On March 29, 1983, Lute Olson stood in front of a small group of reporters at McKale Center and mentioned the word “potential” when it seemed like Arizona had none.
Most 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.
That was the date 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. Arizona’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, Olson coached the Hawkeyes to a Final Four appearance in 1980, but he was not a household name, especially not 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.”
Arizona guard Brock Brunkhorst, who was retained by Olson and went on to help the Wildcats reach the 1985 NCAA tournament in Olson’s second season, perhaps said it best to The Arizona Daily Star about the new coach:
“The situation here is ripe. Now, the interest will be renewed and spread. I really believe we can win right away, especially with this type of coach.”
In honor of Lute Olson, who passed away today at 85 years old, here is a ranking of his top accomplishments:
- National championship in 1997
- Olson was selected for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on June 5, 2002.
- Coached first team to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to the NCAA title.
- Coached Arizona to four Final Fours.
- Coached Arizona to its first Final Four in the 1987-88 season behind All-American Sean Elliott and fan favorite Steve Kerr.
- Coached Arizona to 11 Sweet 16s.
- Coached Arizona to seven Elite Eights.
- Selected National Coach of the Year in 1988 and 1990.
- In only his second season, 1984-85, Olson coached Arizona to its First NCAA tournament appearance in eight years.
- Teams earned 25 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament (two interim staffs with his recruited players carried the Wildcats that far in 2007-08 and 2008-09)
- Tied North Carolina’s Dean Smith for the most consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament (23).
- Teams captured 11 Pac-10 titles. Arizona earned only one conference title in the previous 29 seasons and earned three NCAA tournament berths.
- 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.
- Guided Arizona to the top of the polls for the first time in school history on Dec. 21, 1987.
- Teams were No. 1 team for 30 different polling periods, with the last coming on five consecutive occasions in 2002-03.
- Coached Arizona to the best cumulative winning percentage from 1998 to 2006.
- Teams won 71 straight games at McKale Center, the 10th longest homecourt streak in NCAA history.
- Achieved 589 of his 780 coaching victories at Arizona. He is the school’s winningest coach.
- 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.
- His 327 victories in Pac-10 play is the most conference wins in league history, more than John Wooden.
- Teams were ranked 312 consecutive weeks in the AP poll, a national record.
- Earned seven Pac-10 coach of the year honors.
- Nineteen of his players earned a total of 61 All-America accolades. Arizona players earned all-Pac-10 honors 47 times under him.
- Produced 32 NBA draft picks at Arizona, 53 overall, including 13 first-round picks.
- Since the NBA Draft was shortened to two rounds in 1989, Arizona led the nation with 29 total selections at the time of Olson’s retirement. Of the 13 first rounders, nine were lottery picks.
- Had 18 former players appear in the NBA Finals. Nine of his former Arizona players earned world championship rings, with 17 rings earned overall.
- Earned his 500th coaching victory when Miles Simon made three-quarters shot at the buzzer against Cincinnati in 1996.
- Inducted into the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
- Coached Sean Elliott into the best player in Arizona history with Elliott achieving a school-record 2,555 points, breaking Lew Alcindor’s Pac-12 scoring record at the time. Elliott eared the John R. Wooden Award in 1989.
- Coached Arizona to a 41-7 record against ASU.
- Had a winning record at Arizona against UCLA 28-24.
- 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.
- 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.
- Groomed 11 of his former players to become head coaches at various levels of basketball, most notably Steve Kerr as a three-time NBA champion with the Golden State Warriors.
- Nine of his assistant coaches at Arizona went on to head coaching positions at the Division I level.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.