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What Lute Olson means to us

Lute Olson

Legendary Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Lute Olson, who put the program on the map, died on Thursday at the age of 85.

Our staff convened to share our thoughts on his passing and the impact he had on our lives, which extends far beyond basketball.

We strongly encourage you to share your stories in the comment section below. Check out Ezra’s story if you haven’t already.

Ryan Kelapire: I’m not exaggerating when I say that I wouldn’t be where I am without Lute Olson. He’s the reason I’m a third generation Arizona grad.

Growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my first sports memories were watching Arizona basketball games with my parents and grandparents, even though I lived in California then Florida. The 2001 NCAA Tournament run was the first time I was fully invested in a team.

One summer in grade school, I was lucky enough to attend Lute Olson Basketball Camp, where I shook hands with the legend himself. His white hair was as neat as ever, and his smile was warm and welcoming. He almost didn’t seem real.

I wish I could remember what he said to me that day, but I was too starstruck to have a coherent thought.

Still, I knew from that point on I wanted to be a Wildcat.

The UA was the only college I applied to out of high school. Was that smart? Probably not. Did I even know what I wanted to study? Not really.

But Arizona is where I wanted to be, and where I still am after graduating. That I have the privilege of covering the program he built is just a cherry on top.

I wasn’t alive in the beginning of the Lute era, so it wasn’t until I was much older when I truly started to understand his impact on Arizona basketball and the Tucson community. How he took a 4-24 team and turned it into a national power, almost overnight. How he rallied a whole city around him like no one had before. How he got it to fall in love with his uptempo brand of basketball.

It wasn’t just that he won games and the program’s first national championship, it was how he did it—with grace and class. Always.

To this day, I’ve never heard an Arizona fan or former player say anything bad about Lute as a person. Even guys that transferred away have been extremely complimentary of him. They love him just as much as he loved them.

I think one of the coolest things about Lute is that he never cursed, another thing we have in common besides our Arizona ties. Nice guys don’t always have to finish last.

Lute was such an easy person to look up to, and I still do and always will. So thank you for everything.

Ronnie Stoffle: Lute Olson is obviously a very important figure in the Arizona Wildcats community. He’s also undoubtedly an important figure in the college basketball landscape.

For me, it’s awesome that Lute represented Arizona for two and half decades as the head coach. That in and of itself is an amazing feat. He was incredibly successful on the court but I think what stands out to me is his impact off the court. Yes, he helped put several notable names into the NBA but I’ve never heard any of his former players speak poorly of him. In fact, I’ve only heard the contrary.

Steve Kerr has become one of the more famous former UA players over the course of his current tenure as head coach for the Golden State Warriors. When he was on stage celebrating their first championship in 2015, Lute Olson was one of the first people he thanked. The appreciation in Kerr’s voice was apparent. It should also be noted that Andre Iguodala won The Finals MVP that season.

The love and respect his former players and the Arizona program have shared for him for nearly 40 years is simply remarkable. It’s clear Lute put an emphasis on caring for one another and promoting a culture of family. He is the patriarch of the Arizona basketball program and his legend is permanently engrained.

Although he’ll never physically attend another game in McKale Center, his spirit lives on through the countless achievements hanging from the rafters. Rest in peace, Lute.

Adam Green: I’m not going to lie and say I was a big Arizona basketball fan in the 90s and therefore celebrated the National Title like I really cared. I watched, of course, though my sports fandom during those years was reserved for Arizona’s professional teams.

Once I made it to campus in 2002, however, that began to change. I loved football but the team was pretty bad during my time there whereas basketball, well, that was the thing and we all knew it was that way because of Lute.

There was an air of confidence we all walked around with because at the end of the day we knew the basketball team was a perennial power.

Lute brought some incredible talent to Tucson and coached in some fantastic games. I have recollections as an intern for KGUN 9 attending some of his press conferences and you could just feel the presence he had when in front of the microphones.

Although the end of Lute’s tenure as head coach was clunky, his impact on the program will last forever. He is the standard to which every coach — including Sean Miller — is held to, and he is the reason why Arizona basketball is expected to compete at the highest of levels every season.

As an Arizona fan does that make things somewhat stressful? Of course, but I know none of us would have it any other way.

So thanks, Lute.

Brian J. Pedersen: Even though he spent less than half his life here, Lute is Tucson.

He wasn’t the reason I came to Arizona from New Jersey in 1994—visiting in February, when it was 70 degrees while there were 18 inches of snow on the ground back home, did the trick—but Lute Olson is among the things that made me aware of the UA before applying to and attending the school. Even on the other side of the across the silver-haired fox known simply as Lute was a national figure in college basketball, and as a rabid sports fan my entire life that resonated with me.

When I moved to Tucson in August 1994 I came across Olson early on when he was outside of McKale Center. He was chatting with random fans who caught him walking to his car, and rather than look bothered by the intrusion he stopped and shared his time.

Later that year, my future first ex-wife was doing a campus-wide scavenger hunt and one of the items on the list was to get something from the men’s basketball office. She coyly went in hoping to get a business card or a pen, only to find Lute come out of his office when he heard her talking to the secretary in the lobby. He signed a picture for her, unsolicited.

I know a lot of people who ended up having such personal interactions with him. That’s just who Lute was with the fans.

The local media, on the other hand, that was a different story.

I covered Lute’s teams for the Arizona Daily Star from 2002-05 and got to see a different side of him, the one that really didn’t like dealing with local reporters. Well, except for one, but that’s a story for another day. I witnessed him belittle a student reporter from Oregon for a question he didn’t think was worthy his time, saw him shake his head in feigned disgust at queries from other writers, and all around look like he wished he wasn’t there. Yet he still did it, and always made for good quotes.

My favorite involved his reaction to the performance of his players, all of whom wore headbands for a 2000 game against Washington State that was much closer than it should have been: “The headbands compressed their brains,” Lute said.

Despite the relationship with the local media, we all respected him and knew how much he meant to the Tucson community. To illustrated, at the Star, the copy editors had a saying about making sure to spell his last name right: “There’s no ‘E’ in God.”

Thanks for the memories, Coach.

Kim Doss: My dad grew up in the area around San Manuel and Mammoth, close enough to Tucson that there was no question which of the state universities you were going to support. He recruited my mom, and they raised me to be a Wildcat.

Back then, that meant almost exclusively cheering on Arizona Football. Then, the calendar turned to 1983, the year of my 12th birthday, and it all changed. Lute changed it.

As the program grew, Lute and Bobbi gave many Arizona communities something to take unbridled joy and pride in. Yes, he was synonymous with Tucson, but his charisma and accomplishments gave many in my hometown in rural Gila County just as much joy and pride.

Lute wasn’t just a member of the community. He provided a path to build community. I ran in unique circles where I was friends with mostly boys, but they didn’t follow sports. So, their dads would be thrilled when I came over and could talk Arizona basketball with them. They finally had someone to watch the game with.

There was never any question that I would attend Arizona when it came time to go to college. It had the best academic reputation of the state universities and it also had Lute.

The snag? Back then, there was no Zona Zoo. Students had to enter a lottery to get tickets for men’s basketball, then sit in seats scattered around McKale Center. I never won tickets, but it didn’t dampen my spirits.

Even after I left the University, men’s basketball was one of my biggest joys. Waiting for the season each year seemed to take forever.

My best friend and I shared our deep love for what Lute built. We would watch games together. She would scour the newspaper for any mention of public appearances by members of the team. Eugene Edgerson was always a bonus.

She has been gone for 17 years now. Those days and nights of fun and bonding that Lute’s teams provided are some of my most treasured memories.

Just as my parents had, I passed my love for the Wildcats on to my own daughter. I would take her to Midnight Madness or Red-Blue. Occasionally, I would be able to score a couple of nosebleed seats for a bad non-conference match-up. I took her to what was then Wells Fargo Arena to watch the ‘Cats thump the Devils. Just seeing Lute pace the sidelines was a treat.

The biggest sports night of my life was the night Arizona won the national championship. After watching Bennett Davison ruffle Lute’s hair, I went outside and walked up and down the sidewalk listening to my fellow Wildcat fans whoop and honk their horns. Then, I went back inside and watched ESPN all night long.

Lute finally had that ring. No one could ask him why he hadn’t won a championship ever again. I was thrilled for him. It was like he was family.

In the same way, I was devastated when he lost Bobbi. They were the mother and father of Arizona Basketball. They were the faces of Tucson. Their joys and tragedies were our joys and tragedies. And now she was gone.

Almost 20 years later, Lute’s gone now, too. I have cried many tears since I first heard he was in hospice. It really does feel like a member of the family is gone.

When the Blue Bloods came calling, Lute stayed with us. When people criticized him for early round losses, he didn’t complain or lash out even if it wasn’t always fair. When he suffered the tragic loss of his wife, he allowed us to share in the grief as a community. He carried himself with a kind of grace and class that made us proud, even if Jerry Tarkanian called him Midnight Lute.

Lute was ours. One of us. He always will be.