In 2009, the year Sean Miller accepted the Arizona Wildcats head coaching job, he attended an alumni party where he picked the brains of dozens of guys who played under his predecessor, Lute Olson.
Rather than distance himself from the past, Miller wanted to know how Olson turned what had been a floundering Arizona basketball program into one of the top programs in the country.
Miller said he gleaned three things from those conversations about the Hall of Fame coach and what made him so successful. He outlined them on a recent roundtable with Steve Kerr and Matt Muehlebach, two of Olson’s former players, on Arizona’s YouTube page.
1. “(Olson) made Tucson and the community totally connected to the basketball program, where it was like we were all one. It became a love affair. It was a cool thing to go to McKale Center and watch the Wildcats. And that may sound like an easy thing, but there’s a lot of coaches that have tried it and I think it’s part of Coach’s greatness, the amazing community that we have and still have to this day. We’ve led the Pac-12 and Pac-10 in attendance now for 36 consecutive years. I would say that streak would have started right around the time when you (Kerr) came to Arizona if you think about the timing of that. But I think that’s one thing he did. And obviously you guys know all the different things he did—the way he ran a banquet, the Fiesta Bowl tournament, his presence and his family’s presence in the community.”
2. “He’s always been a great recruiter. Big difference when you got great players, old players, experienced players. You can do the same thing, same practice plan, same motivation. Sometimes you feel like you’re doing a great job, your best ever as a coach, but you still are at the mercy of those horses that are out there playing and the talent and experience. Sometimes I pick up a team picture and it’ll never look like that again because players today leave much sooner. But I mean, you can count 10 pros on one team. And I’m not talking about just the cup-of-coffee guys. Guys that have played through decades in the NBA and they’re on the same team (at Arizona). But his ability to recruit ... and he wasn’t always about recruiting that McDonald’s All-American or it wasn’t that he was recruiting a top-10 list. I think he became a great evaluator of talent. Like, so many hidden gems...and I think that’s something that we always try to dial back to.”
3. “He’s just incredibly well rounded (as a coach). It’s hard to really say he was better on offense or defense or he didn’t emphasize rebounding. His teams seemed to be so balanced and fundamental and it goes back to the way he organized his practice plans and the emphasis on fundamental team play. But you combine those three things that I just said, that’s really Arizona basketball at its finest— just this crazy community and McKale Center, passion for the game, and fundamentals and great talent. It’s amazing the run that he had. It really is.”