A day after he arrived in Tucson 35 years ago, Lute Olson was introduced to holdover UA assistant coach Ricky Byrdsong. In today’s language, it was going to be a parting of ways.
There was nothing in Byrdsong’s résumé that suggested he would be part of Olson’s grand reconstruction at McKale Center. Byrdsong was 26. His one season at Arizona was a 4-24 basketball disaster. His previous coaching stops were at Pratt Junior College and Eastern Illinois.
He was gone.
But during that brief meeting, Olson was impressed by Byrdsong’s infectious smile and sunny-side-up personality. There must’ve been 30 calls from more qualified assistants who wanted to be part of Olson’s maiden voyage in Tucson, but Olson was intrigued.
In the early madness of leaving Iowa and getting his keys to McKale Center, Olson invited Byrdsong and his wife to dinner. Two days later, Byrdsong was hired.
When Arizona unveils a statue to Olson on Thursday, it won’t all be about Final Fours and the grand players who advanced to the NBA. It’ll also be about Olson’s instincts, about the winners he employed and made part of the fabric of UA basketball.
For five years, Byrdsong became one of the leading recruiters in college basketball. He was on the scene when Sean Elliott, Craig McMillan, Steve Kerr and Anthony Cook led the Wildcats to the nation’s No. 1 ranking in 1987-88.
It wasn’t long before Byrdsong was a head coach in the Big Ten, at Northwestern.
Part of that statue will stand as a tribute to Ricky Byrdsong and to Jim Rosborough, too.
Rosborough played at Iowa, graduating in the late ’60s. He completed his degree work at Loyola of Chicago and became a junior high school coach/teacher in Chicago. When Olson was hired at Iowa in the spring of 1974, Rosborough phoned and told Olson about a Chicago prospect.
Again, there was a connection. Olson’s intuition told him he needed to find out more about this young junior high coach, this ex-Hawkeye, from Chicago.
A few weeks later, Olson hired Rosborough to be Iowa’s graduate assistant coach. Olson was drawn to Rosborough’s personality and passion for coaching. Rosborough would became Iowa’s chief recruiter in Chicago, which became a program-shaping maneuver.
His starting salary: $1,000 a year.
Six years later, Iowa was in the Final Four. Rosborough ultimately coached three Final Fours at Arizona. Byrdsong and Rosborough are a good start on any statue, any of which requires the work of an extended family.
Olson didn’t surround himself with yes-men. His first hire at Arizona was assistant coach Ken Burmeister, who Olson found, predictably enough, at off-the-main-highway Texas-Arlington. It wasn’t image Olson wanted, it was substance.
Burmeister was that and more, a man with a winning personality. He helped Arizona land the nucleus of its first three Pac-10 championship teams, and then went on to win 327 games as a head coach at places like Loyola-Chicago and UT-San Antonio.
It’s all part of the same statue and the same basketball family.
Much later, in 2004, the statue-in-the-making got an unexpected boost from a junior-college transfer who would score just 19 points at Arizona, but contribute as if he had been a starter.
Matt Brase, Lute’s grandson, was an all-city forward at Catalina Foothills High School and similarly an all-ACCAC player at Central Arizona College. He might’ve played at a mid-major and been successful, but Brase had virtually grown up at McKale. He asked “Papa Lute” if it would be appropriate to become a walk-on.
This wasn’t something the coach did frivolously. No one got a free pass on Olson’s watch.
Serious discussions followed. There would be no show of favoritism. There would be little playing time. The rest of it was easy; Brase soon belonged. Much like Byrdsong, Rosborough and Burmeister, Brase is an engaging, likable personality willing to pull the load.
He became a winning part of the greater UA basketball family.
After earning a degree and working for Hamilton Aerospace Technologies, Brase returned to campus and worked in the basketball operations department: travel arrangements, camps, video breakdowns, the scheduling of meals. Nothing glamorous.
But it was Brase’s tenure that tied a nice bow on Olson’s Arizona career.
“I was sensitive to the perception that maybe there was favoritism, but that’s not the way it was,” Brase says now. “I know (Lute’s) life story; I know he had to do everything the hard way to get to Arizona. I didn’t want anything given to me, either. He made me earn my way.”
When Olson retired, Brase became a graduate assistant coach at Grand Canyon and earned a master’s degree. He then applied with every NBA team, seeking an entry position in coaching, scouting, development, you name it.
Brase didn’t get a reply for months.
Finally, at 28, Brase was hired as an intern in the Houston Rockets scouting department.
“I got a tow-hitch for my car, rented a U-Haul and drove with my dad to Houston,” Brase remembers. “Nothing came easy.”
Today, Brase is head coach of the Rockets’ G League affiliate. Now that the G League season is over, Brase is in Minnesota scouting the Timberwolves for the upcoming NBA playoffs.
“I won’t be able to be at the statue dedication on Thursday, but I can tell you there’s no one more proud of my grandfather than I am,” he says. “He did it the right way.”