Legendary college basketball coach Lute Olson passes away at 85

Olson passed away Thursday in Tucson, the place turned into a basketball town
Updated: Aug. 27, 2020 at 11:35 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Legendary University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson has passed away at the age of 85.

Lute’s son Greg and wife Stacy confirmed his death to KOLD News 13.

Olson, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, finished with a 589-187 record in 24 seasons as the Wildcats’ head coach.

The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997 and 11 Pac-12 titles under Olson. The team appeared in 23 straight NCAA tournaments and made four appearances in the Final Four.

He was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times.

In February 2019, Olson had a minor stroke but recovered. In March 2018, a statue of Olson was unveiled on the University of Arizona campus.

Olson is considered a college basketball legend by many.

He coached at Long Beach Community College (1969-73), Long Beach State (1973-74), Iowa (1974-83) before leading Arizona from 1983 to 2008. His overall record was 781-280.

Olson sent several players to the NBA, including Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas and Damon Stoudamire.

Olson was married to Roberta “Bobbi” Russell for 47 years and they had five children. Bobbi battled ovarian cancer before dying in January 2001 at the age of 65.

In 2000, the University of Arizona named the court at the McKale Center in honor of Olson. They changed it to the Lute and Bobbi Olson Court following Bobbi’s death.

Olson married Christine Jack Toretti in 2003, but they couple filed for divorce in 2007. He then married Kelly Pugnea in April 2010.

Legendary college basketball coach Lute Olson died in Tucson on Thursday, Aug. 27.

“One day I picked up a basketball and it never let me go.” - Lute Olson

Those words, found in the opening pages of his autobiography, Lute! The Seasons Of My Life, summed up Lute Olson’s passion to a tee. But his work ethic, molded by his upbringing, propelled that passion to Hall of Fame levels of success.

Born on a farm in Mayville, ND, Robert Luther Olson found basketball at a very young age. The game’s simplicity, shooting a ball through a hoop, was, as he called it, irresistible. But it was also a necessary distraction from a hard childhood.

Olson lost his father, Albert, when he was six. His brother, Amos, died shortly after. His mother, Alinda, was forced to sell the farm and worked two jobs to make ends meet. According to Olson, not once did he hear her complain.

By the time Olson was in high school, he had been working since the second grade. Basketball helped carry him through, as did a young lady whom he met in choir practice. Two years after their chance encounter, Lute Olson married Bobbi Russell, forming a partnership that would have everlasting effects on countless basketball players.

Olson’s coaching career started in Minnesota where he coached high school ball for 13 seasons before moving west, eventually ending up in California. Olson rose up the ranks, from high school, to city college, to Long Beach State, taking over for the coach who would later become his foil, Jerry Tarkanian. Olson’s tenure with the 49ers lasted one season. After finishing with a 24-2 record, the University of Iowa hired him to lead the Hawkeyes.

Olson took over Iowa in 1974. By the 1979-80 season, he had led the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. Three years later, after coaching the team to the 1983 Sweet Sixteen, Lute and Bobbi Olson made the move that arguably defined his coaching career.

The day after the Hawkeyes lost to Villanova, Olson and his family met with Arizona Athletic Director Ced Dempsey. After convening with university officials in Tucson, the Olsons decided it was time for a change, an opportunity to start fresh in the Arizona desert.

When he first met the Tucson media, Olson said, “I have always been a firm believer that you build a program with good people. We never talk about wins when discussing turning a program around. Instead we say that we will get it done as soon as possible.”

The turnaround took two seasons. After finishing 11-17 out the gates, Olson guided the Cats to 21 wins the very next year. It was Arizona’s first winning season in its last six. The Cats advanced to what would be the first NCAA Tournament of a record 23 straight appearances.

The following season, Arizona was crowned Pac-10 champion.

In the spring of 1988, with a starting lineup that included names like Elliot, Kerr, Tolbert, Cook, and Buechler, Olson led Arizona to the school’s first Final Four appearance. The team was a potent mixture of pure talent and plenty of chemistry.

As guard Craig McMillian once pointed out, “I don’t think you could have a better group of guys. A good team requires personality and unselfishness to be as successful as we were.”

The Cats ultimately lost to Oklahoma, falling one win short of the National Championship game. Hometown hero and future NBA champion Sean Elliott called that season one of the most important moments of his playing career.

Arizona returned to the Final Four in 1994, falling to Arkansas.

Then, in 1997, the Cats got over the hump.

Arizona entered the postseason as the fifth best team in the Pac-10 and a fourth seed in the tournament brackets.

After beating South Alabama and College of Charleston in the first two rounds, Arizona earned a 3-point Sweet 16 victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. After defeating Providence in the Southeast Regional Championship, Arizona reached its third Final Four in program history. This time, the results were much different. The Cats knocked off their second No. 1 seed, North Carolina, 66-58.

After the game, Olson told his team, “As long as we’ve gone this far, we may as well get it done on Monday, too.”

Monday set up a Wildcat vs. Wildcat title match - Arizona against defending champion and No. 1 seed Kentucky. The Washington Post called it, “one of the most dizzying, fiercely contested NCAA men’s basketball tournament finals ever.” It was quick vs. quicker with junior guard Miles Simon and freshman guard Mike Bibby leading the charge. The game went into overtime and, while Arizona didn’t score a single field goal, it made 10 of 14 free throws.

When the final buzzer sounded, Arizona was victorious, 84-79. The Wildcats became the first team to defeat three No. 1 seeds on the way to the title. It was Arizona’s and Lute Olson’s first national championship. Afterwards, Olson said, “I still have a hard time believing this has really happened. We’ve had other teams — more outstanding teams, more experienced teams — but this one, right from the get-go, has been nothing but a pleasure to be around.”

In 2001, Olson’s Wildcats returned to the National Championship. And while the title run came up short, thanks to a 10-point loss to Duke, it culminated arguably the most emotional season of Olson’s career. Months earlier, on Jan. 1, Bobbi Olson lost her two-and-a-half-year fight against ovarian cancer.

Married for 47 years, the Olsons shared five children, Greg, Jody, Steve, Vicki, and Christi. During that time, Bobbi played a crucial role in fostering the family atmosphere synonymous with Arizona basketball. After her passing, Olson took a little over two weeks off before returning to work. Arizona went on a 17-2 run leading up to the National Championship game. Following the loss to Duke, a contest that featured an injured Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton, Olson said simply, “We gave them a good run and couldn’t get it done.”

It marked the last time Arizona made the Final Four, much less the National Championship.

The beginning of the end to the Olson era came in November of 2007 when, before the season tipped off, Olson, now married to his second wife Christine, took an indefinite leave of absence. At first, the reason was of a personal nature. Then it came to light that Olson had suffered a non-life-threatening medical condition. A month later, Olson not only filed for divorce but also announced he would miss the rest of the season. Assistant coach Kevin O’Neill took over. Arizona finished with 19 wins and a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Olson planned to return for the 2008-2009 season, intent on coaching through the remaining three years of his contract. But just two days after meeting the media, Olson instead announced his retirement. In a statement, he wrote, “I’ve had a wonderful run at The University of Arizona. I leave with a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished here.” At the time, Wildcat head football coach Mike Stoops summed up Olson’s tenure in three words: “He’s an icon.”

Olson claimed his retirement was due in part to his desire to devote more time to family. A week after the announcement, Olson’s doctor Steven Knope confirmed that Olson had suffered a stroke that had impaired his judgement and left the coach depressed.

The NCAA took Olson’s state of mind into consideration when it wiped away those 19 wins from the ’07-‘08 season. The penalties came as a result of recruiting violations that stemmed, in part, from Olson’s promotion of two youth basketball tournaments. Arizona had initially self-imposed sanctions in recruiting and scholarships. The NCAA added on, not only taking away the wins but also an additional scholarship. While Olson was not directly reprimanded, he accepted blame, telling ESPN, “That wasn’t anyone else’s fault. It was my error and it was a big error.”

Olson could have sunk back into retirement. Instead, he remained an active cheerleader of the program and his permanent replacement Sean Miller. Olson and his wife Kelly, whom he married in 2010, were a consistent presence during home games. He seemed to transition out of the role of coach and into the role of team ambassador with relative ease.

In April 2018, the University of Arizona honored Olson, unveiling a statue of him outside of the Eddie Lynch Athletics Pavilion. Olson called the moment, humbling.

During his 25 years as Arizona’s head coach, Olson turned the Wildcat program from a basement dweller to one of the most recognizable brands in college basketball. When he stepped away for good, he had amassed 589 wins including a record 327 conference victories. Olson was a seven-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, a national champion, and a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. Olson sent 34 players into the NBA who, over time, earned over $1 billion in salaries and numerous championship rings. His legacy in the college and professional ranks remains steadfast.

One of the last lines of Olson’s autobiography reads, “It’s amazing what a difference a round ball can make in so many lives.” For his players, the University of Arizona, and the Tucson community, it was not so much that round ball, but Lute Olson himself who made all the difference.

Lute Olson was 85 years old.

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