A consistent winner…the legacy of Lute Olson (1934-2020)
The success of a college basketball coach too often is defined by the number of national titles acquired during a career.
Based on that criteria, John Wooden has to be recognized as the best of all time since he won 11 NCAA championships at UCLA. Mike Krzyzewski has won five at Duke, and still hoping to add more; Adolph Rupp built the Kentucky tradition by winning four; Jim Calhoun led UConn to three titles; and Denny Smith and Roy Williams each won two at North Carolina, with Williams still looking for more.
Lute Olson won just one national title, in 1997, when his Arizona Wildcats beat Kentucky in overtime.
But Olson, who spent nearly a half century coaching the game he loved, built his Hall of Fame career on a more difficult achievement. He was a consistent winner.
He spent 24 years at University of Arizona, another nine at Iowa, four coaching junior college, and 11 years developing his coaching style at the high school level. He won at every level.
The 85-year-old local legend passed away Thursday night while in hospice care.
There are other great college coaches who also made it to the top only once — Bobby Knight at Indiana and Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, to name a couple — but they all had that same quality of being consistently good, putting a winning team on the floor, year after year.
Consider this about Olson:
He led teams to the NCAA Tournament in 23 of the 24 years he served as Arizona’s head coach. And he put together an incredible string of 20 consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins.
While regular-season wins are important, a coach builds his reputation in the postseason. Olson not only guided his teams to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, but 10 times his teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen or better; four times they were a Final Four team.
Arizona fans came to expect their team to be included among those on their March Madness brackets. The excitement that his teams created on the Tucson campus resulted in sell-out crowds at McKale Center on a regular basis. From his second season until his final season during the 2006/07 school year, Arizona led the conference in attendance.
Olson had proven his ability to coach before coming to Arizona, posting six 20-win seasons in his nine years leading the Iowa program. When he was hired by UofA Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey in March of 1983, his job was to breathe new life into a moribund program that went 4-24 the year before.
By his second season, he began compiling 20-win seasons. And didn’t let up until he left the game; his final season at Arizona in 2006/07 ended with a 20-11 record.
Olson finished his UofA career with a 589-187 record and had won 15 Pac-10 regular-season and tournament titles. If you include head-coaching gigs at Long Beach State and Iowa, Olson racked up 781 career college wins, which ranks 14th in NCAA Division I history.
A stroke around the time he lost his wife of 47 years, Bobbi, to cancer in January of 2001 was the beginning of health issues that would plague him into retirement. He suffered a minor stroke as recently as February of 2019.
Following the 2006/07 season, he took a leave of absence for what was generally regarded as a medical leave. He had intended to return to the bench the next season, but abruptly retired as practices began.
Olson’s legacy will live on. In 2000, the court in McKale was named the “Lute and Bobbi Olson Court’ and two years ago a lifesize, $300,000 bronze statue of the coaching legend was installed outside the building.
Those remembrances will provide future Wildcat fans an opportunity to open a conversation about the man who led the Wildcats from obscurity to a national power.