My Ode to Lute

I was sitting in the bleachers at one of the gyms in Las Vegas nearly two decades ago watching an AAU game when Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner asked me, then a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, for a favor.

Pastner was going to one gym to watch a top Arizona recruit, but he wanted Lute Olson to watch another prospect on the other side of the city.

“Do you mind taking Coach O?” Pastner asked me.

Do I mind?

Olson was the head basketball coach when I attended Arizona in the early-1990s. He’s the person primarily responsible for turning me into a diehard college hoops fan. My dad would take me to Big East games when I was little, but I received my college basketball education at McKale Center, where I’d sit in the rabid student section and watch Olson roam the sidelines, coaching guys like Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Chris Mills.

But I never imagined that one day I’d have a personal relationship with Olson.

That all changed on that day in Vegas.

I hopped in my rental car with the Hall of Fame coach in the passenger seat, completely awestruck. I’d met and interviewed the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Roger Clemens and Wayne Gretzky, and was rarely — if ever — nervous.

This time was different.

Olson was a god in Arizona, and for valid reason. He didn’t just own the city of Tucson, he owned the entire state. The silver fox, as some referred to him, was the architect of a college program that went from irrelevance to a national powerhouse.

Arizona had won a total of 54 games in its first five seasons after making the move from the WAC to the Pac-10 in 1978. In 1982-83, the Wildcats won a total of four games and just one in league play.

Two years later, Olson had Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, the first of his 23 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tourney. He wound up going to a handful of Final Fours in his career, which included an improbable national championship in 1997 in which the ‘Cats did the unthinkable and knocked off a trio of No. 1 seeds.

Olson went to the NCAA Tournament in 28 of his final 29 seasons, which included a string of five straight at Iowa from 1978-83. His 781 career victories rank 14th on the all-time winningest list.

I interviewed Olson on a couple of occasions while I was a student at Arizona, but to me, he was almost a mythical figure, running one of the elite college basketball programs in the country. He had adapted well to the times, going from a program with a slew of big men — Bison Dele, Sean Rooks and Ed Stokes — to one that was eventually known as “Point Guard U” thanks to the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner.

We got into the car, but hadn’t made it out of the parking lot when Olson informed me about his revised plan: We weren’t going to see a recruit because it was already mid-afternoon and Olson hadn’t eaten lunch yet.

So we drove out towards the Vegas mountains to some obscure Italian restaurant, a spot Olson told me he frequented when he was in town to recruit, and wound up having a near three-hour marathon lunch.

I just wanted to hear memories of when he coached Sean Elliott, or listen to him discuss the incredible run in which Arizona knocked off Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to cut down the nets in Indianapolis in 1997, and maybe ask what it was like when he first got to Tucson and how he was able to completely flip the program.

I desperately wanted stories about him growing up in North Dakota, his career path from being a high school coach to coaching at Long Beach City College (1969-73) and how he rebuilt Iowa and got the Hawkeyes to the Final Four in 1980.

But Olson didn’t want to talk about himself.

While I basically forced Olson to tell his share of stories, he was far more interested in finding out about me and my family, my young daughter and why I opted to come out to Tucson all the way from Boston.

That was always the case during my friendship with Olson.

When I would make my yearly trips out to Tucson to see the Wildcats play, I’d always grab a meal with Olson, and when he’d visit Boston, we’d meet for dinner in the North End. We’d talk about my dreams, my aspirations, my goals.

There were also random calls and texts from him, just to check in and see how I was doing. He’d gone through some health issues, which basically forced him into retirement in 2008, but he’d always bounced back strong.

But the stroke he suffered in Feb. of 2019 hit him hard. He was in his early 80s and it was clear that he wasn’t quite the same. A fixture at Arizona games after his retirement, Olson didn’t attend any this past season.

I texted his wife, Kelly, that I was coming into town for a quick trip past January for the Arizona State game. After the game, I made the 30-minute drive north to his house in the mountains.

He was able to talk, but his speech was slow. Kelly helped him get from the kitchen table to the chair in front of the TV. He still smiled throughout and told a few stories about the old days, but he mostly did what he did with so many.

Olson listened.

I drove away that night in early January and was worried this might be the last time I saw him. It was tough to see him aging, but I’m so glad he allowed me that one final visit where I got to say goodbye. No, I wasn’t one of his players, and never worked for him as a manager or coach, but Olson had a huge presence in my life.

He fostered my love of college basketball and then, more importantly, he became a friend.

Olson passed away on Thursday night at the age of 85.

What I want people to know about Lute Olson is that he wasn’t just one hell of a basketball coach, but was also a man who took an interest in a 20-something-kid who was breaking into the business as a recruiting writer. He didn’t do it like some others to get information from me about recruits. There was no ulterior motive.

And if you talk to just about anyone that played for Olson, whether it’s Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Miles Simon, Damon Stoudamire or Josh Pastner, they’ll all say the same thing:

Olson was one hell of a coach, but an even better person.

RIP, Coach O.