Lute Olson not only was an accomplished coach on the court, his former Arizona Wildcats players say, he created a family atmosphere that served them well later in life. (Photo by Tom Hauck/ALLSPORT)
TUCSON – Lute Olson is viewed as one of college basketball’s greatest coaches, and in Tucson, where he built his legacy at the University of Arizona, there was no bigger celebrity. His former players, though, view him as the patriarch of a family bigger than basketball.
For Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, the basketball court became home and Olson a mentor after Kerr’s father was killed during his freshman year at Arizona by Islamic extremists in Beirut.
“The thing that kept me going was playing basketball,” Kerr said. “The team became a second family and he really looked after me.”
Memories of Olson’s accomplished journey remain vivid. Saturday marks the second anniversary of his death.
Olson’s attentiveness and tough-love shepherding of his players from adolescence to adulthood were evident long before he arrived in Tucson. At the University of Iowa, where he spent nine seasons before being hired by Arizona, he lifted the program from mediocrity to prominence.
Before he arrived, the Hawkeyes suffered four consecutive losing seasons. Olson inherited a team that went 8-16 and finished 10th in the Big Ten. In his second season there, in 1975-76, the Hawkeyes went 19-10 and finished fifth in the Big Ten. They improved every season under Olson, but 1980 was their breakout year.
Iowa finished 23-10 and fourth in the Big Ten and advanced to the Final Four, where it lost to the eventual champion, the University of Louisville.
Iowa would play in the next three NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, but Olson felt stymied, said his daughter, Jody Brase.
“He felt like he was in a fishbowl while he was coaching there,” Brase said. “After my mother lived in Minnesota and my dad lived in North Dakota, they knew the cold too well.”
The unrealistic expectations of the Iowa faithful, who expected their team to make a deep tournament run every year, mixed with the all-too-familiar winter chill prompted Olson to pack his bags and head for the Arizona desert.
Once again, he faced a rebuilding process, having inherited the worst team in the Pac-10, one that managed only four victories the season before he took over. Bruce Fraser, an assistant coach for Golden State, was a year behind Kerr at Arizona. In his three years in Tucson, Fraser could see that Olson was putting together something special.
“Lute was very strict at the time, but part of his rebuilding was to connect us as a team and the family,” Fraser said.
Olson earned his players’ respect by holding them accountable not just on the court, but off it, too. Olson nurtured his players, yet he was also a strict disciplinarian.
“When he recruited you, he seemed jovial, fun and nice, and once you came to play, it was all business,” Fraser said. “So there was definitely a separation of coach and player in a good way.”
That separation was key. Olson commanded respect from his players. Some might have found him overly demanding, but for Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner, it motivated him to give his all.
“The respect that people have for him, it was almost like when he walked into a room he was a movie star,” said Pastner, who played for Olson from 1996-2000. “There was almost a fear factor of not being afraid of coach Olson but not wanting to let him down.”
To outsiders, Olson had a Hollywood-esque aura, but his players saw him as a no-nonsense father more than anything else.
“There was still an arm’s length distance because we were intimidated,” Fraser said. “I don’t know if that was intentional or not.”
He added, “We would all run through a wall for him.”
On the strength of his players’ respect and love for their coach and the foundation Olson established, the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament in three straight seasons. However, the team struggled to advance past the first round until 1988, when the No. 1-seeded Wildcats went all the way to the Final Four. They lost to the University of Oklahoma, marking the second time that Olson went to the Final Four and lost. It also marked the end of Kerr and Fraser’s tenure with the team.
Kerr moved on to the NBA and had a 15-year career, where he won three championships with the Chicago Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs. He remained in the NBA as a general manager for the Phoenix Suns and was named coach of the Warriors in 2014.
Fraser also has made an impact coaching. He worked as a graduate assistant coach under Olson from 1987-90, was a member of the Indiana Pacers’ staff in 1994-95 and served as an assistant coach at the University of Missouri from 1999-2000.
Fraser’s close relationship with Kerr led him to work as Steve Nash’s personal shooting coach from 2010-13. After that, he became an assistant on Kerr’s Golden State staff, where his duties include working with the offensive star Steph Curry on his shooting.
After the departures of Kerr and Fraser, Arizona continued its winning ways under Olson, building to the ultra-special 1997 season.
“We were part of that foundation and that foundation really culminated in ‘97,” Fraser said.
That was the season where the improbable became reality. The Wildcats won their first and only national championship by defeating Kansas, North Carolina and, finally, Kentucky in the national championship game.
Arizona is the only team in NCAA men’s basketball history to defeat three No. 1 seeds in the tournament. As the final buzzer sounded and players celebrated, Pastner thought about how the title cemented Olson’s legacy.
“I was very fortunate to be with UA for a long time, both as a player and then a staff member,” Pastner said. “Lute was an incredible teacher of the game. He was an incredible educator. He’s one of the best to ever do it.”
Pastner’s playing career ended after college, but he wasn’t done with basketball. Like many of his former teammates, Pastner pursued a career that grew Olson’s family tree in coaching. He landed head positions at the University of Memphis in 2009 and at Georgia Tech in 2016. Like Olson, Pastner took two programs to the NCAA tournament.
Olson died in 2020, but Pastner continues to feel his presence on the bench.
“I’ve got to be myself, I’ve got to run my own program. But every decision I make, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking what would Coach Olson do,” Pastner said.
One of Pastner’s teammates was Jason Terry, a 1998 Pac-10 Player of the Year and 2011 NBA champion with the Dallas Mavericks who was thankful for the bond that he formed with Olson.
“I’ll just never forget being miles away from my home in Seattle, not having any family there and being able to go to Coach’s home or his office and his door was always open,” Terry said. “The relationship between player and coach, mentor, mentee, teacher and student … you can’t put a price tag on it.”
The culture that Olson created survived after his health-related departure from the school before the 2008-09 season.
Successive coaches, led by Tommy Lloyd, maintained the program’s elite status. Lloyd, who led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in his first season, described what it is like to uphold that legacy of winning.
“The impact that he had on Tucson was tremendous,” Lloyd said. “I’m fortunate to follow in his footsteps.”
Before the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the university held a memorial for Olson, their winningest coach, at McKale Center, the building where fans and players experienced his larger-than-life presence. He was also immortalized with a life-size statue outside McKale Center in which he is holding the 1997 NCAA men’s basketball championship trophy.
Olson compiled a 587-190 record during his 24 years with the Wildcats. He turned the program from nothing to one of the best in the country.
“No coach can say that he literally built not only a basketball program from ground zero, but a university,” Pastner said. “Lute Olson single handedly built a program, a school and the city, all through basketball.”