Lute Olson left a legacy – on and off the court – that makes Tucson and Arizona proud.
For 25 years – before any of his current players were born – Lute Olson has been the face (and the perfectly coiffed hair) of University of Arizona basketball.
His impact on UA, on Tucson and on the state of Arizona has been unmatched. Lute has been our version of Madonna – a person so popular and well-known that one name suffices.
The Lute Olson era at UA apparently has ended – not with the bang of one more exciting season capped with the now-traditional trip to the NCAA Tournament, but with a confusing series of meetings and secondhand statements presaging an awkward departure on the season’s eve.
The past year has not been Olson’s finest at UA. It started with last year’s mysterious leave of absence, which has not been explained but was extended for the entire season. There was a messy and sometimes-public divorce and an angry, finger-pointing press conference as Olson returned to his program late last spring and all of his assistants departed.
But one bumpy year cannot mar the previous 24 – a period in which Olson took a UA basketball program that had become a farce and built it into a national power with a consistency that was the envy of the nation.
In the year before Olson arrived, UA won only four of 28 games. Over the next 24 years, Olson’s teams won 3 of every 4 games and went to the national title tournament every year but his first.
Along the way, Olson and team won 11 Pac-10 titles, and Olson leads both UA and the conference in career victories.
His on-court résumé included the 1986 World Championship, the 1997 national title for UA and Olson’s 2002 enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Olson also left his mark outside McKale Center. The athletes he recruited and brought to Tucson were quality individuals who remain a credit to UA.
Among them were Steve Kerr, now the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, and Sean Elliott, who has been active in nonprofits both here and in his adopted home of San Antonio.
So what will the Lute Olson legacy be?
Tens of millions of Americans can’t find Tucson on a map, but they know one thing about the Old Pueblo (and it may be the only thing): We have one helluva basketball program.
We have Olson to thank for that.
The University of Arizona in 2005 received a $1 million endowment for the Bobbi Olson Endowment for Ovarian Cancer Research.
We have Olson and his family to thank for that. The money is designated to find a cure for the disease that took the life of Olson’s first wife in 2001 after 47 years of marriage.
Making a graceful exit is the hardest task in sports. Just ask Brett Favre of the Green Bay . . uh, the New York Jets. Olson botched his goodbye. OK, we’ll let him take a mulligan.
But the past year cannot dull the shine on UA’s two-decades-plus of unparalleled achievement in basketball.
And we have Lute Olson to thank for that.
LUTE OLSON ARCHIVE
Read more Citizen coverage of the Olson years at tucsoncitizen.com/ss/lute