Rest in Peace, Coach Lute Olson
How do you say goodbye to a legend? It’s always so unexpected and the words are never easy.
I picked up my phone to check a notification saying Hall of Fame basketball coach Lute Olson has died at age 85.
Man, I had to do a double take.
No! I know he was in the hospital a year ago after having a stroke and moved into hospice. Yes, he was up there in age. Still, I couldn’t be reading that right.
I checked again and saw the same thing, followed by a flood of reactions including from his family and friends. The news was very real.
Did I know Lute Olson on a personal level? No. Was his death very personal to me? Yes. The man meant a lot to me and he’s one of the few celebrities I’ve shed real tears for upon their passing. Coach O was a huge reason why, along with Red Auerbach and Cotton Fitzsimmons, being a basketball coach has been a dream of mine. Sadly, all three are now gone.
I met the man and shook his hand, struggling with words to say. Meeting a role model and celebrity can be a jaw dropping experience. “Does your mouth open any wider? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. I’m the same level as you are.” Not just a man, my eyes were gazing at a myth and legend. As great as he was, he was just as humble. After thanking him for breaking the ice, I let him know my thoughts and thanked him.
I won’t dive too far into ALL of his accomplishments and records. Take a moment to look them up after you read this piece. They are extremely impressive. The main one for me, being born and raised in AZ, is how he built U of A into a national power, going 589-187 in 24 seasons and guiding the Wildcats to 23 NCAA tournaments in a row, 11 Pac-10 titles, four Final Fours and their only NCAA championship. Lute was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times.
As great as all that is, don’t think of the current U of A image. He built that.
A lot of people were shocked when he left the University of Iowa (as the winningest coach in school history) for Arizona, who had just completed one of the absolute worst seasons in school history as they only won four games.
His reasoning was he needed a change but really he was the change Arizona needed as he took over when their program was at rock bottom and built it into something incredible. To know how much of an impact he had, they won 35 games in his second season, a 31-win improvement.
Going back to that title, he was a real life David slaying Goliath, as that team defeated three number one seeds en route to cutting down the nets.
He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2018, a statue of Olson outside the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson was erected. The Lute Olson Award is presented annually to the nation's top Division I player.
A fierce competitor and strong recruiter as well, he was amazing when it came to developing players. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Olson’s U of A was one of the top producers of NBA talent and some of those most notable players are Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas and Damon Stoudamire.
You should recognize all of them but without him, you might not. They weren’t all highly regarded on a national level in high school but flourished in his system to become who you know now. There’s a reason why the program was dubbed “Point Guard University”.
Sean Elliot, Jud Buechler, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Andre Iguodala, Salim Stoudamire, Loren Woods, Channing Frye and many others have also made careers in the NBA.
Many of those players praised Coach O on social media after his passing.
Terry said simply “Without you there would be no me.”
We can all agree with what Jefferson said. “It’s rare that a man is a Hall of Famer and still under appreciated. I'll always feel like you never got the credit you deserved…I love you Coach.”
Frye recalled “Thank you coach for taking a chance on some skinny kid from Chandler. I owe my whole basketball career to you and what you taught me. I'm gonna miss you.”
Damon thought back on saying he was going to Louisville then talking to “Midnight Lute” for three hours and changing his mind, which in turned changed Stoudamire’s life.
Kerr paid tribute to him tweeting "It's hard to put into words how much Lute Olson meant to me. He was an amazing coach and a wonderful man. Being part of the U of A basketball family changed my life forever. I will never forget Coach O, those awesome nights at McKale and all my teammates. Thank you Coach. I love you!"
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver added how he “always exuded such class, confidence and integrity.”
The Suns and Mercury called Olson "a bright light in our industry whose legacy is rooted in the mentor he was to young men, the teacher he was on and off the court, and the difference he made in the lives of so many."
Lute’s light has burnt out on this earth but his legacy will burn forever.
Rest in Peace, Coach O.