Arizona Basketball

Icon, Father Figure, Mentor, coach Lute Olson will be missed

What do you say to a man who had an impact on a city, a school, a program, thousands of fans and 100s of players through decades of success and a national championship? You say thank you, thank you, thank you, Lute Olson.

589 thank yous for the number of wins he had at Arizona.

The man with the regal and towering presence will be missed.

He turned McKale Center into mayhem for opponents, rarely did he lose in McKale. Tucson became a basketball town.

His impact on and off the court is immeasurable, especially to a Tucson community that loved him for nearly 40 years. He turned the University of Arizona into a blue-blood basketball program. He was named to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002.

Photo courtesy Matt Othick

“He was an icon,” said Cedric Dempsey, the man who brought him to Tucson in 1983 in hopes Olson would work the same magic in Tucson as he did in Iowa City. “He brought credibility to the program. He was the best basketball coach in the conference for years. His success helped us get other coaches as well.”

Robert Luther Olson – the man everyone knew as Lute – passed away Thursday night after a lengthy illness. He was 85 years old, just one month shy of his 86th birthday.

“I’ve been preparing myself for this for some time, but I’m not prepared,” said Pete Williams, often called the Cornerstone to the program that Lute built at Arizona. “All I can say is that I am who I am because of him! He is my rock, my go-to when things are tough, and my vow has always and will continue to be to make him proud, and I do that by living my life the right way, and treating people the way I expect to be treated! I love him like you couldn’t believe!”

Craig McMillan, Steve Lavin, Lute Olson and Matt Muehlebach (photo courtesy Steve Lavin)

As many players have through the years of blood, sweat and tears. And there will are plenty of tears from many as news broke earlier this week that he was in failing health. In fact, he had been ill for some time, taking his fight into overtime – maybe double overtime – after suffering a stroke in 2019. He had been a fixture at UA basketball games throughout his retirement but stopped going to games after that stroke in early 2019.

“I lost my coach, father figure, and mentor,” former UA All-American Damon Stoudamire said on Thursday night. “This is a hard pill to swallow.”

Steve Kerr, one of Arizona’s favorite sons and former UA greats, tweeted: “It’s hard to put into words how much Lute Olson meant to me. He was an amazing coach & a wonderful man. Being part of the U of A basketball family changed my life forever. I will never forget Coach O, those awesome nights at McKale Center and all my teammates. Thank you, Coach, – I love you.”

Kerr’s teammate, Tom Tolbert, and one of the players who brought funny angst to Olson in the mid-1980s, said, “Lute was someone who taught me responsibility and accountability. As much as we butted heads, I realized he made me not only a better player but a better person. I actually think he found the ‘me hiding in the fountain story funny’ … I love him and will always be grateful for my time playing for him. Bear Down, always.”

Corey Williams who played for Lute in the 1990s and help UA get to the 1994 Final Four said Lute was “the most genuine person I have ever met. I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be without his impact. From being my coach to being my mentor and friend, he showed me that his guidance and love went far beyond basketball and it lasted a lifetime.”

Ben Davis, who played for Lute in the mid-1990s, spent about 15 minutes waxing poetic about Olson at the first Lute Olson Fantasy Camp, saying he was instrumental in shaping his life as a player and as a man, said Thursday night: “He was a great man. He was a father figure and I am extremely sad.”

Craig McMillan, Olson’s first McDonald’s All-American player and now a junior college basketball coach in northern California said, “Coach O had a huge influence on my life. His lessons still influence me.”

Said Matt Othick: “Coach Olson had an incredible basketball mind, but his biggest gift was his ability to adapt to his players strength’s. He made all of us better players and people. I feel blessed to have been a small part of his life and success. Love you Coach.”

“No player, coach, or support staff member had any idea of the opportunities that awaited, the lifelong connections to be made, or the sense of family that permeated when Lute Olson extended an invitation to join his program. Coach O was a Hall of Famer in every regard, but it was his ability to spot talent and instill it with a trust, confidence, and freedom to do our jobs that inspired us to be better than we thought possible. As a fan of college basketball, it’s tough to imagine the game, especially those in McKale Center, without him.”
— Richard Paige, Arizona men’s basketball media relations contact from 2000-13.
Presently, the Director of Marketing and Media Relations at Wabash College.

Olson was a five-time national Coach of the Year and a seven-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year. He finished with a record of 589-187 in 24 seasons at Arizona. He led Arizona to four Final Fours, including the aforementioned National Championship in 1997, stunning No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.

“I love Coach O,” Mike Bibby said early Friday morning. “Great coach even better human being.”

Bennett Davison, who famously mussed Olson’s hair after UA defeated Kentucky in the 1997 title game, said he will miss Lute and offered up a suggestion.

“We all take a little something from the coaches that influenced us,” Davison said. “Tucson should rename Tucson’s main drag, to “Lute Speedway Blvd.”

Olson retired in 2007, finishing with 327 Pac-10 wins. It’s the most in conference history.  His win percentage in the conference – 76.4 – is second only to former UCLA great John Wooden.

Josh Pastner, one of the many players who worked under Lute Olson after graduating from UA, said it was “a sad day” for those who knew Lute.

“He literally built the U of A and built Tucson,” Pastner said in a text to me.

Pastner also tweeted: “Coach Olson is the absolute best, one of the greatest coaches every and one of the greatest human beings ever. My feelings of gratitude and appreciation cannot be put into words. I love him dearly. My heart hurts, but I know he is now in heaven. May God bless his family. #RIP.”

Player tributes poured in throughout the night on Thursday. Many of them played in the NBA after four years in the program. Channing Frye was one of them.

“Thank you coach for taking a chance on some skinny kid from Chandler, Az,” Frye tweeted. “I owe my whole basketball career to you and what you taught me. I’m gonna miss you.”

Said Reggie Geary, who played helped UA to a Final Four in 1994 and later coached under Lute: “Coach Olson meant the world to me and my family. My whole adult life Coach has been a powerful voice and mentor for me. At every major event of my life and countless others’ lives, Coach O was there to guide, encourage, and celebrate our biggest accomplishments. As a player, he saw my value and allowed me to blossom in his system. As a coach, he gave me my first professional job. He will be greatly missed by so many, and that’s a true testament to his life as not only a brilliantly successful coach but also a family man and community icon. I am grateful I had the opportunity to be coached, taught, mentored, and respected by such a legendary man. Candace and I send our condolences to Kelly and the entire Olson family.”

Said Matt Muehlebach: “So blessed to have played for him. A master teacher of basketball and life. His impact on the U of A, the Tucson community and the state was unbelievable. He built such an amazing culture and uofa basketball family that is thriving even today.”

All American guard Jason Gardner texted me to say: “He was like a father figure to me. He had me come across the country and I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world.”

Former UA basketball manager Todd Walsh talked about being a freshman at UA, realizing he needed more money if he was to continue.

“I miscalculated the cost of attending the U of A. I thought my meals were a part of tuition,” Walsh said. “I had no money to survive. I was selling my plasma and washing dishes at Noodles and Crust when I applied for the job. I had a dream of playing baseball. Basketball was barely on my radar. I asked if they needed an announcer! Soon I was getting a scholarship check and eventually a full ride. My life was never the same, again. He gave me a work ethic that I have adhered to and embraced to this very day.”

Arizona coach Sean Miller issued a statement through the UA:

“Since I arrived in Tucson almost 12 years ago, I have been asked hundreds of times, ‘What made Coach Olson so successful?'”  Miller said. “Having asked his former players, coaches and people in our community the same question, I came to a final conclusion: He had no weaknesses as a coach. He was a tremendous teacher of the game. He was a relentless recruiter. He was an astute evaluator of talent. He was a fierce and confident leader. He was more than a coach to all of his players. To this day, there is a connection and closeness between generations of Arizona players that will last forever. He was a leader in our community and gave his time and resources for more than three decades. He was always helpful and supportive of me. I will miss seeing him at our home games and hearing our crowd yell, ‘Lute!’ My family joins all of the current members of the Arizona Basketball program in sending our condolences and prayers to his wife, Kelly, and the entire Olson Family. I am forever grateful to be a part of the basketball program and community that he impacted so immensely. Coach O will certainly be missed, but always remembered by us.”

Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said: “I am deeply saddened with the passing of the great Lute Olson. Coach was an iconic figure in college basketball who put the University of Arizona’s basketball program on the map. Yet his legacy extends well beyond the court. He impacted thousands of lives, inspiring young men to reach beyond their potential and instilling service to others as a cornerstone of a person’s character. He will be greatly missed by all who love the University of Arizona.”

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