Lute Olson, who coached the Iowa men’s basketball program to both a Big Ten regular-season championship and an NCAA tournament Final Four, died Thursday at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 85.
The majority of Olson’s National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame career was at the University of Arizona from 1983 to 2008, but before that he turned the Hawkeyes into consistent winners over his nine years and made the program iconic in Iowa.
The Hawkeyes had four straight losing seasons when coach Dick Schultz resigned and Iowa Athletics Director Bump Elliott hired Olson in 1974. Then 39, he had one year of Division I collegiate coaching experience, a 24-2 season at Long Beach State. Before that, he had been a high school coach and then coached for four years at Long Beach City College.
Olson was an unknown to Iowans, but that changed in a hurry as Hawkeye basketball soon became a winner. Two of his first three Iowa teams went 19-10 and 20-7. In his fifth season, 1978-79, the Hawkeyes went 13-5 in the Big Ten and shared the Big Ten regular-season championship with Purdue and eventual national-champion Michigan State. It is the Iowa program’s last such title.
Iowa went to the NCAA tourney that season, as it would for the next four years under Olson. In 1980, the Hawkeyes played brilliantly in the NCAAs and reached the Final Four by winning four straight games in the East Region as the No. 5-seed. It was Iowa’s first Final Four since 1956, and most-recent one.
There have always been those who wondered if the Hawkeyes would have gone on to claim that 1980 national-championship had star guard Ronnie Lester not reinjured a knee during the first half of their semifinal loss to eventual-champion Louisville.
“We would’ve won it that year if he had been healthy,” Olson said in 2016 during his last visit to Iowa City, with Lester standing by his side.
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In the last years of the pre-cable television era, a statewide television network began to air most of Iowa’s games. That, combined with the success of the team, made interest and popularity in Hawkeye basketball soar. “Lute! Lute! Lute!” was routinely chanted by Hawkeye fans when Olson was introduced before home games.
As Olson’s teams kept winning and ticket demand increased, so did support for a new arena to replace the antiquated Iowa Field House. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was approved and built. It opened in January 1983, Olson’s last season at the school. Elliott and Olson were among Iowa officials who toured facilities around the nation to seek a template for what they wanted the new arena to be.
Olson shocked and saddened Iowa fans when he left after the 1982-83 season ended to take the Arizona job. His final game with the Hawkeyes was in the NCAA Sweet 16. His Iowa record was 167-91 overall, 91-71 in the Big Ten.
When he was hired by Arizona he cited the potential there and the climate.
Years later when asked why he left Iowa, he quipped “Have you ever spent nine winters in Iowa City?”
Mark Gannon of Iowa City was a senior starter on Olson’s last Iowa team. Shortly after Olson left, Gannon said “I think he’s done more for the game of basketball in Iowa than anyone ever has.
“I remember before you came here you could go out in front of the Field House before a game and buy a ticket from some kid for a dollar and you’d be about one of 100 people in the upper balcony.”
Olson took a Wildcats program that was down-and-out and turned it into an enduring national power. He led Arizona to the first of four Final Fours as their coach in his fourth season there. The Wildcats beat three No. 1-seeds in winning the 1997 NCAA title.
Robert Luther “Lute” Olson was born in Mayville, N.D., on Sept. 22, 1934. He graduated from then-Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn. He coached at five different high schools over 13 years before going into college coaching. His NCAA Division I record was 781-280. He coached Arizona to 23 consecutive NCAA tourneys.
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A statue of Olson outside McKale Center, Arizona’s basketball arena, was unveiled in 2018. Olson was inducted into the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000.
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