Former Iowa, Arizona Coach Lute Olson Passes Away

Lute Olson, the Hall of Fame coach who spent nine years at Iowa and became a legend at Arizona, passed away Thursday. He was 85 years old. He had many run-in with Bob Knight during his time in the Big Ten.
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Lute Olson, the silver-haird former coach who had many good run-ins with Bob Knight during his nine years at Iowa, passed away on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 85 years old.

Olson coached at Iowa from 1974 to 1983, turning around a last-place program when he arrived and reaching the Final Four in 1980. He made five straight NCAA tournaments before leaving for Arizona, where he spent 25 years and turned that mostly irrelevant program into a national power.

Olson had been in failing health since suffering a stroke in 2019, his second in 10 years.

Olson and Knight butted heads often during their time together in the Big Ten. Olson arrived just when those great Indiana teams with Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Kent Bensons were dominating college basketball in 1975 and 1976. But within a few years, Olson had turned the Hawkeyes program around.

A low point for Knight was in January of 1979, when Olson Hawkeyes embarrassed the Hoosiers 90-61. (Iowa was co-champions that year with Michigan State and Purdue). Knight had beaten Olson 10 of the first 12 times they met, an that included an embarrassing 102-49 beatdown in their first-ever meeting in 1975. But in the early 1980s that changed, with Olson winning five of their last six meetings.

They exchanged harsh words often, and one time, Olson shot back: "I will not let you intimidate me."

"He is a nice guy, at least until you beat him," Olson wrote in his 2007 book, "Lute!: The Seasons of my Life.''

Knight had a lot of heated rivalries back in those days, most publicly with Purdue's Gene Keady. But Knight at least had a great deal of respect for Keady,and all the noise was mostly because of the intense in-state rivalry. 

The same couldn't be said for Olson, whom Knight thought pushed the envelope with NCAA recruiting rules and talked about it quietly behind closed doors. He thought so while Olson was at Iowa, and definitely thought so even more when Olson had all that success in Arizona. 

There was a great story during the 1987 Final Four that when UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian had beaten Olson and Arizona to start the season, Tarkanian was awoken by a phone call the following morning, The voice on the other end kept yelling at a half-awake coach 'To hell with Lute Olson! To hell with Lute Olson!''

It was Bob Knight, who reveled in Tarkanian beating Olson.

The biggest head-to-head recruiting battle between Knight and Olson was for Isiah Thomas in the late 1970s. Thomas was an inner-city Chicago legend, and everyone wanted him. Knight was all-in on recruiting Thomas, whom many considered his most important recruit. DePaul was a powerhouse at the time, and there was a lot of pressure for him to stay home in Chicago.

But Iowa was also heavily in the mix, too. Olson had turned around the Iowa program by winning several recruiting battles for inner-city Chicago kids. Thomas had been to Iowa's basketball camps for several summers, and Olson was winning the Big Ten in 1979 with another Chicago point guard legend, Ronnie Lester.

There were many rumors about teams throwing money at the Thomas family to convince Isiah to come their way. Knight, who was always above reproach in recruiting and railed against cheaters often, never called out Iowa publicly, but there was certainly a lot of bad blood between the two staffs. (The staffs at Illinois and Iowa clashed often, too.)

Mary Thomas, Isiah's strong-willed mother, eventually made the decision for him because she saw in Knight exactly what she wanted for her son, a strict disciplinarian who would get the most out of her son by riding herd on him.

"That's how my mom raised me," Thomas said several years ago. "(Knight) was a lot softer on me than my mom was. She admired his honesty and discipline. At the time, he was one of only a few coaches who didn't come in and try to bribe my mom. My mom never took the money. We kept telling her, 'Take the money.'" 

Lester talked to the Des Moines Register earlier this week about Olson.

“The first thing I would say about Lute Olson is he’s a class individual. He always did things the right way, he always did things with class — representing himself and the university," Lester told the Register this week. "He recruited a certain type of player. I think that was a part of him, his whole persona. He changed the culture at Iowa, I think. He was the right coach at Iowa to get that program back to winning, because of the culture that he brought there.”

Olson left for Arizona in 1983 and turned a moribund program into a national powerhouse. Arizona had only made three NCAA tournaments ever before he arrived and were 1-17 in  the Pac-10 the previous season, but Olson turned the program into one of the best in the country. He made four Final Fours there and won the national title in 1997, beating three No. 1 seeds, including Rick Pitino's Kentucky team in the final. 

He won at least 20 games for 20 straight seasons, something only five college coaches — Olson, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Dean Smith and Mark Few — have done. He had 46 career NCAA tournament victories, one more than Knight, and one less than UCLA coach John Wooden. He was seventh all-time in career wins (781) when he retired.

Current Arizona coach Sean Miller — the brother of current Indiana coach Archie Miller — told ESPN that he learned a lot about Olson in speaking with his former players and people in the Tucson community.

"He had no weaknesses as a coach," Miller said. "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."

In 2002, Olson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of eight coaches to reach five or more Final Fours and one of 11 coaches who have taken two different teams to the Final Four. Olson averaged nearly 23 victories per year in over 30 years of coaching, achieved 29 winning seasons in over 30 years of coaching, and in 34 seasons as a Division I head coach, compiled a 781–280 record (.736). His first season at Arizona was his only losing season. 

A  statue of Olson was erected outside the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson in 2018. The Wildcats' home court inside McKale was named in his honor in 2000, then became "Lute and Bobbi Olson Court" a year later to honor his late wife.

Olson compiled a 25–12 (.676) record in NCAA Tournament games and 28 of his last 29 teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament (23 straight at Arizona and 5 straight at Iowa).

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