A Student's Perspective: Lute Olsen's Departure

Michael SamuelSenior Analyst IOctober 23, 2008

It is a winter evening on a school night for many of the students, yet there is a line of students present four hours prior to tip-off outside of the basketball arena.  Where else would you find this other than in Tucson, Arizona—the home of the Arizona Wildcats?

Here at our glorious University we have the type of devoted student fans that will wait on a line four hours prior to the start of a basketball game just to make sure they are able to get the seat of their choice. 

Then the pep band is playing "Bear Down, Arizona" as well as other alternative and contemporary songs prior to tip off, there really is no other place to catch a basketball game as there is here on campus. This excitement has been all because of  one man; Lute Olsen.

In 1982 the Wildcats finished a 4-24 and won only a single conference game. In came the savior, Lute Olsen who had previously led Iowa to a Final Four Appearance. Within two years, Olsen turned the Wildcats into the talk of the PAC 10.

Since the 1984-1985 season they haven’t missed a single NCAA tournament, which is the longest active streak with 24 straight seasons. In 1986 the Wildcats won their first ever PAC 10 conference title, something that prior to Olsen’s arrival seemed unimaginable.

In 1988, the Wildcats played in their first ever Final Four and it came with players such as Tucson’s own Sean Elliot as well as Steve Kerr. Those two players were later reunited in 1999 in the NBA when they helped the San Antonio Spurs win a World Championship.

Since Olsen’s tenure began (later to be interrupted by a year off in the 2007-2008 season) he has won 10 PAC 10 titles, which is the most of any other team in the conference.

He has posted an amazing 589-188 win-loss record since he took the head coach position. Since arriving at Arizona, Lute Olsen has averaged 25 wins per season. Lute Olsen has led the Wildcats to a total of four Final Four’s: 1988, 1994, 1997, 2001. 

The 1997 team was what officially helped Lute Olsen cement his name as an all time legendary basketball coach. That season, the Wildcats finished fifth in the competitive PAC 10 behind conference champion UCLA.

When tournament time came the Wildcats were given the number five seed in the Southeast regional. In that March Madness they went on to defeat three number one seeds in the tournament, which was culminated by a 84-79 overtime victory over the Kentucky Wildcats. During this tournament, the Wildcats defeated two other No. 1 seeds besides Kentucky in Kansas and North Carolina.

In 2001, the Cats had an emotional ride with the passing of the late Bobbi Olsen.  This team was able to stay motivated for such as strong and courageous women who kept fighting and attending games even until her last day.  Arizona made it to the National Title game and just fell short against Duke 82 to 72.  It was an inspiring effort throughout that season.

In November 2007 Lute Olsen announced that he was going to take a year of absence in order to tend to personal matters. Kevin O’Neil took over the coaching reigns for a year and had a rather unsuccessful campaign, finishing with a 18-13 record to go along with a First Round NCAA tournament loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers.

This rich tradition here at Arizona has led to numerous players who played here to go on and play in the NBA. These players include the aforementioned Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr as well as current superstars such as Mike Bibby, Andre Igoudala and Richard Jefferson.

In the 2008 NBA draft, freshman Jerryd Bayless was drafted No. 11 overall by the Indiana Pacers. Overall, the University of Arizona has produced over 35 NBA players.

While this program has seen ups and downs much like any other NCAA basketball team, it has been a team effort to get the Wildcats to be one of the most respected teams in the country. The fans that show up game after game to cheer on the Wildcats have always been loud and have helped make attending a game a highlight to any person’s life. This tradition will carry on even after I graduate and I hope to see the program continue the winning ways.

With Olsen stepping down this means that in comes a new coach, the second in two years here in Tucson.  I have been an Arizona fan only for two seasons now, but my dad has met Lute on a number of occasions and says you will not find a classier guy.  Lute Olsen was influential on campus with his CATWALK to raise money for cancer, which has the majority of the student body participate. 

This finally could mean what was almost pre-eminent, that Arizona will be in a re-building mode for the first time in 27 seasons.  The Wildcats already lost out on high school sensation Branden Jennings, who was unable to attend Arizona due to poor SAT scores.  Fowards Chase Buddinger and Jordan Hill will probably leave for the NBA after this season. 

Since I have been a student at Arizona, I actually have never seen Lute Olsen coach a single game.  But just the hope of him coming back this season got my excited for basketball season.  Lute still is king in Arizona even to someone like me who is not a Tucson native.

Today, I received a text message from a friend saying "Lute resigned", at first it was shocking, but due to his recent medical history it is understandable that he just couldn't put his full-hearted effort into it. 

As Mike Dunlap takes over on an interim basis, there will soon be an official announcement and maybe even a Lute Olsen day at the McKale Center for a home game.  But for many Tucsonians and Arizona students and alum this is a sad day, just two days before the homecoming football game.