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Lute Olson Biography
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 06/04/2007
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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As Lute Olson enters his 24th season at the University of Arizona, he has established both the Wildcat basketball program and himself as two of the preeminent figures on the collegiate basketball landscape.

Whether it’s the 1997 national championship, four Final Four appearances, 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 Pacific-10 Conference titles, or the nation’s second-best winning percentage over the past 19 seasons, basketball excellence and the University of Arizona go hand-in-hand.

Olson, now in his fourth decade as a head coach, also has a title that befits those monumental accomplishments ?- 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 34th season as a head coach on the NCAA Division I level with time spent at Arizona, Iowa and Long Beach State, Olson is one of just 25 head coaches in NCAA history to win 700 or more games (all divisions). He owns a career record 761-269, which adds up to a gaudy winning percentage of .739.  He has tallied a mark of 569-177 (.763) in his 23 years at Arizona, while being named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times (1986, ?'88, ?'89, ?'93, ?'94, ?'98, 2003). Olson also has guided Arizona to 19 consecutive 20-win seasons (the longest active streak in the nation), and is one of only three coaches in NCAA history to record 28 or more 20-win seasons.

Long considered one of the top coaches in Pac-10 history, he has led Arizona to the aforementioned 11 league titles, with the last coming in 2005. He has a career Pac-10 mark of 316-94 (.771), and the 316 conference victories are the most in league history.  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 John Wooden (.810/304-74).

As for his Arizona career, he has the most victories (569) in school history and the second-best winning percentage (.763) in school history (minimum two seasons) with the former tally surpassing Fred Enke’s 509 from 1925-61 (36 years) during the 2003-04 season.

Olson, who was a finalist for Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2000 and 2001, had success long before his days on the collegiate level.  In 11 years as a high school coach (1956-69), he compiled a record of 180-76 (.703). After that, there were four years in the junior college ranks at Long Beach City College, where he was 103-22 (.824). Factor in those games, along with the contests as the head coach at Arizona, Iowa and Long Beach State, and he has 1,044 victories heading into 2006-07 and has a .740 winning percentage in 1,411 career games coached.  Olson became the 16th coach in basketball history (covering all levels) to register 1,000 career wins, when his Wildcats defeated Utah, 67-62, on Dec. 11, 2004.

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 2003, 2004 and 2005 recruiting classes were each judged as one of the top 10 in the nation by some analysts. In fact, the two highest-ranked recruits in school history were signed to national letters-of-intent in November 2002, and top-10 recruits have regularly signed since.  With 10 NBA Draft picks in the last six seasons alone, Arizona players routinely hear their names called on Draft Day.  Since the NBA Draft was shortened to two rounds in 1989, Arizona leads the nation with 27 total selections.  In his collegiate career, Olson has produced 52 NBA Draft picks, including 31 at Arizona. Last year, there were 10 Arizona alums on NBA rosters, and Olson has had 13 former players appear in the NBA Finals in the last 11 seasons.  In that time span, nine former Cats have earned world championship rings.

Bolstered by depth and experience, the Wildcats rolled to a 30-7 record in 2004-05, becoming just the third team in school history to reach the 30-win plateau.  Behind the leadership of All-Americans Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, UA grew into a formidable opponent, at one point winning 21 of 23 games, claimed the Pac-10 championship for the second time in three seasons and advanced to an NCAA Regional final for the eighth time in school history.  Arizona ranked among the nation’s leaders in free throw percentage (4th), three-point field goal percentage (8th) and scoring offense (10th), while Stoudamire led the nation in three-point field goal percentage (.504).  Along the way, Frye and Stoudamire earned multiple All-America honors, the 18th and 19th Arizona players to earn such distinction under Olson.

In the ebb-and-flow of college basketball in which rosters seemingly grow younger each year, Olson’s Wildcats continue to remain among the game’s royalty.  Arizona opened the 2003-04 campaign without a senior in its projected 10-man rotation for the third time in five seasons.  Despite its relative youth, the Cats posted a 20-10 overall record and continued the nation’s longest streaks for NCAA Tournament appearances (20) and 20-win seasons (17).  For the second year in a row, UA led the nation in scoring (87.1 ppg) and also ranked second in free throw percentage (.786).  All told, two players garnered all-conference accolades, three were all-region picks and one garnered All-America kudos, marking the seventh straight year with at least one Wildcat All-American. Olson posted career win No. 700 on Jan. 3 and became UA’s winningest coach (510 wins) on Jan. 17.

Lofty expectations have become commonplace for the Wildcats, and such was the case in 2002-03.  Beginning the season as the Associated Press’ top-ranked team for the second time in three seasons, the Olson-led charges held that ranking for 13 of 19 polling periods, while never falling lower than No. 4 in the AP poll.  UA won 28 games (sixth-highest in school history) and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s “Elite Eight” for the seventh time in school history.  Along the way, Arizona earned the school’s 10th Pac-10 championship in the last 20 years with a 17-1 league mark that featured a spotless 9-0 road record.  Boasting a lineup that had seven players tally at least 200 points, Arizona led the nation with an 85.2 points-per-game average.

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 West Regional semifinal.  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 basketball season rolls around, but believe it or not, this same attitude did not exist before Olson’s arrival in the “Old Pueblo” prior to the 1983-84 campaign.

When Olson took the reigns in Tucson on March 29, 1983, 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 Sonoran desert.

Simply put, the 71-year-old Olson has created a basketball‑rich tradition at the University of Arizona and made the Wildcats 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 anniversary 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, and 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, Calif.

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 on-court coaching achievements.

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 has ever done ?- beat three No. 1 seeds on the way to the national title.

By the way, the trio of wins didn’t come against just any group of teams ?- they came against 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 regional semifinal in Birmingham, Ala. Then, after going into overtime to beat Providence in the Southeast Regional final (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 a wild celebration at the RCA Dome, and 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 mentor and attained his 500th career victory as a college head coach.

Following the initial season as the Wildcats’ leader, the Arizona basketball program began its trek into the local, regional and national spotlight. The excitement that Olson brought to McKale Center has been parlayed into sellout season ticket crowds for the past 19 consecutive years and well-earned respect for Olson among his peers in the coaching profession.

Olson’s Wildcat squads have finished the season ranked in the top 10 in one or both major college basketball polls in eight of the last 10 seasons and 14 times overall.  In fact, Arizona has finished the season with a national ranking in 18 of the last 19 years.  As a testament to his long-term greatness, CBS-TV included Olson on its list of the “Ten Greatest Coaches in College Basketball History” during the 2003 Final Four.

He continues to put his stamp on the NCAA and Pac-10 coaching record books with each passing season. He has coached in the NCAA Tournament 27 times in the last 28 years, including the 22 consecutive appearances at Arizona, and overall he has a 46-27 (.630) NCAA Tournament record. In addition to the appearances with his Arizona clubs from 1985-2006, he led Iowa to trips in each of his final five years in Iowa City, including the 1980 Final Four.

Olson’s Arizona teams are 39‑21 (.650) 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 46 NCAA Tournament wins place him fourth on the NCAA Tournament’s all-time victory list, and he is one of just 11 coaches who have coached in five or more Final Fours. Further, his 27 appearances in the NCAA Tournament ties him for the top of the all-time head coaching list.

Some teams rebuild, but Olson reloads his 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, 31 players have been selected in the NBA Draft (12 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 took just one season for him to ignite a dormant program.

In 1984-85, his second season, the Wildcats finished the year at 21‑10 and made the first of many visits to the NCAA Tournament under Olson. It had been eight years since an Arizona team had won 20 games and the new head coach was just beginning to scratch the surface.

National recognition came with the 1986 season as the Cats won its first Pac‑10 title and put together a 23‑9 record. That was the first of 11 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 the 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 per season (averaging just under seven losses), and the overall record of 499-131 during that same period is the nation’s second-best in terms of winning percentage (.792).

The numbers get even better when you look at what the Cats have done at home for Olson. In the last 23 years under Olson, Arizona has amassed a record of 333-35 (.905) in McKale Center, lost only 11 non-conference games and won 261 of its last 280 games. In that span, the Cats had an amazing run of 71 consecutive victories without a defeat, making it the 10th-longest homecourt winning streak in NCAA history.

The streaks haven’t built around a light schedule, as Olson does not avoid tough games. Since his arrival, Arizona has played 45 non‑conference, regular season games against teams that played in the Final Four later that same season. Further, the Wildcats have matched wits with a team that played in the NCAA title game in 10 of the past 12 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, 1994,1998, 2003) 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/.651) 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 (Minn.) College from 1953‑56.  As a senior in 1956, Olson was recognized with the Augsburg Honors Athlete Award, which is given annually to the top male student-athlete.  Since that time he also has been honored by his alma mater with induction into the Augsburg Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977 and received the Augsburg College Distinguished Alumni Award in April 1986.

After five years of prep coaching in Minnesota, he moved west and coached for six 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 three of his four 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, Jody and Christi, and sons Greg and Steve ?- and 14 grandchildren.

On April 12, 2003, Olson married the former Christine Toretti of Indiana, Pa.  She has three sons, Joe, 20; Max, 18; and Matthew, 15.  The couple first met at the 2002 Final Four in Atlanta.


Lute Olson’s Year-By-Year Coaching Record

 

School

Year

Record

Pct.

Conf.

Finish

Postseason

Mahnomen (Minn.) H.S.

1956-57

22-3

.880

 

 

 

Two Harbors (Minn.) H.S.

1957-58

10-11

.476

 

 

 

Two Harbors (Minn.) H.S.

1958-59

14-8

.636

 

 

 

Two Harbors (Minn.) H.S.

1959-60

8-11

.421

 

 

 

Two Harbors (Minn.) H.S.

1960-61

4-16

.200

 

 

 

Baseline (Colo.) Junior High School

1961-62

not in coaching

 

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