Lute Olson

Lute Olson
Sport(s) Basketball
Biographical details
Born (1934-09-22) September 22, 1934
Mayville, North Dakota
Playing career
1953–1956 Augsburg
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
1956–1957 Mahnomen HS
1957–1961 Two Harbors HS
1962–1963 Western HS (asst.)
1963–1964 Loara HS
1964–1969 Marina HS
1969–1973 Long Beach CC
1973–1974 Long Beach State
1974–1983 Iowa
1983–2008 Arizona
Head coaching record
Overall 781–280 (.736)
Accomplishments and honors
1 NCAA Division I Tournament Championship (1997)
5 NCAA Regional Championships - Final Four (1980, 1988, 1994, 1997, 2001)
4 Pac-10 Tournament Championships (1988, 1989, 1990, 2002)
11 Pac-10 Regular Season Championships (1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005)
1 Big West Regular Season Championship (1974)
1 Big Ten Regular Season Championship (1979)
2 National Coach of the Year (1988, 1990)
7 Pac-10 Coach of the Year (1986, 1988, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003)
2 Big Ten Coach of the Year (1979, 1981)
Basketball Hall of Fame
Inducted in 2002
College Basketball Hall of Fame
Inducted in 2006

Robert Luther "Lute" Olson (born September 22, 1934) is an American retired basketball coach. He was most recently head coach of the University of Arizona's men's team for 25 years. He was also head coach at the University of Iowa for nine years and California State University, Long Beach for one season. Olson was known for player development, and many of his former players have gone on to impressive careers in the NBA. On October 23, 2008, Olson announced his retirement from coaching.[1][2]


Early life

Olson was born in Mayville, North Dakota of Norwegian-American parentage, and was coached by the legendary high school basketball coach Father Blaine Cook of St. Mary's Parish. Olson is a graduate of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After graduating from Augsburg, Olson coached high school basketball for 13 seasons in Mahnomen and Two Harbors, Minnesota, and Anaheim and Huntington Beach, California. He then coached basketball for four years at Long Beach City College prior to entering the NCAA coaching ranks in 1973.[3]

Head coaching career

In his first and only season at Long Beach State, he led the team to an undefeated conference record and a Big West championship. Olson followed Jerry Tarkanian, who had built the program into a National power. They were ranked #3 behind Bill Walton's UCLA and eventual champion North Carolina State. They were unable to play in the NCAA tournament due to being put on a 3-year probation mid-season, due to infractions from the Jerry Tarkanian era. Many believe this was Lute's best team, including the Arizona 1997 NCAA title team. He coached Iowa to a Final Four appearance in 1980, losing to eventual NCAA champion Louisville in the national semifinal. After leading the Hawkeyes to the Sweet Sixteen in 1983, Olson surprised many by leaving for an Arizona program that was one of the worst in the nation. The program had just suffered the worst season in school history, having won only four games all season and one game in Pac-10 play. He said he left Iowa because life there had become a "fishbowl" and he needed a change.

Under Olson, Arizona quickly rose to national prominence. In only his second year, the Wildcats notched their first winning season in six years and made the first of what would be 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under his watch. A year later, Arizona won its first Pac-10 title. Two years later, the Wildcats spent much of the season ranked #1 and made their first (and Olson's second) Final Four. Olson's subsequent Arizona teams would be fixtures in the Top 25 for most of the time until the mid-2000s.

Olson was voted Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times, made 5 Final Four appearances and won the 1997 NCAA championship with Arizona, where his team accomplished the feat of defeating three #1 seeds in the same tournament.

In 2002, Olson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

He also coached the US national team in the 1986 FIBA World Championship, the last U.S. amateur basketball team to win in international competition. His team defeated the U.S.S.R. 87-85 in the gold medal game, the first time the U.S. had won the world championship in 32 years.[4]

Player development at Arizona

Throughout the nineties and 2000s, Arizona under Olson was one of the top producers of NBA talent in terms of number of alumni playing in the league. Many of these players (such as Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, and Gilbert Arenas) were not highly regarded on a national level in high school but flourished under Olson's system to eventually become college stars and productive NBA players.

The basketball program at Arizona has been dubbed "Point Guard U"[5] because of the numerous players who have excelled at that position, including Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry (additionally, point guards Reggie Geary and Matt Othick both played briefly in the NBA and Kenny Lofton went on to become an All-Star center fielder in Major League Baseball). All-American Jason Gardner (graduated in 2003), had been the only starting Arizona point guards to not have played any NBA minutes since before Steve Kerr in 1984, prior to Mustafa Shakur and Chris Rodgers in recent years.

Despite this reputation, Arizona under Olson has also developed many outstanding shooting guards and swingmen: Sean Elliott, Gilbert Arenas, Jud Buechler, Khalid Reeves, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson, Chris Mills, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Andre Iguodala, Salim Stoudamire, Michael Wright, Ray Owes and Hassan Adams all excelled with the Wildcats, and many went on to stardom in the NBA.

Fewer Arizona big men have made such a big impact in the NBA, but Olson has coached several notables: forward Tom Tolbert and centers Brian Williams (later renamed Bison Dele), Sean Rooks, Loren Woods, and Channing Frye have also made careers in the NBA.


Olson married Roberta "Bobbi" Russell in 1953. They were married for 47 years and had five children. Bobbi Olson died on January 1, 2001 of ovarian cancer, aged 65. The basketball court at UA is named the Lute and Bobbi Olson Court in her honor. In 2003, Olson married Christine Jack Toretti, an executive at a Pennsylvania energy company and a Republican National Committee member.[6]

On March 15, 2005, Olson's granddaughter, Julie Brase, was named an assistant coach of the Phoenix Mercury in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Brase played for the women's basketball team at the University of Arizona as a starting player for four years and had served as an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount University. She also worked as an assistant coach at Olson's basketball camps. His daughter, Jody (Julie's mother), is currently an assistant principal and athletic director at Catalina Foothills High School.

Olson's grandson Matt Brase was a member of the University of Arizona basketball team from 2003 to 2005 and then worked as an administrative assistant and video coordinator. In early November 2008, Matt was promoted to assistant coach by then-interim coach Russ Pennell.[7]

On December 6, 2007, Olson filed for divorce from his second wife, Christine.[8][9]

Health issues

Controversies and Absences

Olson's behavior became erratic in 2007, beginning with the dismissal of 27-year associate head coach Jim Rosborough in April 2007. It is widely believed that Olson had promised Rosborough the head coach position when Olson retired. Olson replaced Rosborough with former Toronto Raptors head coach Kevin O'Neill.

On November 4, 2007, Olson was absent from the Wildcats' preseason opener. It was announced 10 minutes prior to the game that he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. At the time, the university said such absence was not health related. O'Neill took over head-coaching duties during the leave of absence.[10]

On December 6, 2007, it was announced that Olson would miss the entire 2007-08 season.[11] The following day, it was announced that Olson had filed for divorce from his wife of four years, Christine.[8] On December 18, Arizona announced that Olson planned to return for the 2008-09 season, and also named O'Neill as Olson's designated successor upon his retirement.[12][13]

Kevin O'Neill publicly stated that he was still relying on a promise to be Lute Olson's successor, and that he would return to UA to be an assistant for the 2008–09 season. However, during an April 2008 press conference in which he appeared visibly annoyed and defensive with reporters, Olson announced that O'Neill would never coach at the University of Arizona again.[14] This marked the second time in a year that Olson had reneged on a promise to promote an assistant coach, following his dismissal of Jim Rosborough. O'Neill later accepted an assistant coaching position with the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, and was subsequently the head coach at USC. Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood also said assistant and former Wildcat guard Miles Simon (a key player on Olson's 1997 national championship team) would no longer coach.


Olson met with the Tucson media during Arizona's annual preseason media day on October 21; in contrast to his April appearance, he seemed in relatively upbeat and positive spirits and ready to coach in 2008.[15] However, Olson did not attend the October 22 practice, which was run by associate head coach Mike Dunlap, and missed a Rotary Club function in Tucson which he attended annually for many years (former Wildcat point guard Reggie Geary, by now a member of the coaching staff, attended the event on Olson's behalf).[16] After a day of speculation fueled by initial reports by Dick Vitale of ESPN,[17] Livengood formally announced Olson's retirement afternoon of October 23. Livengood would not speculate on Olson's permanent replacement; it was widely assumed Dunlap would coach the team on an interim basis.[18] The interim coach was announced by Livengood on October 24 to be Russ Pennell, who joined the Wildcat staff in May 2008.[19]

On October 28, 2008, five days after Olson announced his retirement, a press conference was held in Tucson by Olson's personal physician, Steven D. Knope, alongside Olson's daughters and grandson, who showed signs of emotion at times; Olson himself was not in attendance. It was announced by Knope, who in March had cleared Olson medically to return to coaching after his leave of absence, that the coach had an "initially undiagnosed" stroke earlier in the year (confirmed by an MRI scan taken on October 27) which had caused severe depression and impaired judgment. Olson had also apparently suffered from atrial fibrillation for several years, which could have produced a blood clot resulting in the stroke. Knope became concerned about "changes in (Olson's) behavior and trouble handling his increasing workload" and advised Olson to retire as a result:

"I believe some of those personality changes were out of character," Knope said. "I had very little contact with him this summer. I saw his (April 1) press conference and noticed that he was a little out of character...What I'm truly hoping for now is that the team and community rally around this now that they understand...I hope everyone remembers what he's done for the community."[20][21][22]

Knope said that Olson was "devastated" upon being informed of the MRI results and remained at home in Tucson; Olson has so far declined to comment publicly on his condition. Knope further clarified his position for the Arizona Daily Star a few days later:

"During his initial bout of depression in November 2007, Olson responded appropriately to medications. He had a complete recovery from his depression. He had no unusual behavior at that time and there was no indication for an MRI. The results of an MRI performed at that time would likely have been normal. During Olson's more recent depression, which began approximately six weeks ago, Olson did not respond to therapy. This was a change. The medications were no longer effective. In addition, there were behaviors in recent months which, in retrospect, were uncharacteristic of the man. These were the clues that suggested he may have a rare frontal lobe syndrome, in which behavioral changes, judgmental errors and difficulty with complex tasks became prominent. These symptoms were the red flags that triggered the need for an MRI (which confirmed the stroke)".[23]


Lute Olson is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. Along with the successful players noted above, Olson has 46 NCAA tournament wins, one behind John Wooden and one ahead of Bob Knight. His Wildcat basketball teams were wildly popular in Tucson, among university students as well as the general public; Olson brought a renewed sense of prestige to both the University of Iowa and University of Arizona at a time when both of their sports programs were mediocre. In November 2007, Olson teamed with publisher Mascot Books to release a children's book featuring the Arizona mascot touring the campus, entitled Hello, Wilbur!.

Upon his retirement, accolades came in from several sources. Robert Shelton, University of Arizona president, said, "Lute Olson transformed the UA and Tucson into premier basketball country...Arizona now stands in the company of great college basketball programs, and we have Lute to thank for that. We will sorely miss his brilliance as our head coach, but we will benefit from the legacy he leaves for decades to come."[24]

Kevin O'Neill, the man originally tapped to replace Olson as Arizona head coach, but who later left the Wildcat program, stated: "I have great respect for Lute Olson. He is one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time...His legacy will (be) the standard at the University of Arizona for as long as they have basketball. I appreciate every opportunity he gave me."[25]

"He's been involved in the game and been a great ambassador for college basketball for a long time," University of Florida head basketball coach Billy Donovan said. "There's no question he went through a difficult time and I don't know all that went on. He took over Arizona at rock bottom and built it into an incredible program...For him, maybe dealing with health issues and family issues, for whatever reason, it's not right for him to continue on. And I just hope he's at peace with where he's at in his decision."[26]

Greg Hansen, columnist and longtime Olson critic for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, had this to say: "Until now, Lute Olson has been judged by games won and banners hung, but it is the passage of time that will be his greatest test. Ultimately, it won't matter that he didn't beat Purdue in the last game he ever coached, that his final recruiting class went bust or that he abandoned his school twice at the worst possible time. As the games fade away, the future will paint a flattering portrait of him...Across the last quarter-century, Olson made our city feel good about itself. He made us feel like winners. Who else has done that? He changed the way we looked at ourselves."[27]

On February 11, 2012, Lute Olson was initiated into the Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity by Gamma Delta Chapter at the University of Arizona. He was chosen as a special initiate due to his loyalty to the University of Arizona and his dedication he showed to his players.[28]

Coaching highlights

At Long Beach City College

At Long Beach State University

At the University of Iowa

At the University of Arizona

NCAA tournament records

Career records


Head coaching record

Junior college

Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason
Long Beach City College (Metropolitan Conference) (1969–1973)
1969–70 LBCC 1st
1970–71 LBCC 1st
1971–72 LBCC
1972–73 LBCC 1st

      National champion         Postseason invitational champion  
      Conference regular season champion         Conference regular season and conference tournament champion
      Division regular season champion       Division regular season and conference tournament champion
      Conference tournament champion


Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason
Long Beach State 49ers (Big West Conference) (1973–1974)
1973–74 Long Beach State 24–2 12–0 1st
Long Beach State: 24–2 (.923) 12–0 (1.000)
Iowa Hawkeyes (Big Ten Conference) (1974–1983)
1974–75 Iowa 10–16 7–11 7th
1975–76 Iowa 19–10 9–9 5th
1976–77 Iowa 20–7 12–6 4th
1977–78 Iowa 12–15 5–13 8th
1978–79 Iowa 20–8 13–5 1st NCAA 1st Round
1979–80 Iowa 23–10 10–8 4th NCAA Final Four
1980–81 Iowa 21–7 13–5 2nd NCAA 1st Round
1981–82 Iowa 21–8 12–6 2nd NCAA 2nd Round
1982–83 Iowa 21–10 10–8 T–2nd NCAA Sweet 16
Iowa: 167–91 (.647) 91–71 (.562)
Arizona Wildcats (Pacific-10 Conference) (1983–2008)
1983–84 Arizona 11–17 8–10 8th
1984–85 Arizona 21–10 12–6 T–3rd NCAA 1st Round
1985–86 Arizona 23–9 14–4 1st NCAA 1st Round
1986–87 Arizona 18–12 13–5 2nd NCAA 1st Round
1987–88 Arizona 35–3 17–1 1st NCAA Final Four
1988–89 Arizona 29–4 17–1 1st NCAA Sweet 16
1989–90 Arizona 25–7 15–3 T–1st NCAA 2nd Round
1990–91 Arizona 28–7 14–4 1st NCAA Sweet 16
1991–92 Arizona 24–7 13–5 3rd NCAA 1st Round
1992–93 Arizona 24–4 17–1 1st NCAA 1st Round
1993–94 Arizona 29–6 14–4 1st NCAA Final Four
1994–95 Arizona 24–7 14–4 2nd NCAA 1st Round
1995–96 Arizona 27–6 14–4 2nd NCAA Sweet 16
1996–97 Arizona 25–9 11–7 5th NCAA Champions
1997–98 Arizona 30–5 17–1 1st NCAA Elite Eight
1998–99 Arizona 22–6 13–5 2nd NCAA 1st Round*
1999–00 Arizona 27–7 15–3 T–1st NCAA 2nd Round
2000–01 Arizona 25–6 12–2 2nd NCAA Runner-up
2001–02 Arizona 24–10 12–6 T–2nd NCAA Sweet 16
2002–03 Arizona 28–4 17–1 1st NCAA Elite Eight
2003–04 Arizona 20–10 11–7 3rd NCAA 1st Round
2004–05 Arizona 30–7 15–3 1st NCAA Elite Eight
2005–06 Arizona 20–13 11–7 T–4th NCAA 2nd Round
2006–07 Arizona 20–11 11–7 T–3rd NCAA 1st Round
Arizona: 589–187 (.759) 327–101 (.764)
Total: 780–280 (.736)

      National champion         Postseason invitational champion  
      Conference regular season champion         Conference regular season and conference tournament champion
      Division regular season champion       Division regular season and conference tournament champion
      Conference tournament champion

* Vacated 1 NCAA tournament loss

See also


  1. "Lute Olson Announces He Will Retire: Hall of Fame coach closes spectacular career". 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
  2. "Olson retires after 25 seasons, four Final Fours at Arizona". 2008-10-24. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
  3. "Quick Hits / Lute Olson retires". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  4. 1986 USA Basketball Archived April 10, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Colemen, Van (2007-05-22). "Nation's No. 3 Junior Commits to Point Guard U". Archived from the original on 16 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
  6. "PA State Party Leadership". Republican National Committee. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
  7. Olson's grandson hired by Wildcats - Sports
  8. 1 2 "BREAKING NEWS: Olson files for divorce". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  9. " - Olson retires after 25 seasons, four Final Fours at Arizona". 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  10. Olson takes leave of absence - News
  11. "NCAA College Basketball News, Videos, Scores, Standings, Stats, Teams - FOX Sports on MSN". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  12. "ESPN - Arizona makes it official: O'Neill to take over when Olson retires as coach - Men's College Basketball". 2007-12-18. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  13. "ESPN - Arizona's Lute Olson will be back when season ends - Men's College Basketball". 2008-03-11. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  14. ""Back from leave of absence, combative Lute Olson meets with media",, April 1, 2008". 2008-04-01. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  15. Archived October 25, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  16. ""Olson misses practice, annual Rotary luncheon", Bruce Pascoe, ''Arizona Daily Star'', October 23, 2008". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  17. ""Source: Olson to step down as Arizona coach",, October 23, 2008". 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  18. "StarNet". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  19. "StarNet". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  20. Rivera, Steve; Citizen, Tucson (October 28, 2008). "Olson's stroke led to depression and, ultimately, retirement". USA Today. Retrieved May 11, 2010.
  21. "StarNet". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  22. "StarNet". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  23. ""Olson's doctor clarifies situation", Steven D. Knope, MD, ''Arizona Daily Star'', November 2, 2008". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  24. Official University of Arizona announcement of the retirement of Lute Olson
  25. Gimino, Anthony (2008-10-23). "Ex-UA coach O'Neill praises Olson". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
  26. Garcia, Marlen; Carey, Jack (October 24, 2008). "Coaches praise Olson, worry about his health". USA Today. Retrieved May 11, 2010.
  27. ""Father Time was Lute's toughest opponent", Greg Hansen, ''Arizona Daily Star'', October 29, 2008". Retrieved 2012-07-23.
Sporting positions
Preceded by
Soviet Union Alexander Gomelsky
FIBA World Championship
Winning Coach

Succeeded by
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Dušan Ivković
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