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NO. 1: LUTE OLSON

Hansen's Hundred, No. 1: Lute Olson reigns as top sports figure in Tucson

UA basketball coach Lute Olson talks to his players in March 1984, his first year at Arizona. He radiated a sense of confidence that suggested no challenge was too big: In his first five seasons, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1, won two Pac-10 championships and reached the Final Four.

Lute Olson signed a 10-year contract with the Iowa Hawkeyes after the 1979 basketball season. He moved his family into a new home at Lake Macbride and a year later coached Iowa to the Final Four.

At 45, Olson was entering the prime of his career, and the University of Iowa was motivated to keep him a Hawkeye for life. After Olson declined a chance to be the coach at USC that spring, Iowa announced plans to build a $23 million basketball arena (about $70 million today).

"This is going to be the best basketball arena in college basketball," Olson told the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

On the night Iowa played its first basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Jan. 5, 1983, no one could have had any idea — especially Olson — that within three months he would be the head coach at Arizona, a team that had just finished 4-24.

Olson’s office in the new arena was not yet finished.

Lute Olson talks with wife, Bobbi, before a 1983 press conference in which he would formally become head coach of a University of Arizona team that had just finished 4-24. “The thing I admired about Lute from the beginning was that he had no fear,” said the man who hired him, UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey.

When word leaked that Olson had flown to Tucson with UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey a day after a bitter Sweet 16 loss to Villanova, the reaction was a deep ache.

"My immediate feeling is that Lute is betraying about a million Hawkeye fans who did, and do, idolize him," wrote Press-Citizen columnist Al Grady.

Des Moines Register columnist Maury White was offended. He described Olson’s overnight move to Tucson as "arrogant, pompous and self-omnipitous."

Olson, who is No. 1 on our list of Tucson’s Top 100 Sports Figures of the last 100 years, was not afraid of a challenge or opposition. When he moved from Long Beach State to Iowa in 1973, the Hawkeyes were coming off an 8-16 season, the worst record in school history.

He was entering a league stocked with big-name coaches Bob Knight, Jud Heathcote, Gene Keady and Johnny Orr.

"The thing I admired about Lute from the beginning was that he had no fear," Dempsey told me last summer. "But I still I worried that he would turn me down."

University of Arizona basketball head coach Lute Olson holds the Division I NCAA Championship trophy with his team after they defeated Kentucky in the Final Four in Indianapolis in 1997.

Incredibly, Olson agreed to become Arizona’s coach 24 hours after the private plane he and Dempsey shared from Kansas City touched down at the Tucson airport. It wasn’t that Arizona gave him a financial offer he couldn't refuse. Olson signed a one-year contract for a base salary of $60,000.

"Lute believed in himself," said Dempsey. "I didn’t have any doubt that he would win, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how successful he would be."

Olson soon changed the image of the UA athletic department; in his first five seasons, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1, won two Pac-10 championships and reached the Final Four. Little by little, he changed the way Tucsonans viewed themselves. He changed the way those throughout the Pac-10 and in basketball's Top 25 looked at Tucson.

Winners.

It began with Olson’s commanding presence and sideline demeanor — he was 6 feet 4 inches tall and carried himself like a basketball version of John Wayne. Olson had movie-star good looks and a sense of confidence that suggested no challenge was too big.

He scheduled (and beat) Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Syracuse and Michigan. He dominated the series against UCLA and replaced the Pac-10’s top basketball franchise of the 1980s, Oregon State, beating the Beavers in his first season and then began an 11-game winning streak against the coach who had ruled the league, OSU’s Ralph Miller.

He ruled over Arizona State, sweeping the Sun Devils his first season and beating them 16 times in 17 games.

Arizona State coach Bill Frieder talks with friend Lute Olson, head coach of the University of Arizona, in 1991.

Olson’s national profile became such that he was selected to be head coach of Team USA at the 1986 World Championships, deploying college players such as Navy’s David Robinson, North Carolina’s Kenny Smith and the UA’s Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott to stun the heavily favored pros from the Soviet Union in the gold medal game in Spain.

Olson was in line to be the USA Olympic coach, 1992, but that changed after Georgetown coach John Thompson blew the 1988 Olympics. The United States Olympic Committee then decided to use NBA players.

Kentucky twice offered Olson UK’s head coaching job, in 1985 and 1989, but both times he declined, for many of the same reasons he left Iowa. He and his wife, Bobbi, did not want to return to a fishbowl-type environment in Kentucky.

"You can go into a restaurant in Tucson and enjoy the time with your family," Olson said after turning down Kentucky in 1989. "The quality of life here is what we want."

Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson eschews autograph seekers before the NCAA Final Four semifinal against Oklahoma on April 2, 1988, in Kansas City.

It wasn’t that Olson lived in relative privacy. He was the most recognizable figure in Tucson, and maybe Arizona. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV commercials and endorsements. He was even the grand marshal of the Tucson Rodeo parade.

But mostly, Tucsonans gave him space.

In 1997, I attended a Catalina Foothills High Schools girls basketball game at Sahuaro High School. Olson's granddaughter, Julie Brase, played for the '97 state champion Falcons, becoming the leading scorer in Arizona girls prep history.

Lute and Bobbi sat behind the Foothills bench. Everyone in the gymnasium saw them, but it wasn’t until after the game that a few approached and asked for autographs.

Those who followed UA basketball during Olson’s 25 seasons have many choices as favorite games and enduring memories: the Final Fours; Steve Kerr’s emotional breakout game against ASU; the afternoon Sean Elliott broke the Pac-10 career scoring record; the double-overtime win over Duke; the night Sean Rooks shut down LSU’s Shaquille O’Neill; buzzer beaters against UCLA; upsets over No. 1 Stanford; and the teary night in 2001 when Olson returned to the sidelines following Bobbi’s tragic death.

Former University of Arizona men's basketball coach Lute Olson speaks to the media in an open topic press conference in 2009, after he retired from coaching.

The most indelible memory I have of Olson was the frigid December night, 1987, when No. 4 Arizona played at No. 3 Iowa in the House that Lute Built.

When Olson walked onto the court a few minutes before tipoff, the crowd roared. Half of them booed. The other half chanted "Lute! Lute! Lute!" It was like a heavyweight boxing championship fight. I almost expected Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to walk onto the court.

Arizona got in the best punches that night, winning 66-59. Olson beamed.

"Our guys knew I really wanted to win this one," Olson said in a corridor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "You don’t spend nine years of your life in a place where you know all these people and have all these great memories without coming back to a special kind of atmosphere."

About midnight, Olson walked into the Highlander Motel a few miles from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He had spent an hour or two at the home of several close friends from Iowa City, enjoying a special postgame victory toast or two.

"Pretty good night, huh?" I asked as he and Bobbi walked by.

"One of the best," he said.

There would be many more of those.

Lute Olson was head basketball coach at the University of Arizona from 1983-2008. He was a seven-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, made five Final Four appearances, won the 1997 NCAA Championship and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. He died Aug. 27, 2020.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711


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