To a young reporter starting his first major beat, walking into Lute Olson’s office at McKale Center was like stepping into the Oval Office with John F. Kennedy sitting behind the Resolute desk.
The moment remains fresh in my mind although it occurred in 1995.
I introduced myself as The Arizona Daily Star’s new writer covering his program. He welcomed me, told me to have a seat and asked of my background.
I informed him I graduated from Sunnyside High School and attended Arizona before becoming a full-time reporter covering high school sports and then various Arizona athletics. He nodded his head and swiveled a bit in his chair.
“I’ll tell you one thing I tell all the reporters who have covered our teams,” I remember Olson saying, “and that is if you treat us fairly, we’ll treat you fairly.”
“Yes sir,” I said with my most official voice as possible even although I’m sure Olson saw a glimpse of the kid who was voted the most bashful of his senior class in high school.
I was sitting face to face with the legendary Lute Olson, the coach my brothers and I saw administer his first practices at McKale in October 1983 when I was a junior at Sunnyside.
We sat in the bleachers to stay out of view as to not be a distraction. Nobody else was in the arena beside us and the players and coaches. That was when practices were open to the public, long before Arizona became what it was during Olson’s golden years.
In 1988, my third year at the Star, I ran from the court up McKale’s steps to get to a pay phone to beat deadline by dictating a story of Arizona celebrating its first trip to the Final Four. The Wildcats arrived from Seattle, where it dispatched Dean Smith and North Carolina, and were welcomed by a large crowd.
Meeting Olson in his office and being at McKale to report on Arizona’s first Final Four celebration were a couple of many surreal moments this Tucson sports journalist was fortunate to experience when Olson coached the Wildcats.
I was courtside at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis covering Arizona’s national championship team in 1997. That night is still not real in my mind. How could a kid from a barrio on the southside of Tucson be so close to a historic moment involving Wildcat basketball?
The next morning after about 2 hours of sleep, I received a phone call from one of my editors that Olson was to be interviewed on NBC’s Today show. I rushed to get to the hotel where he was live on the air.
We did not have a lot of time for in-depth interviews after Arizona beat Kentucky because of deadline, so it was a good chance to get a one-on-one with him. I walked with him from the room he was interviewed to his rental car outside.
Olson seemed to get a little emotional after I asked him what winning his first title meant to him. His team lost nine games in the regular season and went on an unthinkable magical run in the NCAA tournament.
Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson, A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison and Jason Terry and the rest followed through on the promise created by Pete Williams, Eddie Smith, Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, etc.
“All of the players from the past played a part in this championship,” Olson said. “We got to this point through a long, meaningful process. This group has been a never-say-die group. They’ve had faith in themselves. They had faith in their teammates.”
Less than two months after Arizona won the title, I sat at the same table as Olson and his late wife Bobbi at an outdoor eatery in Melbourne, Australia when Arizona was on a tour of the Land Down Under.
Talk about surreal.
That was the first time in my two years on the beat that I engaged in small talk with Olson, who was far removed from the pressures of the regular season. It was a brief talk. He asked me if I was enjoying the trip. Bobbi talked about the culture over there, including the cuisine some of the players and I were about to try – kangaroo.
“Mix between liver and steak,” I told Bobbi when she asked me what I thought of the taste. How I got to that spot in my life, halfway across the world, eating with the Olsons, still makes me scratch my head.
Bobbi kept Lute balanced. That bond was just as important as the talent of the players for Arizona to become a national power. The stories about those apple pancakes she made for the players were never over the top. An example of her endearing personality: When Arizona’s 19-game winning streak was snapped by USC late in the 1997-98 season at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Bobbi hugged reporters outside of the locker room and told us, “Please take it easy on them.”
After Bobbi passed away from cancer in 2001, Arizona was not quite the same. The Wildcats came a game away from reaching the Final Four in 2005, but the program energized by those great teams of the 1980’s and 1990’s was running out of gas.
Olson experienced personal issues that led to his leave of absence saga in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons before he officially retired.
Leading up to Lute earning his 500th career victory in 1996, I wrote a lengthy story for the Star about Olson’s background titled, “The road to success – Young Olson found calling by going West.”
It detailed Olson leaving his Midwestern roots, where he was raised on a farm at Mayville, N.D. He moved to Boulder, Colo., in 1961 to be a counselor at a high school after coaching for five years in Minnesota. He contemplated an offer to return to coaching Two Harbors (Minn.) High School after that one year in Boulder, but he and Bobbi instead moved their family to Anaheim, Calif., so he could coach at a new school.
When Olson later coached at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 1965-69, he took his teams to watch some of John Wooden’s practices at UCLA.
“I don’t remember the exact circumstances of meeting Lute, but I recall simply liking him and his devotion to his family and basketball,” Wooden told me in an interview for the story in 1996. “We were both from the Midwest area (Wooden was born in Martinsville, Ind.).”
He then added about Lute’s relationship with Bobbi: “In life, there is love and balance. His personal life with his family kept him balanced. I knew he would move up the ladder as a coach and do well wherever he went because he had a strong foundation.”
Lute married Kelly Pugnea in 2010 after a failed marriage following Bobbi’s death, which contributed to his problems when took his leave of absences. I never got to know Pugnea on a personal level like I did with Bobbi, but from what I have been told, she rejuvenated his life.
In these last 10 years with her by his side, Lute’s relationships with his former players – his extended family – became stronger with plenty of reunions, including the functions of the successful Lute Olson Fantasy Camp in recent years.
His life came full circle in Tucson with much credit going to Kelly for providing him that necessary balance once again.
He is now reunited with Bobbi in a peaceful place, free from suffering after a stroke last year. They are together just like when they hugged each other in the Kingdome in Seattle after Arizona earned its first trip to the Final Four.
From a person who grew up in this community, and became fascinated about the promise of Arizona’s program first generated by Fred “The Fox” Snowden, I wish I had the opportunity to thank Lute Olson.
Strength will come from knowing what his spirit will mean to people around here.
A quarter-century following my nerve-wracking introduction to Olson on a professional level in his office — after thankfully experiencing firsthand some of Arizona’s finest moments during his Hall of Fame career — a feeling of calm exists.