The Lute Olson Legacy

2020 has claimed another victim and there is collateral damage. The passing of Hall of Famer Lute Olson in the midst of a pandemic might rob an entire region of one last hurrah for the man who transformed a cellar dwelling laughing-stock into a quarter of a century of blue-blooded college basketball.  Imagine the VIP section!

2020 has a certain cruelty to it.

Like the awkward end of his coaching career this another reminder that precious few of us ever get to draw up the final play or pen the final chapter.  But the preceding chapters?  Any Wildcat basketball fan can rattle off the CliffsNotes like they might have done their matriculation number.  The All Americans, the Conference Titles, NCAA appearances and the punctuation mark to it all: ONE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!  There’s a symmetry to that incantation and there are even more numbers to crunch: players drafted, contracts signed, NBA titles won, coaches spawned.  There’s even a broadcasting family tree.

But what you might not have ever heard is that this was all part of the plan.  I know, I was there from Day One.

The first practice is still talked about by those who were there. He was a taskmaster and every drill was measured and timed to the minute.  Every movement and every touch of the ball had a purpose. Lute was into analytics before there was analytics.

Most aren’t aware that Lute was a traveling salesman in the early days. There was a barnstorming tour crisscrossing the southern tier from Nogales to Sierra Vista to Casa Grande. After practicing in the local gyms, the new white-haired desert curiosity would pace the court with a blow horn and tell any who would listen that the Wildcats were about to be Arizona’s team, their team, and if you didn’t climb onboard then, you were missing out: tickets would be hard to come by. Winning was the ultimate goal. Not a little, but a lot.

But there was more to the process than cultivating wins and rebounding from losses: Lute Olson raised a fleet of young men who became an extension of himself.  He commanded and demanded respect for the entirety of the game.

Inevitably, like the very best coaches, like his idol John Wooden, over time ex-players began to realize that what he was teaching wasn’t just basketball. It was about life.  Almost daily he would hear from former players and staff. They all wanted to let their coach know that they finally “got it.” He always wrote back.

But how did he get players to commit to Tucson? At the onset, it was about playing time! Juco transfer Pete Williams was the first to show the way, eventually becoming the conference Player of the Year. Williams returned the trust in him by helping secure the biggest recruit in Lute’s era: Sean Elliott. Elliott stayed in town and prospered, and then later the likes of Mike Bibby, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson would follow suit by remaining in state.   Heck, a player named “Walton” signed with Arizona!  “Point Guard U?” The program began to recruit itself.

Ironically, however, the star-crossed story of Steve Kerr, a last-second scholarship add, is the true essence of Lute’s Midas touch. Kerr will tell you that he didn’t over-achieve and he has the championship hardware to back it up.  But he might never have seen the Division 1 light of day if Olson doesn’t spot him, to begin with.  That Kerr suffered an unspeakable and tragic loss in a parallel path of the program’s ascension galvanized the relationship between player and fan base. The city belonged to the Wildcat basketball team. There was no turning back.

Lute and Bobbi Olson left Iowa City because they felt like they were living in a fishbowl of Hawkeye fans.

But don’t kid yourself, Lute Olson was a builder. He got his strong, powerful hands plenty dirty. This wasn’t a Desert Southwest money grab to get another gig. At the age of 49, he was crafting a college basketball powerhouse totally in his vision. His West Coast ties, passion for the game and lust for recruiting were the perfect storm. The conference was there for the taking and he took it.  Soon, other programs in the Pac Ten began to reap the benefits of the Wildcats national exposure. If you couldn’t join him, try and beat ’em!

What happened out here is something we won’t ever see the likes of again.  He changed the face of the City of Tucson, the self-respect of the University, it’s fan base and the very image of the state.  It’s not a leap of faith to presume that a good part of the growth around campus over the last three decades is a direct connection to the machine that is now the basketball factory.  That’s pure economics.

But when you run across a member of the Wildcat basketball “family” and you see and hear what they say about living and learning about life through basketball via the wisdom and work ethic of their leader?  That’s not economics.  That’s coaching/teaching, living by example-A lifetime of it.

Lute promised that this was a bandwagon with plenty of room and asked that we climb aboard to enjoy the ride. He promised, he delivered, and we did.

Godspeed, Coach.