Lute Olson’s Hall of Fame career was just about perfect

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Most successful college coaches spend time as apprentices, working as assistant coaches and hoping to make enough of a name for themselves to land their first head coaching job, perhaps with the help of an influential boss. Olson was never an assistant coach.

In fact, he was 35 before he coached at the college level — and that was at a junior college, Long Beach City. He had been coaching and teaching at the high school level for 13 years but decided to go after the Long Beach job because he had grown tired of working side jobs — such as teaching at a driving school — to support his wife and five children. He had also had enough of checking bathrooms to make sure kids weren’t smoking in them.

In four seasons at Long Beach City, Olson went 103-22 and won a junior college state championship. That attracted the attention of down-the-road Long Beach State.

Jerry Tarkanian had built the 49ers into a national power, but he left for UNLV at the end of the 1972-73 season (after going 26-3), with NCAA investigators in town. Years later, Olson would say that he was lied to by the powers-that-be at Long Beach State, who assured him there would be no NCAA sanctions coming down on the program.

Olson took the job and went 24-2, but his team didn’t get to play in the postseason because it had been slapped with three years of NCAA probation. When Iowa offered Olson a chance, he jumped at it, even though the Hawkeyes had just finished 8-16 and 10th in the Big Ten.

In his second season, Olson’s Iowa team went 19-10. In 1980, the Hawkeyes reached the Final Four — coming from 14 points down in the East Region final to beat Georgetown, 81-80. They lost to Louisville in the Final Four when star guard Ronnie Lester reinjured his knee in the first half. How important was the oft-injured Lester to that team? Iowa was 15-1 when he played and 8-9 when he didn’t.

“I still believe that team could have won the championship if we’d been able to keep Ronnie upright,” Olson told me years later. “I loved coaching that team. I loved coaching Iowa.”

Olson was in Iowa at that moment — but not as Iowa’s coach. He had left in 1983 after a fifth straight NCAA trip to become the coach at Arizona. He again took over a program in miserable shape: The Wildcats were coming off a 4-24 season and had made three trips to the NCAA tournament in program history.

Olson’s reason for leaving wasn’t the weather — he had grown up in North Dakota and gone to college in Minnesota — but rather the iconic status he had achieved in Iowa and the pressure that came with it. “It had become a fishbowl,” he said. “I loved the people, loved their enthusiasm, but I’m not a fishbowl kind of guy.”

On that snowy afternoon in December 1987 when I first sat down with Olson, Arizona was playing Iowa — the prodigal son’s return.

Everyone in Carver-Hawkeye Arena stood and clapped and cheered for several minutes when Olson walked onto the court. By then, Olson had completely turned the Arizona program around. The Wildcats had started a 25-year string of NCAA tournament appearances in his second season and came to Iowa City ranked fourth in the country. They beat No. 3 Iowa that night and would spend much of that season ranked No. 1 — led by players such as Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert, Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr and Anthony Cook — before reaching the school’s first Final Four and finishing with a record of 35-3.

The spiritual leader of that team was Kerr, whom Olson had spotted playing in a summer league in Long Beach shortly after being hired at Arizona. Olson was there to look at rising seniors when he noticed a kid who kept making shots from long range.

The way Olson told the story, he turned to his wife Bobbi, who often accompanied him on scouting trips and said, “I wonder who that kid is; he can shoot.”

(Bobbi Olson had met her husband while the two were singing in a church choir. They were married for 47 years before Bobbi died of cancer in 2001. The court at Arizona’s McKale Center is named for both of them.)

Bobbi Olson knew her hoops. Sure, this kid could shoot, but he was slow. “Lute,” she said, “please tell me you’re kidding.”

He wasn’t kidding. Kerr had already graduated from high school with virtually no Division I interest. He landed at Arizona and became a star.

Which is why, two weeks after Arizona’s win in Iowa, Kerr was the no-brainer choice to be on the postgame show after the top-ranked Wildcats beat No. 9 Duke in the final of a holiday tournament.

The host asked Kerr — it was Dec. 30 — whether the team had made any New Year’s resolutions. “Oh, yes, absolutely,” Kerr said.

“It was probably a little over the top,” Kerr said, years later.

The notion of Olson — with his perfectly coifed silver hair, regal 6-foot-4 bearing and complete command during games — using heroin was impossible to even imagine.

Olson wasn’t amused. I asked him a few weeks later what he had said to Kerr.

“Nothing,” Olson said. “I didn’t need to. It was Steve. If it had been someone else, it would have been different.” He paused and smiled. “But he better not do it again.”

Nine years later, Kerr did misbehave again. He led a group of Arizona alumni who made the trip to Indianapolis when the Wildcats played Kentucky for the national title. Arizona won in overtime. Kerr and teammates made a beeline for their old coach — and completely messed up his perfect hair.

“Dream come true,” Kerr said later. “I figured if there was a moment I could get away with it, that was it.”

It was, of course, perfect.

The last year of Olson’s coaching career wasn’t perfect. He stepped away from his job just before the start of the 2007-08 season, five years after he had been inducted to the Naismith Hall of Fame. He had remarried three years after Bobbi’s death but was going through a divorce. Many attributed his erratic behavior at the time to the strain of the divorce. Later, his doctor revealed he had suffered a stroke that had gone undiagnosed.

Another stroke in 2019 led to a decline in health, and the coach’s fight ended this week. By then, Olson’s legacy was exactly like his hair: just about perfect, except when briefly mussed. His was an amazing story — and one that it isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon.

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