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Lute’s advice to heir: ‘Work your tail off’

Citizen Staff Writer



For 24 seasons, Lute Olson found success on the basketball court, taking Arizona from a 4-24 season the year before his arrival to a 1997 national title.

Now, the Hall of Fame coach hopes to continue UA’s legacy in whatever way he can.

School president Robert N. Shelton has asked for Olson’s insight on hiring the next coach when a final list is compiled, Olson told the Tucson Citizen on Tuesday in his first sit-down interview since he retired in late October following a small stroke and other medical problems.

Olson, who will be honored at halftime of Thursday’s 8:30 p.m. game against California at McKale Center, said he doesn’t know how much input he will have but he knows what it will take for UA’s success to continue.

“Come in and work your tail off,” Olson said when asked about advice for the next coach. “The community is going to be supportive. The university will be supportive. There are some really good young coaches out there with good experience.”

Olson said the next coach will have to use an up-tempo style because that’s what Tucson fans would want.

“But,” he added with a laugh, “if you’re winning, they’ll accept anything.”

Like the rest of Tucson, Olson said he still doesn’t know who the new coach will be. He admits the school will have to pay the newcomer good money – almost certainly more than the $1.4 million Olson made (including $500,000 from Nike) in his final year.

“It’s a different game than what it was,” he said.

Thursday night about 9:20 p.m., UA will honor the retired coach at McKale Center with a halftime celebration, including a five-minute video tribute. What will Olson say?

“Thank you for the tremendous support that we’ve received since I got here,” the coach said. “It’s been a great basketball community.”

Olson, 74, helped make it that way, winning 589 games at UA and taking the Wildcats to four Final Fours. He also took Iowa to the Final Four and finished overall with 1,063 total wins – 780 at the Division I level.

Although coach Fred Enke found relative success in the mid-1940s and early ’50s, and late coach Fred Snowden had UA playing in back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 1976 and 1977, Olson put UA on the map for good, guiding UA to 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Kevin O’Neill led UA to No. 24. Interim coach Russ Pennell is hoping to make it 25.

“Who knows (what will happen) when it gets down to it?’ ” Olson said, of making it to No. 25. “It’s going to be tough but they have to keep on keeping on.”

But no question, Olson has been “impressed with the job that Russ, Mike and Reggie (Geary) have done with this team.”

When he hired Mike Dunlap last summer, Olson said, he had intended for Dunlap to be the next UA coach after winning two national titles at Division II Metro State in Denver.

Or at least get a look.

“I personally felt Mike Dunlap had the background, the winning records and experience,” Olson said. “But that’s not my job (to hire). My recommendation (would have been) that he would be the kind of guy who would fit the bill.”

Despite national reports, UA athletic director Jim Livengood and Dunlap say the job was never offered to Dunlap when Olson retired in late October. There may have been an inquiry about an interest, but never an offer. Pennell has been the interim head coach since.

“That’s over and done with,” Olson said of the coaching transition.

More recently, Olson has been a nervous spectator at McKale, watching from a few rows up and across the court from his former team.

“You can’t coach as long as I have without missing the coaching,” he said.

Instead, he’s a fan, cheering at times and sometimes doing what he did on the sidelines – yelling at the referees.

“I certainly enjoy going to the games,” he said. “They’ve kept you at the edge of your seat. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

He was at the Houston game Jan. 24 at McKale, when Aubrey Coleman appeared to purposely step on UA junior Chase Budinger’s face. Coleman was tossed from the game and later suspended.

“That was really, really a bad scene, and I’m glad the officials handled that the way they should have,” he said. “That gets my blood boiling a little bit when I see that.”

He beams, however, about his former players who he helped shape into young men, and those who continue to remain active in the community. He talked of his most memorable teams – from UA’s first Final Four team in 1988 to its last in 2001. He spoke of his first Final Four in 1980 with Iowa and of coaching the United States to the gold medal at the 1985 World Championship.

“Lost in the shuffle is that world championship,” he said. “It’s still (the last) collegiate (team) to have won the championship.

“Then there’s the run of the Final Fours,” said Olson, who also took UA to the Final Four in 1994. “I still hear arguments from guys who have played for other teams saying, ‘We were better than they were.’ That argument will probably go on forever. The point is there is (just) one group that is wearing a ring and others are not.”

Yet, who better to judge the best but the man who led them?

Olson wavered, then said, “The one that caught everyone’s eyes was the (Sean) Elliott and (Steve) Kerr group (of 1988). They are the team that got the national attention (started).

“Still, you have to go back to who won it (all), and who didn’t,” saving the final prop for his 1997 national champs.

Lute: Next coach will want more than $1.4M

‘You can’t coach as long as I have without missing (it).’


retired UA coach, on watching games from the McKale stands

Continued from 1A


Fox Sports Arizona (Ch. 26 Cox) will televise UA’s game against California on Thursday night – and the halftime ceremony to honor Lute Olson. The game starts at 8:30 p.m. at McKale Center, so Olson likely will speak about 9:20 p.m.

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