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Robert Luther "Lute" Olson (born September 22, 1934) is a former men's basketball coach, having been the head coach at the University of Arizonamarker for 25 years, the University of Iowamarker for 9 years, and Long Beach State Universitymarker for one season. Olson was known for player development, and many of his former players have gone on to impressive careers in the NBA after playing under him. On October 23, 2008 he announced his retirement from coaching at the University of Arizona.


Early life

Olson was born in Mayville, North Dakotamarker of Norwegian-American parentage, and is a graduate of Augsburg Collegemarker in Minneapolismarker, Minnesotamarker. Prior to his tenure with the Arizona Wildcats, Olson coached the University of Iowamarker and Long Beach Statemarker basketball teams, Long Beach City College four years, after having coached high school teams in Mahnomenmarker and Two Harbors, Minnesotamarker.

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. 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. 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. Arizona won its first Pac-10 title in 1986, only three years after his arrival. 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 have been perennially ranked until the mid-2000s and would make the NCAA tournament every year for the rest of his career.

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 unprecedented feat of defeating three #1 seeds in the same tournament.

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

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.

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" 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.

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 Arizonamarker as a starting player for four years and had served as an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount Universitymarker. She also worked as an assistant coach at Olson's basketball camps. His daughter, Jody(Julie's mom),is currently an assistant principal and athletic director at Catalina Foothills High School.

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

On December 6, 2007, Olson filed for divorce from his second wife, Christine.

Health issues

Leave of Absence

On November 4, 2007, Olson was absent from the Wildcats' pre-season 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. Olson's assistant, Kevin O'Neill, took over head-coaching duties during the leave of absence.

On December 6, 2007, it was announced that Olson would miss the entire 2007-08 season. The following day, it was announced that Olson had filed for divorce from his wife of four years, Christine. 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.

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 20082009 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 (O'Neill later accepted an assistant coaching position with the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA). 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. 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). After a day of speculation fueled by initial reports by Dick Vitale of ESPN, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood formally announced Olson's intent to retire from the Arizona basketball program on the 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. The interim coach was announced by Livengood on October 24 to be Russ Pennell, who joined the Wildcat staff in May 2008.

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, MD, 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."

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. Depression is a very common illness...Doctors do not and should not order MRIs in the majority of depressed people...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)".

Legacy of Coach Olson

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.

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."

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."

"He's been involved in the game and been a great ambassador for college basketball for a long time," University of Floridamarker 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."

Greg Hansen, longtime dork columnist 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."

Coaching highlights

  • In 34 seasons as a Division I head coach he has compiled a 781-280 record (.736)
  • Compiled a 180-76 (.703) record coaching high school basketball
  • Led Long Beach City College to California JUCO State Champions (1971)
  • Led Long Beach City College to three Metro Conference titles (1970, 1971, 1973)
  • Named Metro Conference Coach of the Year three times (1970, 1971, 1973)
  • Led Long Beach State to Big West Championship (1974)
  • One of 8 coaches in collegiate history to coach in five or more Final Fours
  • One of 11 coaches who have taken two different teams to the Final Four
  • Led Iowa to NCAA Final Four (1980)
  • Led Iowa to Big Ten Championship (1979)
  • Led Iowa to 5 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament to finish his career, a record at the time
  • Left Iowa as the winningest coach in school history with a 168-90 record (.651)
  • Led Arizona to 11 Pac-10 championships (1986,'88, '89, '90, '91, '93, '94, '98, '00, '03, '05)
  • Averaged nearly 25 victories per year in over 20 years at Arizona
  • Averaged nearly 23 victories per year in over 30 years of coaching
  • Has led Arizona to 20 consecutive 20-win seasons
  • Compiled 29 winning seasons in over 30 years of coaching
  • Is one of only five head coaches in NCAA history to record 26 or more 20-win seasons
  • Owns second best winning percentage in Pac-10 history (327-101, .764)
  • Has more Pac-10 wins than any other coach in history (327), including John Wooden (who coached before UCLA joined the modern Pac-10)
  • Led Arizona to four NCAA Final Four appearances (1988, '94, '97, 2001) and one NCAA Championship (1997)
  • Arizona's 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under Lute Olson is the longest current streak in college basketball and is second longest in NCAA history (behind North Carolina's 27)
  • His 74 NCAA tournament games coached is third all-time
  • His 46 NCAA tournament wins are second most among active coaches; fourth all-time
  • His 28 NCAA tournament appearances are tied for most all-time
  • Under Lute Olson, 28 of his last 29 teams have advanced to the NCAA Tournament (23 straight at Arizona and 5 straight at Iowa)
  • Is 25-12 in his last 35 NCAA Tournament games
  • Arizona's 1997 NCAA championship team was the only team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds in the same tournament
  • Guided Arizona to 11 NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in the last 18 years
  • U.S. Coach, R. William Jones Cup Champions (1984)
  • U.S. Coach, World Championship Gold Medal (1986)
  • Coach of the Year Awards: National Coach of the Year (1988, '90), CBS-TV Coach of the Year (1989), Pac-10 Coach of the Year (1986, '88, '89, 93, '94, '98, 2003), NABC District 15 Coach of the Year (1989, '93, '94), USBWA District 8 Coach of the Year (1988, '93), Big Ten Coach of the Year (1979, '81), PCAA Coach of the Year (1974), Western Region Coach of the Year (1974), Basketball Times West Region Coach of the Year (1998), Naismith National Coach of the Year Finalist (1998)

Head Coaching Record

See also


  3. 1986 USA Basketball
  5. Olson's grandson hired by Wildcats - Sports
  6. BREAKING NEWS: Olson files for divorce |
  8. Olson takes leave of absence - News
  10. BREAKING NEWS: Olson files for divorce |
  11. ESPN - Arizona makes it official: O'Neill to take over when Olson retires as coach - Men's College Basketball
  12. ESPN - Arizona's Lute Olson will be back when season ends - Men's College Basketball
  13. "Back from leave of absence, combative Lute Olson meets with media",, April 1, 2008
  15. "Olson misses practice, annual Rotary luncheon", Bruce Pascoe, Arizona Daily Star, October 23, 2008
  16. "Source: Olson to step down as Arizona coach",, October 23, 2008
  22. "Olson's doctor clarifies situation", Steven D. Knope, MD, Arizona Daily Star, November 2, 2008
  23. Official University of Arizona announcement of the retirement of Lute Olson
  26. "Father Time was Lute's toughest opponent", Greg Hansen, Arizona Daily Star, October 29, 2008

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