A college basketball coach who was highly acclaimed for taking mediocre teams and turning them into national powerhouses was born and raised in North Dakota.
In 1974, Lute Olson became head coach of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that had an overall losing record the previous four years, and during his nine-year tenure with the Hawkeyes, Lute’s teams had a major impact on the NCAA tournaments, especially during his last five years at Iowa.
In 1983, Lute became head coach for the University of Arizona Wildcats, a team that had just suffered through a 4-24 season. Arizona had never won a Pac-10 title and the school was desperately looking for a coach who could bring some respectability to their basketball program. Lute stayed at Arizona until his retirement in 2008, and his teams won Pac-10 championships 11 times and he was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times. Lute was named National Coach of the Year in 1988 and again in 1990, and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Before becoming coach at Iowa, Lute coached basketball at Long Beach City College for four years and was named Metro Conference Coach of the Year three of those years. He then coached the basketball team at Long Beach State University (LBSU) for one year and led the team to the Big West Championship and was named Western Region Coach of the Year.
In 1974, Lute left LBSU, a team that had been ranked No. 3 in the nation, to coach the Hawkeyes, a team that had struggled in recent years. The reason he left LBSU after one very successful year was because the administrators at the school had not been honest, and denied the fact that the sports teams at the college would soon be placed on probation.
During his first year at Iowa, 1974-75, Lute’s team improved slightly, finishing the season with a 10-16 record. In 1976, the Hawkeyes improved to 19-10 and then to 20-7 in 1977, before falling back to 12-15 in 1978.
The 1978-79 Hawkeyes showed that they were beginning to put it all together by compiling an overall 20-8 record, and earned a share of the Big Ten title along with Michigan State and Purdue University. It also marked the first time that Luke’s Hawkeyes were invited to participate in the NCAA Tournament; however, they lost to Toledo in the first round. For his remarkable accomplishments that year, Lute received the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award.
The 1979-80 Hawkeyes team started the season with very high expectations, anchored by All-American senior guard Ronnie Lester. Iowa won their first seven games and then Lester suffered a severe knee injury, missing the next 18 games. Iowa struggled during that time, but having Lester back for the final two games, Iowa finished the season with an 18-8 record and qualified for the NCAA Tournament. In the tournament, Iowa defeated Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina State, Syracuse and Georgetown to advance to the Final Four.
In the semifinal game against Louisville, Lester scored the first 10 points for Iowa. “But after eight minutes of play he re-injured his knee, ending his college career.” Iowa ended up losing the game 80-72 and Lester’s knee continued to give him problems while in the NBA.
For the next three years, Lute’s Hawkeyes qualified for the NCAA Tournament. but were defeated in the early rounds each time. The Hawkeyes consistently finished each season with over 20 victories.
In 1983, Lute was contacted by Cedric Dempsey, the athletic director at the University of Arizona. He wanted Lute to become the head coach of his Wildcats basketball team and, with a 4-24 record, Arizona had just “finished with the worst season in school history.” Dempsey was looking for someone with a history of turning around a college’s basketball program, and Lute accepted his offer because, he said, life in Iowa “had become a fishbowl and he needed a change.” Lute’s overall record with the Hawkeyes was 167-91, and he had become “the school’s all-time wins leader.”
When Lute arrived at Arizona, he said, “I knew we had a tremendous amount of work to do... The program was in shambles.” One of the first players Lute recruited was Steve Kerr, a basketball player born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. During his first season at Arizona, Kerr received the tragic news that on Jan. 18, 1984, his father, Malcom Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut, had been assassinated by Shia Lebanese terrorists. Consequently, Steve had limited playing time. Nevertheless, Lute’s Wildcats improved to an 11-17 record.
In 1985, the Wildcats improved to 21-10 and finished third in the Pac-10. During that summer, Lute signed a couple of outstanding players: Sean Elliott and Kenny Lofton. Those two players, along with Kerr and Craig McMillan, enabled the Wildcats to win the Pac-10 title in 1986, and the team was invited to participate in the NCAA Tournament. However, they were defeated by Auburn in the West Regionals.
The next year, the Wildcats suffered a severe blow because, before the start of the season, Kerr blew out his knee and missed the entire season. The team did get a big lift from junior college transfer Tom Tolbert, and Arizona received another NCAA invitation after finishing the season 18-12.
With the return of Kerr in 1988, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1. Arizona finished the season at 25-7, won the conference title and also won the Great Alaska Shootout and the Valley Bank Fiesta Bowl Classic championships. At the NCAA Tournament, they made it to the Final Four, but lost to the University of Texas/El Paso. Elliott set the school’s scoring record that year.
Lute’s team again won the Pac-10 championship in 1989, had an overall record of 29-4, and in the West Regional Semifinals of the NCAA had the opportunity to play against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas — coached by Jerry Tarkanian, whose recruiting practices at LBSU prior to Lute’s arrival there resulted in his team being placed on probation. Unfortunately for Lute, his Wildcats lost the game 67-68.
From 1990 to 1996, Lute’s Wildcats were one of the most dominant teams in the country. They always won at least 24 games a season and finished first or second in the Pac-10. Lute’s key players were Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Chris Mills. In 1994 they made it to the Final Four, but lost to the University of Arkansas.
In 1997, none of Lute’s starting five were seniors and they ended up in sixth place in the Pac-10, losing the last two games of the regular season. It was one of the few times that Lute’s team failed to win 20 games. However, they were invited to the NCAA Tournament. In the tournament the Wildcats defeated North Carolina, a No. 1 seed, in Dean Smith’s last game as a college coach. They also defeated the University of Kansas, another No. 1 seed. In the finals, they defeated the University of Kentucky, another No. 1 seed, to win the national championship.
For Lute’s final 10 years as coach at Arizona, his Wildcats qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year, winning at least 20 games each season. Four times Lute coached his team to Pac-10 titles, and only in his last two seasons did the Wildcats finish lower than third.
One of the most challenging seasons for Lute was 2000-01. During that season, his wife, Bobbi, died of cancer and Lute missed three weeks of games while on bereavement leave. The team dedicated their season to Bobbi and, in the tournament, they fought their way to the title game, which they lost to Duke.
Lute’s last nationally ranked team was the 2004-05 Wildcats. They won the Pac-10 title and were on the verge of moving into the Final Four before blowing a 15-point lead with four minutes to play to the University of Illinois.
On Nov. 4, 2007, 10 minutes before the start of the Wildcats' first game of the season, an announcement was made that Lute “would be taking an indefinite leave of absence.” At that time, Lute was going through divorce proceedings from his second wife. On Dec. 6, it was announced that Lute would miss the entire season, but that he would return for the 2008-09 season. On Oct. 23, 2008, Lute’s formal retirement was announced, and his personal physician reported that Lute had suffered a stroke earlier in the year.
In his 23 years at the University of Arizona, Lute led his team to 11 Pac-10 championships and, with 327 victories, has more Pac-10 wins than any other coach. John Wooden would have more, but many of his wins at UCLA occurred before the Bruins joined the modern Pac-10. Lute’s .764 winning percentage ranks second to that of Wooden.
In 34 seasons as a Division 1 head coach, Lute compiled a 781-280 record. In 2010, the Lute Olson Award was created and “presented annually to the nation’s top Division 1 player.” Along with his numerous awards, Lute was further honored when, on April 12, 2018, a life-size statue of Lute was unveiled outside the McKale Center on the University of Arizona campus.
In 2019, Lute suffered another stroke, and he died on Aug. 27, 2019.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.