Lute Olson is entering his 20th season at the University of Arizona, and established the Wildcat basketball program as a prominent figure in the college basketball landscape.
Whether it's the 1997 national championship, four Final Four appearances, 18 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, nine Pacific-10 Conference titles, or the nation's best winning percentage over the past 15 seasons, winning basketball and the UA go hand-in-hand.
Olson also has a new title as he begins his fourth decade as a head coach - Hall of Famer - as he was selected for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on June 5, 2002. In a career full of individual and team accolades, this honor ranks among the best. True to form, Olson shared the recognition with his family, coaches and players.
"I think it ranks right up there with the NCAA Championship and the 1986 World Championship," said Olson. "This is definitely one of the special things that has happened in my career. I am very thankful for the recognition and opportunity for enshrinement. I want to thank Bobbi and my family for their sacrifices in addition to the former assistant coaches and former players who also share in this honor as well.
Set to begin his 30th season as a coach at the Division I level with time spent at Arizona, Iowa and Long Beach State, Olson is one of just 38 head coaches in NCAA history to win 600 or more games. He owns a career record 663-235, which adds up to a gaudy winning percentage of .738. He has recorded a mark of 471-143 (.767) in his 19 years at Arizona, while being named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year six times (1998, '94, '93, '89, '88, '86). Olson also has guided Arizona to 15 consecutive 20-win seasons, making him one of only five coaches in NCAA history to record 24 or more 20-win seasons.
Considered one of the top coaches in Pac-10 history, he has led Arizona to the aforementioned nine league titles, with the last coming in 2000. He has a career Pac-10 mark of 262-76 (.775), and the 262 Pac-10 wins makes him one of just four head coaches in league history to win more than 250 Pac-10 games - joining John Wooden, Slats Gill, and Hec Edmundson. Olson is the No. 2 coach in Pac-10 history for career winning percentage for conference games with more than two years experience, trailing only the legendary Wooden (.810/304-74).
As for his Arizona career, in terms of winning percentage, he is the winningest coach in school history (.767), and his 471 wins trail only Fred Enke's 497 from 1925-1961 (36 years).
Olson, who was a finalist for Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductions in 2000 and 2001, had success long before his NCAA days as well. In 11 years as a high school coach (1956-69), he compiled a record of 180-76. After that, there were three years in the junior college ranks at Long Beach City College, where he was 104-20. Factor in those games, along with the contests as the head coach at Arizona, Iowa and Long Beach State, and he has won 947 games heading into 2002-03 and has a .741 winning percentage in 1,278 career games.
His success not only happens on the court, but also in the recruiting process and in the number of former players that currently play in the NBA. For instance, the 2002-03 recruiting class was judged as one of the top five in the nation by some analysts. With a 1998 NBA draft-day high tying three choices, followed by two in 1999 and five in the 2001 NBA Draft, Arizona has had 20 UA players picked by NBA teams since 1990. In his collegiate career, he has produced 44 NBA Draft picks, including 25 at Arizona. Last year, there were 11 Arizona alums on NBA rosters, and two former Wildcats were members of the 1999 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs (Sean Elliott & Steve Kerr).
Any doubts about Olson's ability on the sidelines were put to rest in 2001-02. He quickly rebuilt a roster that had been decimated by graduation and the NBA Draft, molded a team made primarily of three juniors and six freshmen, and turned it into one of the nation's best. That young Arizona squad exceeded nearly everyone's expectations by winning 24 games, capturing the Pac-10 Tournament title (the school's fourth consecutive), and advancing to the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet 16." After starting the year unranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since November 1995, the Olson-led Wildcats served notice by stunning second-ranked Maryland and fifth-ranked Florida in its first two games. UA would rise as high as No. 3 in the polls and remained nationally ranked for the entire season.
Olson guided his charges through a season full of distractions in 2000-01 to one of his most rewarding results. Opening the year as the nation's top-ranked team in five different polls, the 2000-01 Wildcats overcame two NCAA suspensions, the untimely passing of Olson's wife, Bobbi, and his own five-game leave of absence to amass a 28-8 record, earn a berth in the school's fourth Final Four and play in the national championship game. After struggling to an 8-5 start, the Cats finished the regular season with 15 wins in 17 games to emerge as a title contender. The team rolled through the first five games of the NCAA Tournament dispatching four conference champions and stretching its season-long win streak to 11 games, before falling to Duke, 82-72, in the NCAA Final. Through it all, the Wildcats displayed a toughness and determination seen in few teams across the country.
In a career that has been dotted with terrific coaching jobs, the 1999-2000 season may have been one of the best. Whether it was an injury to a key player, someone who left the program or the fact that there were three freshmen in the starting lineup, he was at his best all year in leading the team to a 27-7 record and the program's ninth Pac-10 Conference championship. The season was also highlighted by his 600th career win, his 400th victory as Arizona's head coach and the renaming of the McKale Center playing surface, "Lute Olson Court".
Arizona fans have grown accustomed to success when the hoops season rolls around, but believe it or not, this same attitude did not exist before Olson's arrival in the desert prior to the 1983-84 campaign.
Back on March 29, 1983, when Olson took over the reigns in Tucson after nine successful seasons at Iowa, he was given a program that finished just 4-24 the season before. A quick and rapid rise to the top would ensue, much to the delight of the legions of hoop-crazed fans in the Arizona Sonoran desert.
Simply put, the 67-year old Olson has created a basketball-rich tradition at the University of Arizona and made the Cats one of the programs that others attempt to emulate.
In 1997-98, he put together what may have been the best team in Arizona history. His silver season as a collegiate coach, Olson won his sixth Pac-10 Coach of the Year honor after directing Arizona to the program's eighth Pac-10 Championship during his tenure. That defending national champion club took everyone's best shot throughout the season, but still managed to post a 30-5 record, thanks in part to a school-record-tying winning streak of 19 consecutive games. The Wildcats, who were a last second desperation three-pointer away from becoming the first team in Pac-10 history to complete the league schedule 18-0, would get one step away from the school's fourth Final Four before falling to Utah in the NCAA West Regional Final in Anaheim.
In a career that has produced one major achievement after another, it was the 1996-97 season that proved to be the year when Olson reached the pinnacle of his coaching career.
After seeing his squad finish with a regular season record of 19-9 and its lowest Pac-10 finish (fifth) since his first year at the UA (eighth), he rallied the troops for one of the most remarkable runs in the NCAA tournament's history. Going in as a No. 4 seed and with a two-game losing streak, the Wildcats proceeded to do what no team had ever done - beat three No. 1 seeds on the way to the national title.
Oh, and by the way, this trio of wins didn't come against just any group of teams - they were versus the three winningest programs in college basketball history.
The excitement started when Arizona knocked off everyone's favorite to win it all, Kansas, in the Sweet 16 at Birmingham, Ala. Then, after going into overtime to beat Providence in the Southeast Regional Championship (96-92), the UA advanced to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where it beat its second No. 1 seed, North Carolina. This win set up the title game against defending national champion, Kentucky.
The Wildcats vs. Wildcats match-up proved to be a battle of epic proportions, one that resulted in the first NCAA overtime title game in seven years. When the dust settled, Olson's club came away with an 84-79 win, a conquest that took place just two days after his 14-year anniversary of being named the head coach at Arizona. The monumental win set off not only a wild celebration at both the RCA Dome, but back home on the streets of Tucson.
That national championship team was built out of the same mold as the man who was in charge - forged with a competitive fire, intensely driven and dedicated to be the best. Following the year, Olson was awarded with the second annual Chase Winged Foot Award, an honor that is presented to the coach of the national champions by the New York Athletic Club.
In the year prior to the national championship campaign (1995-96), Olson reached a pair of head coaching milestones, as he won his 300th game as the UA head man and attained his 500th career victory as a head coach.
Following the initial season as the Wildcats' head man, the Arizona basketball program began its trek into not only the local and regional limelight, but the national spotlight as well. The excitement that Olson brought to McKale Center has been parlayed into sellout season ticket crowds for the past consecutive 15 years and well-earned respect for Olson among his peers in the coaching profession.
He continues to put his stamp on the NCAA and Pac-10 coaching record book with each season. He has coached in the NCAA tournament 23 times in the last 24 years, including the 18 straight seasons at Arizona, and overall he has a 39-23 NCAA record. In addition to the appearances with his Arizona clubs from 1985-2002, he led Iowa to five consecutive trips in his final five years in Iowa City, including the 1980 Final Four.
Olson's Arizona teams are 32-17 in NCAA play with trips to the 1988, 1994, 1997, and 2001 Final Fours. His Iowa teams were 7-6 in NCAA action, including a Final Four trip in 1980. His 39 NCAA Tournament wins place him sixth on the NCAA all-time tournament victory list, and he is one of just eight coaches who have coached in five or more Final Fours. Further, his 23 all-time trips to the NCAA Tournament puts him third on the all-time head coaching list.
Some teams rebuild, but Olson reloads the Wildcat program - always giving his players the right to approve or disapprove any prospective recruit.
"I have been a firm believer that you build a successful program with good people, Olson said. "We never recruit the great players who are questionable people. Hopefully they will be great players as well."
Many of these players have utilized the Arizona program to hone their skills and move onto the next level. Under Olson, 25 players have been selected in the NBA Draft (10 in the first round), while numerous others have gone onto play overseas.
It most assuredly has been a successful run at Arizona for Olson. After coming to Tucson, it proved to take just one season for him to ignite a dormant program.
In 1984-85 - his second year - the Wildcats finished the year at 21-10 and made their first of many visits to the NCAA tournament. It had been eight years since an Arizona team had won 20 games and Olson was just beginning to scratch the surface.
National recognition came with the 1986 season as the Cats won their first Pac-10 title and put together a 23-9 record. That was the first of eight Pac-10 titles that Arizona has won since Olson's arrival. The four titles won from 1988-91 marked the first time a Pac-10 team won four consecutive titles since the league expansion in 1979.
With that 1988 Pac-10 title in hand, the season culminated with Arizona's first trip to the Final Four as the Cats put together the finest season in school history with a 35-3 record.
Since that 1987-88 Final Four season, Arizona has won an average of 26 games a season (averaging just six losses), and the overall record of 401-97 during that same period is the nation's best in terms of winning percentage (.805).
The numbers get even better when you look at what the Cats have done at home for Olson. In the last 19 years under Olson, Arizona has amassed a record of 280-29 in McKale Center, have lost only 11 non-conference games and have won 208 of its last 222 games. During that time, the Cats had an amazing run of 71 consecutive victories without a defeat, making it one of the NCAA's all-time top 10 longest home-court winning streaks.
The streaks haven't built around a light schedule either. Olson does not avoid tough games. Since his arrival, Arizona has played 43 non-conference, regular season games against teams that played in the Final Four later that same season. Further, they have matched wits with a team that played in the NCAA title game in seven of the past eight seasons.
With the success of the Wildcats throughout the years, the accolades for Olson continue to grow. His resume includes Coach-of-the-Year honors from both the Pac-10 (1986, 1988, 1989, 1993, 1994 and 1998) and the Big Ten (1979 and 1981) in addition to a variety of regional and national honors. He earned the John R. Wooden "Legends of Coaching" and the Clair Bee Coach of the Year awards in 2001. In the summer of 1999, he was also inducted into the Pima County (Ariz.) Sports Hall of Fame.
Olson's success at Arizona mirrors his earlier work at Iowa where in nine years in Iowa City from 1975 to 1983 he became the then-winningest coach in school history (168-90) and took the Hawkeyes to the NCAA five straight times including a Final Four trip in 1980.
Olson was born on a farm just outside Mayville, N.D., on Sept. 22, 1934, and would go on to attend high school in Grand Forks, N.D., for the 1951-52 season, where he led the team to the 1952 state basketball championship. In college, he was a three-sport athlete (basketball, football and baseball) at Augsburg College (Minn.) from 1953-56. After five years of prep coaching in Minnesota, he moved west and coached for seven years in Anaheim and Huntington Beach, Calif., high schools. Olson was inducted into the Two Harbors, Minn., Sports Hall of Fame in July 2001.
He then guided Long Beach City College to three league titles and the 1971 state junior college crown and was the conference coach of the year in each of his three seasons. Olson followed that with a one-year stint as the head coach at Long Beach State (1973-74), where he led the 49ers to a 24-2 record. That got the attention of Iowa, which hired him for the next season.
Olson was married the former Roberta (Bobbi) Russell for 47 years. Bobbi passed away in January 2001. Olson has five grown children - daughters Vicki, Jodi and Christi, and sons Greg and Steve - and 14 grandchildren.