As we continue to mourn the death of legendary Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Lute Olson, we compiled some stories and quotes from over the years that explain why Lute was, quite simply, the best. (To see some of the best social media reactions from a wide range of big names, click HERE.)
(All quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted otherwise.)
Pete Williams, who was on Olson’s first team in 1983: “Some time in my first year when I was over in Europe, one of our coaches asked me, ‘How did Coach Olson take the last place team and turn them into a champion?’ And what I said was what Coach Olson would do right away is he would change that culture of losing that existed in that team to the point they believed that losing would no longer be acceptable. Not only that, but moral victories would not be acceptable. He would work tirelessly with this group, preaching constantly winning attitude to the point where they believed a winning culture would be expected of them. And that’s one of the things that happened here with us. Yeah, it was tough in the beginning. And me I always consider myself a hard worker to begin with. But I didn’t really understand true hard work until I got here. Now, unfortunately I was unfairly forced to play center at 6-7, 190, but there were reasons for it. And even though I was undersized from a height standpoint, I could kind of make up for that with the way I jumped. But when you’re going up against guys that outweigh you by 40, 50 pounds that’s tough to do.
But Coach Olson is not having no excuses. I couldn’t run to Coach and say, “But Coach he’s too big.’ His thing would be, ‘Get back out there and play.’ That was the mindset. So what I developed from him was not only my work ethic elevated, but no excuses. I talked to former teammates. John Edgar and I, we talk often about a lot of things that we learned that Coach instilled in us here on the basketball court that we’ve been able to apply that to life, our current careers. Even at my slightly advanced age, I’m still a go getter. When I’m assigned with a task, I get out after it because you know what, Coach Olson would have it no other way.”
Damon Stoudamire, who played for Olson from 1991 to 1995: “I‘ll take it back to after we lost in the first round to Santa Clara in 1993. All those guys back there with those cameras and everything, they were on coach’s back. They really were like, ‘We couldn’t win the big one. We couldn’t do this. We couldn’t do that.’ I think as players we felt like we were coming up short for whatever reason. We knew we had the team, but it just wasn’t happening. Coach pulled me and Khalid Reeves into his office and he told us, ‘You know, I’m gonna try something new this coming up year. You two are my best players. I’ve never played through my guards before. I’ve always played through my bigs and my wings and I’m going to play through you guys. I really don’t know how this is going to work because I’ve never done it, but I’ve been studying and doing some things.’
And we had an Australian tour that was coming up in the summer, which was great timing for everybody to kind of get introduced to what we were doing. And me and Khalid, we just kind of lit up in his office because we were saying to ourselves, ‘It’s about time you figured out that we were the best players.’ But when we were practicing for Australia, we had a ball playing the way we were playing. We pressed, we trapped, we played with cohesion. And then we went over to Australia, I think we went 9 or 10 and 1. And it was the culmination of what started off to be probably my best year in college and we wound up winning the Pac-10 that season and going to the Final Four.
And I’m only bringing that up because now that I’m a head coach, it takes a lot of guts to change up your coaching style if you’ve been doing something and you’ve been successful at it for so long, and he was able to do that. And then it just kept on going up and up to where you recognize Arizona as Point Guard U. And that’s a tribute to coach and the things that he did to not only help utilize his own talents, but to put his own ego to the side and say this is the way that we can win games.”
Matt Muehlebach, who played for Olson from 1987 to 1991: “The other thing I think about Lute’s secret sauce is his attention to detail, his preparation. I think about that every day as a lawyer and how much that means to me, and the difference between great and good. Lute was as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. I remember a time we were playing in Europe in a summer tournament. 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. We literally couldn’t tell which team was which. And he’s saying, ‘Look at these guys.’ We’re like ‘OK, coach.’
“But his preparation as a basketball coach was just was incomparable. It looked like a Hoosiers 1955 basketball practice for the first 45 minutes. But by the end of practice, we looked like the Golden State Warriors. I mean, we ran we got up and down and you watch Steve Kerr’s teams, they play a lot like coach played then. In fact, it’s interesting. I was talking to Steve the other day and he said that we have a 3-on-2 conditioning drill and they call it the Lute Olson drill. So I think of that legacy and how much that lives on.”
Will Bynum, former UA guard who transferred after two seasons (via the Knuckleheads podcast): “Coming from the hood in Chicago to be able to go to Arizona, that was heaven for me. But (it was a) learning process. I was coming from Chicago where I’m used to like an aggressive style of coaching, with coaches screaming in your face and they’re on you about every single detail, to meet somebody like Lute Olson who didn’t rarely say nothing. We didn’t see Lute Olson till the first official day of practice, so I didn’t really understand that. But then everything he would say on the court would be golden. Like moves, how to split screens, jamming up on the screen before getting over the top of the screen. Like little things he would say and I was like, ‘Damn, you know the game.’”
Steve Kerr, who played under Olson from 1983-1988 (via The Athletic): “Lute built a foundation from nothing. When he got to Arizona, he cleaned house. He really started from scratch. He built a family.”
Kerr (via the Arizona Alumni magazine): “When I met Lute Olson, I was 17 and didn’t know anything about anything. He introduced me to high-level basketball and to the environment you create, the importance of the group. We weren’t very good, but we felt special. There were team meals and barbecues and hard practices. We felt we were building something from the ground up. It was hard work, but we felt good about being part of it.”
Kerr: “I find myself still doing some of the ball-handling drills that we did when we were playing for Coach Olson. He was the first coach I ever had who used the toss back, and we would do the three-man passing drills with the toss back. One of the first things I did when I went to Golden State to coach was I ordered six toss backs. So we actually use them with the Warriors. But I think for me, it’s not so much the detail of what drills I took, it’s just the general sense that I learned from Coach, and that we all did, of just being incredibly organized and prepared and and running this program that just felt like something special. That’s what was so magical about about Coach Olson. He was in total command of that program and we all just felt so, so lucky to be part of it.”
Damon Stoudamire: “The thing that was special for me when I got to Arizona was how much the former players came back. 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 he 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.”
Damon Stoudamire (via Tucson.com): “We used to go out to restaurants that I couldn’t pronounce. We’d always go out to dinner (on road trips) and at coach’s request we had to wear slacks and a collared shirt. I didn’t really want all that. I really just wanted a burger. But what I learned was etiquette. Coach was trying to teach us something bigger that we couldn’t see at the time.”
Luke Walton, who played under Olson from 1993 to 2003 (via ESPN): “Lute was huge on the details of the game. He would stop practice 35 times in one day. Until you got something correct, he was going to continue to stop it.”
Bill Walton, Luke’s father and Hall of Famer, (via the Los Angeles Times): “A family led by a man who should be in the Hall of Fame and who has taught Luke about life and about basketball. Lute Olson is to Luke what Coach Wooden is to me.”
Bruce Fraser who was a player and grad assistant at Arizona in 1980s (via The Athletic): “He wanted to have that level of respect. He wasn’t going to accept anything other than the best.”
Andre Iguodala, who played for Olson from 2002 to 2004, in his book: “There was something ruthless about him. I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily. When I was done working with him, I still wasn’t clear on whether I liked him. One thing was certain; he taught me the game of basketball like no one else ever had.”
Jason Terry, who played under Olson from 1996 to 1999 (via The Athletic): “My favorite story would probably have to be after we won the championship. He has this kind of aura about himself where he has the slick white hair that was perfectly placed. We always had a running joke in the locker room. A good friend of mine, Bennett Davison, who played with us and won the championship with us said, ‘Man, what I would do to one day to just ruffle his hair and mess it up.’ We’re like, ‘Nah, man. I wouldn’t do that. You never touch Lute, let alone touch his hair.’ So he was like, ‘Nah I’m telling you. If we win it, it’s the first thing I’m going to do.’ And it plays on all the videos, the One Shining Moment. Right after the game, Bennett doesn’t go to any of his teammates, doesn’t go to his parents or anything. He runs right up to Lute and he just messed his hair up. Hair was all over the place for about 10 seconds. That’s how long it took, 10 seconds, and then that hair was right back perfectly placed on his head. Not a single hair out of place. We were all dying laughing. It was hilarious.”
ESPN analyst/former Duke Blue Devil Jay Bilas: “Coach Olson recruited me to Iowa. I graduated high school in 1982, so when he started recruiting me, I loved him, and still do. He’s not only one of the great coaches but great gentleman I’ve ever met. My mom was going to Iowa, it didn’t matter where I went. She loved him. That was a done deal as soon as he walked in the door. She thought he was Paul Newman.
I visited Iowa and had a great time. I grew up in Los Angeles, so it was a little chillier than I liked or that I was used to, but I had a great time there. That’s the hard thing about recruiting, is you can only play for one coach. So I’m not disappointed in the choice I made; Coach K was a great choice. But it was hard to say no to Coach Olson. When he spoke, I was riveted to him. He was one of those coaches you trusted right out of the gate.”
Jawaan McClellan, who played for Olson from 2004 to 2007 (via ArizonaWildcats.com): “Coach O, you were more than just a coach to me you were really a father figure. You didn’t not see color and you never held us back from trying to leave school early to make a batter way for us and our families. It was far more than just basketball with you. Arizona was always my dream school and from watching Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves to you being in the movie ‘He Got Game’ I always wanted to play for you. When I first saw you showed up to one of my AAU games, I thought I had seen a Ghost. Then you offered me a scholarship after only seeing me play 6 times. Because of you, I don’t know what a school loan even looks like. I thank you from the bottom of my heart coach for everything that you have done for and many more, may you Rest In Peace. Love you coach.”
Arizona Hall of Fame softball coach Mike Candrea: “Lute was Tucson. He was the man that put the University of Arizona on the map and I am proud to call him a mentor and a friend. He taught me how to brand our sport and run it with business principles. He was a great recruiter that was always willing to spend time and share his passion for coaching and the process he used to build a culture of excellence. He could work a room as well as anyone I have ever known. He will be missed dearly but never forgotten. He was Arizona’s John Wooden.”
Jack Murphy, current associate head coach who was also on Olson’s staff at one point: “When you were alone with Coach O, he was a man of few words. His presence did all the talking. In practice he was precise and disciplined. You couldn’t take his system and make it work anywhere else. He was the system. When he walked out of the tunnel, you knew we were winning. The confidence he brought to our state, not just our teams, our university, our city, but our State, cannot be denied. He was never an assistant coach, on any level, he was always in charge and the wins and losses were on him. Coach O wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
As we celebrate his life and remember all of those victories, I am most thankful for the friendships and memories that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Coach. He brought players, coaches and manager together to form a family, and we are all blessed to be a part of it.
Every story being told tonight, whether ending in tears or laughter, is his legacy and that will last long after today. A great man, whose light will always shine in the Arizona sun. Love you, Coach.”