TUCSON, Ariz. — The list of honors and other accolades garnered by Lute Olson during his illustrious coaching career could nearly rival the number of miles he logged on the road going from coaching stops in Minnesota, Colorado, California and Iowa, before ending his brilliant career in Tucson, Arizona.
And, with the successes along the way, there is little doubt as to why the North Dakota native was enshrined into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002.
“That was the biggie,” said Olson during a 2010 interview of the induction that took place alongside Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coach Larry Brown and the famed Harlem Globetrotters organization.
Olson recalls the road that led him from Mayville, N.D. to Grand Forks. And, eventually to the hall of fame in Springfield, Mass., just a short jump shot from the gymnasium where Dr. James Naismith hung his first peach basket in 1891 and started the game of basketball on its road to world-wide popularity. Olson spoke with great fondness to one game in March of 1952 while a senior at Grand Forks Central High School.
“We were playing (Minot) St. Leo’s in the first game of the tournament and they had a pretty good player by the name of Dale Brown,” Olson said. “We got the better of them that day and we were able to go on to win the championship.”
The Redskins, as Grand Forks Central was called in those days, won the opener 54-44 and upset pre-tournament favorite Bismarck 48-45 in the semifinal round before knocking off Williston 43-38 in the title game.
Olson and Brown would later be reunited in a sense as the two North Dakota natives went on to become two of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball. Brown guided Louisiana State for 25 years and led his Tigers to the Final Four on two occasions. Olson and Brown, along with Harvey, N.D. native Jud Heathcote, all had their teams in the final Associated Press poll in 1979. Heathcote’s Michigan State team, which went on to win the NCAA title in the most-watched game in history, was ranked No. 3 in that poll, while Brown’s LSU team was No. 9 and Olson’s Iowa squad came in at No. 20.
“That’s pretty remarkable,” Olson said. “To think that a state like North Dakota could be represented like that is pretty amazing.”
Olson grew up in the tiny community of Mayville and played basketball for legendary coach Harold Poier, who also served as principal at the school in addition to coaching football, basketball, baseball and track. Olson was alongside Poier during each sport and proved his versatility.
After Olson’s sister graduated from nursing school in Minneapolis and accepted a job in Grand Forks during his junior year at Mayville, Olson’s mother also moved to Grand Forks and allowed the younger Olson to remain in Mayville to finish the year.
“The plan was for mom to allow me to stay and finish out the season with the people I had grown up with,” Olson said. “I wanted to stay another year and graduate, but mom wouldn’t hear of that.”
The one-year stay in Grand Forks proved to be successful for Olson on a number of fronts. Besides helping the Redskins to the title in basketball, the multi-talented Olson also competed in football and baseball at the school. He was steered toward college by a minister at a Lutheran church in Grand Forks and enrolled at Augsburg College in the fall of 1952. He competed in football and basketball for the Augies all four years. He also played baseball during his senior season after putting that sport on hold after being married during his sophomore year.
“I had to get a job to help Bobbi,” Olson said.
After graduating from Augsburg, which would figure into Olson’s life nearly 50 years later, he entertained job offers to coach at the high school level and wound up moving to Mahnomen, Minn., and embarking on a legacy of coaching success that is virtually unmatched.
“My in-laws lived in that area and Bobbi wanted to get near her family,” Olson said of the move to northwest Minnesota. “I had more opportunities to coach football than basketball … but my main love was basketball.”
One year was all it took for the North Dakotan to leave his mark. Just months after the close of the 1956 football season, where Olson served as the line coach, he led Mahnomen to a conference title in basketball.
“They had not won a conference title in 32 years,” Olson recalled, “so once we won it, I figured it was time to move on.”
The move was more financial than anything, according to the coaching legend.
“I was paid $3,200 a year at Mahnomen,” Olson said. “I was coaching three sports and teaching six classes. When Two Harbors (Minn.) offered me $4,800 a year, I really jumped up on the salary scale … and by that time Bobbi and I had two children and I had to make more money.”
Olson spent four years in Two Harbors and later spent several years coaching high school basketball in Colorado and California before getting his first college coaching job at Long Beach City College, where he spent four years.
“The worst record we had there was 24-4,” Olson said.
From there it was on to Long Beach State and Olson became entangled with a mess created by Jerry Tarkanian, whose departure to UNLV created the opening for Olson.
“When Tark left for UNLV, the administration assured me that Long Beach State would not be placed on probation,” Olson said. “I listened to them and took the job. We finished 24-2, which was the best record in Long Beach history, but we were hit by probation.
“That was probably the best team I ever had,” added Olson, who had five players on that team that would later play in the NBA. “The school told me something different and I decided I could not work for someone who I couldn’t take at their word.”
Soon, Iowa athletics director Bump Elliott came calling and convinced Olson to return to his native Midwest. Not that it took much convincing.
“Having grown up in the Midwest and following the Big Ten, it was just an incredible opportunity,” said Olson of his move to Iowa City.
Olson took over an Iowa program that had suffered four straight losing seasons and guided the Hawkeyes to a 19-10 record in just his second season. He led the Hawkeyes to the Final Four in 1980. He left Iowa following the 1982-83 season as the winningest coach in program history.
Olson actually had an opportunity to make the move to the desert southwest one year earlier, but said that after helping raise money for the new Carver-Hawkeye Arena, dubbed “The House that Lute Built,” on the Iowa campus, the timing of such a move would have been unfavorable.
But, once Olson did arrive in Tucson, he wasted little time in turning around a program that had been in disarray and had finished last in the league the previous year with a 1-17 record in PAC-10 play. He guided the Wildcats to an 11-17 record in his first season and followed that up with a 21-10 mark in just his second year as he continued to develop strong programs.
And perhaps no program in America was as dominating and as consistent as were the Wildcats during Olson’s tenure.
He led Arizona to the Final Four on four occasions and sent some 30 players into the National Basketball Association.
The 2001 Final Four saw Olson return to the site of his college days as the tournament was held at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, not far from the campus of Augsburg. Olson guided the Wildcats to the title game for the first time since winning the NCAA championship in 1997, but came up short in his bid for a second national title as Duke slipped past Arizona 84-79.
The former North Dakotan added to his impressive list of credentials in 1986 when he guided the U.S. to the world championship in Spain. It was the first time the U.S. had claimed that title since 1954 when the Peoria Caterpillers had earned the gold. It was also the last time a group of college players claimed the championship.
Since Olson’s retirement he spent much of his time lending his name to a number of charitable organizations in the Tucson area, including the Arizona Cancer Center, where his wife, Bobbi, was treated before she died in 2001. He was also heavily involved with the Arizona Arthritis Center.
Olson attended nearly all of the Arizona home games following his retirement in 2007 and watched the Wildcats on the court that bears the names of Lute and Bobbie Olson.
Olson, one of just 16 coaches to ever win 1,000 games at all levels, also attended some road games, including one when the University of Oregon brought him in as a guest and made a halftime presentation to Olson.
“After all the nasty things (Oregon) fans said when I coached, it was a tremendous gesture,” said Olson, who led Arizona to 11 league titles during his tenure. “(Oregon) has some really great fans and (Eugene) was a tough place to play.”
Robert Shelton, University of Arizona president, said, “Lute Olson transformed Arizona 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.”
Olson died on Aug. 27, 2020 in Tucson at the age of 85.
One of Olson’s granddaughters, Julie (Brase) Hairgrove, played basketball at the University of Arizona and later spent 16 seasons as an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.