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Lute Olson ‘immortalized forever’ outside McKale Center

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“We needed to do this”

Lute Olson

Lute Olson, immortalized forever.

As those four words echoed over the loudspeaker, the red curtain tumbled to the ground, revealing a bronze statue of the longtime Arizona basketball coach, commemorating nearly three decades of excellence.

“It means .... it means,” the 83-year-old Olson, wearing a dark blazer and sunglasses, stuttered as the wind whipped through his iconic white hair, “It means the world to us to be here.”

The unveil was the final act of a day dedicated to the Hall of Fame coach. For what he accomplished on the court, for what he means to the Arizona community, and for the legacy he left behind.

“A truly historic day as we honor one of the greatest collegiate coaches ever,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said to kick off the ceremony, which was held in the Eddie Lynch Pavilion Plaza.

In 24 seasons at Arizona, Olson won 76 percent of his games and led the Wildcats to 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, 11 Pac-10 titles, four Final Fours, and the 1997 National Championship.

He was the Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times and, at the time of his retirement in 2008, was one of only three coaches in NCAA history to record 29 or more 20-win seasons.

In 2002, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“It was a great run,” Olson said.

But when he took the Arizona job in 1983, he never imagined he’d have his own statue outside McKale Center one day.

Some still wonder why he even came to Tucson in the first place.

Olson left an Iowa program that was coming off a Sweet Sixteen to take over a floundering Arizona program that had just gone 4-24 and wasn’t exactly oozing with potential.

Yet, he managed to create a powerhouse in the Sonoran desert.

“When people talk about me coming here in ‘83, I ask them, ‘Have you ever spent nine winters in Iowa City?’” Olson joked.

The newly-erected statue depicts Olson cradling the 1997 National Championship trophy in his left arm, while his right arm is high in the air, as if waving to his supporters.

It’s been a decade since Olson coached his last game, but he still has a lot of them.

500 people — coaches, former players, donors, friends, and family alike — gathered outside the Hall of Champions on a warm Thursday afternoon to take in the statue unveiling.

One can only imagine how many would have showed up if the event was open to the public.

“This is a wonderful day for all of us associated with the University, our athletics program, Tucson, Southern Arizona, and quite frankly the entire state of Arizona,” Heeke said.

Heeke has only been the AD at Arizona for a year, but he understands Olson’s impact.

Heeke grew up as a Big Ten fan in the midwest and remembers following Olson’s career at Iowa. Later, he worked in Oregon’s athletic department, where he witnessed Olson’s excellence for 18 years.

“He came down there 18 times,” Heeke recalled, “we lost all 18 times.”

So when Heeke took over as Arizona’s athletic director last April, finding a way to properly honor Olson was a top priority of his.

“We needed to do this,” Heeke said.

It wasn’t hard to.

The project cost $300,000 and three donors — Ginny Clements, Tom Rodgers, and George Kalil — made donations of $50,000 each to jumpstart the process.

Arizona alum Steve Kerr and Retro Brand CEO Mark Herman chipped in by selling shirts and matching the proceeds, and the rest of the funding came via smaller chunks from fans all across the globe, Heeke said.

“I think that says a lot about the reach coach has,” he added.

The statue was designed by well-known artist Omri Amrany, who’s based out of Illinois. The rest of the process — the engineering, construction, casting and bronzing of the statue — took place in Arizona.

“We thought it was only fitting with the impact coach had here on this state, this university, that we kept that work local,” Heeke said.

Before the unveiling, three former Arizona players took the podium to share their best stories about Olson, how he impacted their lives, and what made him so successful as a coach.

Former UA forward Pete Williams recalled how Olson immediately changed the program’s culture by instilling an “elevated work ethic” and a “no excuses” mentality.

Williams was member of Olson’s first Arizona team in 1983, which upped its win total to 11 coming off that infamous 4-24 season.

“He would work tirelessly with his group, preaching constantly a winning attitude to the point they believed a winning culture would be expected of them,” Williams said. “That’s one of the things that happened to us. It was tough in the beginning and I always considered myself to be a hard worker to begin with, but I didn’t really understand true hard work until I got here.

“And ... I’ve talked to former teammates about a lot of the things we learned here from coach on the basketball court that we’ve been able to apply that to life, our current careers. Right now, even at my slightly advanced age, I’m still a go-getter. When I’m assigned a task, I get after it. Because you know what? Coach Olson would have it no other way.”

Damon Stoudamire, the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1995, appreciated the family atmosphere Olson fostered.

“The thing that was special for me when I got to Arizona was how much the former players came back,” said Stoudamire, who’s now the head coach at Pacific. “Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, Matt (Muehlebach) … All the guys came back and they showed us the way. I think that was so important for a guy like myself. Just like any freshman, you get homesick. Those guys made it easier. … So it was a great lesson for me, the family atmosphere that (Olson) created. The open-door policy at his house, Mike Dickerson comes to town, that’s like Kelly Olson’s son.

“He has a room at their place. They don’t know when he’s coming, but he just comes and he stays there. I think that’s special and that says a lot about Coach.”

Matt Muehlebach, who played at Arizona from 1987 to 1991, said there were “so many things” that made Olson a special coach, but he highlighted his toughness and uncanny attention to detail.

“The preparation with Lute was as good as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Muehlebach, who now doubles as a lawyer and Pac-12 Network broadcaster. “I remember a time we were playing in Europe on a summer tour, it was supposed to be fun. We’re playing this team in France and he has us in the bowels of a hotel watching tape on a 19-inch TV with a VCR tape in it. We literally couldn’t tell which team was which. ... But his preparation as a basketball coach was just incomparable.”

Olson’s practices at Arizona reflected that. His teams were known for their run-and-gun tendencies, but fundamentals always remained the foundation of the program.

“It looked like a Hoosiers 1955 basketball practice for the first 45 minutes,” Muehlebach said of a typical Olson-led practice. “But by the end we looked like the Golden State Warriors. We ran, we got up and down.”

That’s not a surprise. Kerr’s Warriors use Olson’s principles.

In practice, they run the Lute Olson Drill, which is another name for a 3-on-2.

”So I think of (Olson’s) legacy and how much it lives on,” Muehlebach said.

And the statue, located on the north side of McKale Center just outside the Hall of Champions, ensures it will never be forgotten.

“It’s a great opportunity to have the statue there so people can walk by and share their stories about the kind of coach he was, the legacy that he left here,” Heeke said.

“But also how he coached and mentored young people. The ability to impact people’s lives, it’s a noble cause. That’s what Coach Olson did.”


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire