Smith for the most consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament (23).
11. His teams captured 11 Pac-10 titles. Arizona earned only one conference title in the previous 29 seasons and earned three NCAA tournament berths.
12. Olson is the last coach to win a major international men’s basketball championship with a roster made completely of amateur athletes. 1986 World Championship in Madrid, Spain.
13. He guided Arizona to the top of the polls for the first time in school history on Dec. 21, 1987.
14. His teams were No. 1 team for 30 different polling periods, with the last coming on five consecutive occasions in 2002-03.
15. He coached Arizona to the best cumulative winning percentage from 1998 to 2006.
16. His teams won 71 straight games at McKale Center, the 10th longest homecourt streak in NCAA history
17. He earned his 500th coaching victory when Miles Simon made three-quarters shot at the buzzer against Cincy in 1996.
18. Olson set the standard for scheduling tough opponents. Arizona played 49 non-conference, regular-season games against team that played in the Final Four later that season. UA played teams that went on to the title game in 11 of his last 13 seasons. Faced 74 ranked non-conference opponents.
19. He achieved 589 of his 780 coaching victories at Arizona. He is the school’s winningest coach.
20. His 327 victories in Pac-10 play is the most conference wins in league history, more than John Wooden.
21. His teams were rankaed 312 consecutive weeks in the AP poll, a national record.
22. He earned seven Pac-10 coach of the year honors.
23. Nineteen of his players earned a total of 61 All-America accolades. Arizona players earned all-Pac-10 honors 47 times since 1984.
24. Produced 32 NBA draft picks at Arizona, 53 overall. No school in the Pac-12 has produced as many first round picks in the last 25 years than Arizona’s 13.
25. Since the NBA Draft was shortened to two rounds in 1989, Arizona leads the nation with 29 total selections. Thirteen of those selections were first rounders, including nine lottery picks.
26. Olson had 16 former players appear in the NBA Finals in the last 16 years. In that span, 10 former UA players earned world championship rings.
27. He coached Arizona to a 41-7 record against ASU.
28. He had a winning record at Arizona against UCLA 28-24.
29. Olson guided Arizona to 20 consecutive 20-win seasons, and is one of only three coaches in NCAA history to record 29 or more 20-win seasons.
30. He came to Tucson with his wife of 47 years, Bobbi Olson, who touched many in Tucson before passing away because of ovarian cancer in 2001
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner