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The story of Lute Olson's life in Minnesota

The story of Lute Olson's life in Minnesota

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COMING HOME: Lute Olson makes a triumphal return to the city where he played three sports in college, married Bobbi

By Tim Steller, Arizona Daily Star

MINNEAPOLIS - To Lute Olson, the return to Minnesota's biggest city for today's Final Four isn't exactly a nostalgia trip.

For one thing, he has traveled many times to this city since he graduated from Augsburg College here in 1956, so his familiarity has remained up-to-date.

For another, his college years in Minneapolis weren't the breezy undergraduate experience that students today have come to expect.

"It was a busy, busy time for me," said Olson, a three-sport athlete at Augsburg.

"We went right from football into basketball. Bobbi and I were married the fall of my sophomore year. As far as memories of school, it was that and working in the spring and summer to try to make ends meet."

Olson worked in a Texaco station and drove a 7-Up truck for Minneapolis Bottling, he said. Bobbi, who died Jan. 1, also held down jobs.

"I had what they call vacation routes, where regular drivers during the year would get their vacations in the summer, and I was vacation relief," he said.

"And then during the holidays, I worked for the post office, and the coach was kind enough to adjust the practice sessions so that I was able to do that."

The coach, Ernie Anderson, said yesterday that in the period after the Olsons married, he got a report back from an Augsburg professor that Lute was having a hard time staying awake in class.

"After the football season was over, he was really dragging, because he didn't get much sleep - playing football and working the night shift," Anderson said.

Anderson told the young forward to take off November and December and rejoin the basketball team in January, he said yesterday.

Olson ended up at Augsburg, then a tiny college in the center of Minneapolis, because of his family's religion.

"I attended a Lutheran church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the pastor was an Augsburg grad. So he had gotten the word to them about me, and then it ended up they were one of the schools I considered that were offering financial aid, or scholarships," Olson said.

He made a migration that remains common today among young adults in the Upper Midwest - to "The Cities," as Minneapolis and St. Paul are known. But it was not an overwhelming urban experience.

"It's a pretty large city, but it doesn't seem that way," he said.

Plus, Olson, the descendant of four Norwegian immigrant grandparents, was surrounded by people like him. He was raised on a farm and in town near Mayville, N.D., close to the Minnesota border.

His older brothers, Amos and Marvin, also played basketball, sister Kathleen Tripp said yesterday at her Minneapolis home, across the street from Lake Nokomis. But Amos died, crushed by a plow, the same year Olson's father died - 1940. That year young Lute turned 6.

In Minneapolis, Olson encountered a familiar kind of people.

Like him, the 800-or-so other Augsburg students were largely Scandinavian-Americans of moderate means from small towns, said Olson's college friend, Wes Bodin. Minneapolis, too, was filled with Lutherans of Scandinavian descent without much pretense to prosperity.

After marrying, Lute and Bobbi Olson lived in Quonset huts that had been turned into student housing, Bodin said.

Beyond the cultural similarities in college, Olson found an athletic match to his interest in Minneapolis. In those years, before its reputation for hockey grew, Minneapolis was a basketball town.

The Minneapolis Lakers won the fourth of five National Basketball Association championships in a row during Olson's first year at Augsburg.

The University of Minnesota basketball team, meanwhile, drew crowds to nearby Williams Arena that at times topped 18,000. Olson said he joined those crowds a couple of times a year while at Augsburg.

Said Anderson: "Basketball was the only big sport. Hockey was just coming along."

In those years, Augsburg's Auggies played at the same court as the Lakers: the dreaded Minneapolis Armory. The yellow brick building, an art-deco slab that still fills a downtown block near the Metro-dome, was in active use as an armory at the time. A few times, Anderson said, he saw tank tracks on the floor.

To get to the games, Anderson said, the players would either walk the mile and a half from campus or pool their nickels for gas and get a ride.

Augsburg's football team, for which Olson played during all four years, also played at a field near downtown, Parade Stadium.

Besides these material restraints, Augsburg students lived in a restricted social environment. It was only during Olson's era that the school began to allow dancing, Olson's football coach, Edor Nelson, said yesterday.

Before that, Nelson said, the school permitted only what they called "folk games" or "rhythm games," not dancing. Card-playing, too, was looked on with suspicion.

After Lute's graduation in 1956, the Olsons did not immediately seek to leave the Minnesota milieu. The first year after graduating, Lute took a job as a teacher and coach at Mahnomen, a tiny town on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. The next year, the family moved on to Two Harbors, Minn., then an iron-ore shipping center on Lake Superior, north of Duluth.

Only after four years at Two Harbors, in 1961, did the Olsons move west, first to Colorado, then to California. The University of Iowa brought him back to the Upper Midwest in 1974.

"When I was at Iowa we played at Williams Arena nine times, and that was always a big thrill for me, because my first coaching jobs were in high school in Minnesota, so I'd go down for the state tournament at Williams Arena," he said. "That was a big thrill for me, to be able to take a team back into Minnesota."

But he, Bobbi and their five children had tasted the Western air they now loved.

"By the time we got nine years in Iowa, why, I was tired of fighting the cold and snow and the rest of it," Olson said.

"Growing up, it was fine because I didn't know any better," Olson said. "People from North Dakota go south to Minneapolis for the winter."

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