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Lute Olson Dies

A great loss for the city of Tucson and the game of basketball

1997 NCAA Southeast Regionals Final Game
Arizona’s Lute Olson cuts down the net in the 1997 NCAA Southeast Regionals Final Game

As we all learned this week, Lute Olson has been in hospice care and Thursday he passed away. He leaves behind an immense legend.

Born in North Dakota to a Norwegian family, Olson started out in high school coaching before moving to Long Beach City College. He was highly successful there and quickly moved to Long Beach State, where he inherited one of the first messes left by Jerry Tarkanian. After one 24-2 season he was off to Iowa where he lasted nine years before the fishbowl environment got to him.

When he got to Arizona the joke was that McKale Center was the best place to study on campus because it was so quiet during games.

He changed that quickly, building around Steve Kerr, a vastly underrated guard who had just the one offer, and hometown hero Sean Elliott. Within five years he had Arizona in the Final Four and the school has remained a power ever since.

What characterized him best was a sense of grace. He was almost always pleasant and calm and he recruited players who were genuinely likable: aside from Elliot and Kerr he brought in Tom Tolbert, Sean Rooks, Jason Terry, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, cousins Salim and Damon Stoudamire and Kenny Lofton.

We’ve told this story before but Olson ran a 2-2-1 or 1-3-1 zone (we can’t remember)when Lofton was there. Lofton was insanely quick - he stole 622 bases in his professional baseball career which is 15th all-time - and Olson used him to run the baseline on defense. That’s all he did, run from side to side to shut off penetration - at 5-11.

No one got through that.

One other story which we may not have told before.

Olson had a talented player in his early years named Deron Johnson. Johnson, a Tucson native, was a sweet kid but like so many college athletes, a curious combination of naivete and worldiness.

He had been assigned a tutor and was required to show up. When he didn't, the tutor called the basketball office to report his absence.

Not long after that the basketball office called back.

Well, Olson did, which came as a surprise to the tutor.

He first apologized for Johnson’s attendance problem, then said he had a solution for it: Deron would be moving back home for the rest of his freshman year where his mother would monitor his academics.

That’s how he was. He genuinely seemed to want bright, motivated players and he coached the hell out of them.

It was a fun, engaging program to be around and that was because of Olson.

His life wasn’t perfect of course. When his wife Bobbi died, after a long and fruitful marriage, it must have hit Olson hard. He remarried and his second wife was, shall we say, colorful.

That marriage didn't last long. One report had her marching into Lute’s doctor’s office and leaving a shot up bullseye target on his chair (apparently for some reason she held him responsible for the failure of the marriage). On another occasion, and this got national attention, she called into a radio show Lute was on and argued with him about personal issues.

He married again and this time it seemed much happier. There is no question though that Bobbi was the great love of his life.

And of course at the end of his career, his behavior was very different and concerning and eventually doctors discovered he had had an undetected stroke which ended his run.

He seemed healthy and happy in recent years as he popped up at various basketball events, usually following Arizona but did have another stroke in 2019.

No one other than Tark really had anything bad to say about him and all Tark really said was to call him, hilariously, Midnight Luther because he had a habit of getting involved late with recruits that Tark, not surprisingly, found curious.

He had a bumpy time between Bobbi’s death, his second marriage and the first stroke understandably but seemed to recover his calm demeanor.

He became an absolute institution in Tucson, projecting a genial grandfatherly disposition that everyone admired and most importantly, he was an honorable man to his players. We have often expressed great admiration for Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, who has shown immense character and who truly cares about his players.

Well Olson is cut of the same cloth. He saw himself as a teacher and always had his player’s best interests at heart. He loved them and they loved him right back.

He was innately decent and kind. We wouldn’t have seen those qualities though if he hadn’t also been a hell of a coach.

Tucson will miss him deeply but he’ll be seen off with immense love and affection. There will never be another coach there who has that kind of bond with the city.

Lute Olson, 1934-2020. Godspeed.