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Lute Olson Leaves an Indelible Mark on the Arizona Program He Built Into a Power

Looking back at the legendary coach's legacy with the Wildcats and the unlikely turnaround he orchestrated in Tucson.

In December 1987, a time when newspapers still had silly money and serious ambition, I was dispatched by The (Louisville) Courier-Journal to Tucson for a story on Arizona basketball, a blooming phenomenon far off the beaten path of college hoops. At the time Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the nation, nothing shocking there. Arizona was ranked No. 2, which was unprecedented.

The coach, Lute Olson, had surprisingly withdrawn from the Kentucky job search a couple of years earlier, and the blueblood hired Eddie Sutton instead. (That didn’t end well.) Our managing editor, a huge Kentucky fan, wanted to know how all of this was possible—how could anyone turn down Kentucky to stay at Arizona, and how could Arizona become this good?

At more established basketball programs, a kid newspaper reporter from Kentucky might get some cursory courtesy access—a few minutes on the side with coach and players after a game, maybe a little more. Olson, building something from scratch in the desert and damn proud of it, welcomed me like I worked for, well, Sports Illustrated.

I spent nearly an hour with him in his office, and I’ve never seen a coach love a stat sheet more than Lute on that morning. He liked things to be just so, from his carefully combed silver hair to his creased khakis to his basketball, and he went over the numbers in fine detail. He was like a chemist who had finally perfected a formula, and couldn’t wait to show off his work.

Former Arizona coach Lute Olson

Olson pointed out every statistic that was emblematic of that breakthrough Arizona team. He loved the assist-to-turnover ratio, a sign of unselfishness and fastidious care of the basketball. He was proud of the shooting percentages that reflected prudent shot selection. He noted the opponents’ shooting percentage, saying his team was underrated defensively.

He had talented and experienced players with interesting personalities—Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, among others. He believed he had the best team in America.

“I vote on the UPI board, and I voted Kentucky No. 1, primarily because they had been No. 1 and haven’t lost yet,” Olson said that morning. “I don’t think there’s any question we’ve played a tougher schedule, and there could be a lot of grounds for looking at us.”

The college basketball world has been looking at Arizona ever since. From that 1987–88 team onward, an unlikely blueblood has flourished.

Olson, who died Thursday night at age 85, did the hardest thing in college sports. He built something out of nothing, and then he sustained it.

The season before he arrived after breathing life into Iowa, Arizona had gone 4–24, its fourth straight losing season. The burst of progress under Fred Snowden in the 1970s had stalled. This looked like a dead-end job in the desert.

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Instead it became a destination job. From Olson’s second season to his last, Arizona made the NCAA tournament every year—23 straight, with four Final Fours and one national title, in 1997. That remains the last national title won by a Pac-12 team, and by anyone west of Kansas.

SI VAULT: Olson, Arizona Win the 1997 National Championship

There also were three trips to the Elite Eight and a whopping 11 Pac-12 titles, giving the conference something other than UCLA to hang its hat on. If you were ranking the greatest coaches in league history not named John Wooden, Olson tops that list.

That 1987–88 team still holds the school record for wins, going 35–3. The Wildcats made the first Final Four in school history before losing to a juggernaut Oklahoma team, which was favored to win the national title but then was upset two nights later by Danny Manning and Kansas. That team began a string of 20 straight seasons with at least 20 wins, something that at the time only Dean Smith could exceed (with 27).

Olson was a punctilious teacher of the game and an accomplished strategist, but mostly he was a formidable recruiter. Did he mix it up in a way that might have pushed the NCAA bylaw envelope? Well, he did earn the nickname “Midnight Lute” from the reigning outlaw of the West, none other than Jerry Tarkanian (after flipping Tolbert from a UNLV commitment).

Former Arizona coach Lute Olson talks to his bench

Thus what began with Elliott and Kerr did not end with Elliott and Kerr. It was extended by players like Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire, Henry Bibby and Miles Simon, Andre Iguodala and Jason Terry, Loren Woods and Jason Gardner.

Despite the smooth exterior, there also was a churning chippiness inside Olson. Upon the triumphant occasion of winning the 1994 West Regional and making his second Final Four, Olson launched a remarkably petty tirade against a local Arizona reporter in the postgame press conference. Occasionally he got hot under that starched collar.

But Olson made Arizona a national force—the kind of place that could attract a rising star like Sean Miller in 2009, and will attract another star after him at some point—by anchoring himself there for decades. He became one of the foremost salesmen for the state’s quality of life, the silver fox fitting in smoothly among the gray-haired fans who populate the lower bowl of the McKale Center. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with Tucson, which is why he was able to say no to places like Kentucky even before he’d built Arizona into a power.

“The tradition of the Kentucky program is something that everyone who’s ever coached a basketball game would love that opportunity,” Olson told me that morning in his office. “But as we discussed everything in connection with it, it became a case of, ‘Well, if I coach another five years or 10 years or whatever, then we can always come back to Tucson.’ … It finally got down to, ‘If everything revolves around coming back to Tucson, who needs leaving Tucson?’ “

Lute Olson never left. And Arizona basketball remains a power today because he stayed.