College basketball lost a legend Thursday night. Former Iowa and Arizona Coach Lute Olson had been in hospice care in recent days with ongoing health ailments. Olson reportedly suffered a stroke in 2007 that had gone undiagnosed before leading to further heart problems that led to his abrupt retirement following that season. In February of last year, Olson suffered yet another stroke. Thursday, he passed away at the age of 85.
Olson, a native of North Dakota, spent nine seasons as head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes. While he’s best known for his time at the University of Arizona, between 1974 and 1983 Olson led Iowa to a 165-95 record with 5 NCAA Tournament appearances, a Big Ten Championship, a Sweet Sixteen and one of just three Final Four appearances in school history.
When Olson departed Iowa City for the Arizona Wildcats, he was Iowa’s all-time leader in wins. Today, he stands behind just Dr. Tom Davis and current head coach Fran McCaffery.
Olson grew to national fame for his exploits at Arizona. In 24 seasons as head coach for the Wildcats, Olson led Arizona to an incredible 589-188 record with 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 conference championships, 4 conference tournament championships and a national title.
It was an incredible run that saw Olson inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, five years before he retired from the game. Olson earned 7 Pac-12 coach of the year awards at Arizona and sits 14th on the NCAA all-time wins list with a career record of 781-279 (.737 winning percentage) in 34 seasons between Long Beach State, Iowa and Arizona.
While Olson’s fame is derived from his dominance at Arizona, Iowa fans remember fondly the memories of the Final Four run in 1980. The Ronnie Lester-led Hawkeyes were among the nation’s best despite an 18-8 regular season record. Iowa was dominant on the season when Lester was healthy, going 15-1 in games he played start to finish. But in 17 games that year where Lester wasn’t fully in the lineup, Iowa was just 8-9.
Iowa fans were treated to a healthy Lester as they ran the table through the first four games of the tournament. After being named a #5 seed, the Hawkeyes took down VCU 86-72 in the first round. Then it was a 77-64 victory over NC State before a showdown with #1 seed Syracuse.
Ironically, it was Lester who was Iowa’s only starter not to make it to double digits as the Hawkeyes defeated Syracuse 88-77 to advance to the East Regional Final (Elite Eight).
In an absolute thriller, the Hawkeyes fell behind by as many as 14 in the first half against the Hoyas. But Iowa battled back and with a three-point-play by Steve Waite with just 4 seconds remaining, the Hawkeyes were off to the Final Four.
Unfortunately for Iowa, the dream run died in that Final Four matchup with Louisville as Lester suffered another knee injury. After scoring 10 of the Hawkeyes’ first 12 points, Iowa was left without their star. They ultimately fell 80-72 to the eventual national champions.
It was an incredible run and a tremendous memory for Hawkeye fans old enough to have experienced it. Lute Olson will always hold a special place in the hearts of Iowa fans, college basketball fans and anyone who was lucky enough to know him.
Here are some quotes from members of the Iowa Basketball coaching staff, as well as former players:
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of former head coach and Hall of Famer Lute Olson. I will always remember the way he embraced me when I was hired as the Hawkeye coach. Lute expressed many times how proud he was and how much he loved coaching at Iowa. Over the years, Margaret and I became good friends with Lute and his wife Kelly, which is something that I will forever cherish. Lute will be missed by everyone in the Iowa basketball family.” - Fran McCaffery
“Playing for Coach Olson shaped my vision on how to teach the game of basketball. He gave me my start in coaching and helped me throughout my career. He was an incredible coach, teacher, mentor, and friend. All of us in the Coach O basketball family will greatly miss him.” - Assistant coach and former player Kirk Speraw
“Coach Olson will always be remembered with the class and respect he lived by. He did things with class and was always respectful of others. He was not just a coach, but a positive role model, as he was a man of faith (never heard him curse), a husband, and a father. Lute changed the culture of Iowa Basketball by just being who he was. He believed that if you worked harder than the next team, you should have high expectations. He pushed us to believe in ourselves and the results of winning games reinforced that belief. I am very thankful for having played for him, as I learned a lot about basketball and most importantly about doing things the right way. I have much love and respect for Coach Olson.” - All-American Ronnie Lester
“It is with great sadness we learned about Coach Olson’s passing. He battled his health setbacks over the last few years with the same competitive energy and strength as he displayed over his many years on the sidelines. It was an honor to be coached by someone who embraced the qualities of integrity, honesty and hard work; lessons that I carry with me every day. Coach O loved his Hawkeye Family and will be dearly missed by all. Prayers for strength and comfort to his wife Kelly and all of Coach Olson’s family and friends.” - Bob Hansen
Rest in peace, Coach.