“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.”
- Singer James Taylor
Those lyrics sum up my time covering Lute Olson. I’ve seen unbelievable moments (beating No. 1 Kansas in 1997 en route to a national title) and some low moments (him dressing down the media and some first-round flops.
Great times to be sure.
Crazy, pressure-packed times were undeniable in the 17 years I followed him.
Early-morning calls to his home or cell seeking comment on some matter or two. It’s been a long, memorable road. I’ll never forget when Arizona won its NCAA title over Kentucky that April night in Indianapolis in 1997.
It was about two hours after the game and Olson was still there in the bowels of the RCA Dome, answering questions, when he saw his wife, Bobbi, waiting against a wall, telling her he’s almost done and he’d be right there.
With her quick wit, she promptly said she had waited 40-plus years for him for him to get done and that she could stay a little while longer. Bobbi knew this was his shining moment, his only title in five Final Four appearances (four with UA). I’ll never forget former player Bennett Davison mussing Olson’s hair just seconds before the final buzzer in UA’s 84-79 overtime win against Kentucky that night. I it was the last time I saw his hair messed up. I’ll never forget Olson talking briefly to the media in mid-December 2000 about his absence because of Bobbi’s illness, walking up the ramp at McKale Center and saying, “Merry Christmas” as he left. (He rarely if ever showed emotion).
She died about a week later from ovarian cancer.
How can I forget talking with him for about 30 minutes upon his return to practice just two weeks after he death? No one believed he could have returned to coaching so quickly. He showed rare emotion, tearing up a time or two in talking about his beloved wife of 47 year. It was a softer side he rarely exhibited.
I’ll never forget him pulling me aside and ripping into me and a colleague for writing about Joseph Blair’s academic troubles in 199, just after his team beat No. 13 UCLA in McKale Center.
I knew he had to vent.
How about the time, after a practice while on the Oregon Trail, when he called a Portland radio station to dispute a story about former player Damon Stoudamire?
And there was the night he went to every one of his players who he thought might be leaving for the NBA after UA’s title game loss to Duke in 2001? He thanked junior Richard Jefferson, sophomore Gilbert Arenas, junior Michael Wright and senior Loren Woods for their effort. None returned for another college season.
UA has not returned to another Final Four since. There was also UA’s second trip to the Final Four in 1994 – behind Khalid Reeves and Stoudamire – when the Wildcats, a No. 2 seed, knocked off No. 1 seed Missouri in Los Angeles in the Elite Eight.
It didn’t take long for Olson to get into it with the media about UA’s run that year, which came on the heels of first-round losses to East Tennessee State and Santa Clara.
He needed to vent again.
How about the shrug and quick smile he showed when former player Miles Simon hit a three-quarter court shot at the buzzer to beat Cincinnati 79-76 for his 500th win in 1996.
And the finger pointing to the scoreboard at Wells Fargo Arena, showing the ASU student section the lopsided score as the Sun Devil fans gave him a hard time the entire game. UA won 93-74.
“It’s 21 years of listening to (ASU fans) so I thought probably it’s time that I got a response,” he said. “In the past I’ve always ignored it, but I think that there’s a time when you should keep your mouth shut and enjoy the rest of the game. That didn’t keep them hushed. In fact, I got more. But at least I felt better.”
Kind of like how he felt when he and I took a walk near his foothills home as I gathered material for a story (about 20 years ago). He had been morning walker and that was the only time I could meet with him. We walked for about 90 minutes. After the first hour, I wished the walk would end. The next day had to take ibuprofen for my aches and pains. (He has me by 30 years).
A couple of weeks later he invited me for another walk knowing I’d never go through that again.
Those times are over. The Lute Olson era (at Arizona) is over.
History in what will eventually be categorized as historic moments in Arizona basketball history.
This story was first published when Lute retired more than 13 years ago. Lute passed away Thursday night.