Lute Olson: A Legacy in the Desert

Andrew KneelandSenior Writer IOctober 23, 2008

Excitement rippled through the crowd that day in 1983. When word spread of Lute Olson's hiring by the University of Arizona you could almost hear the screeching of brakes. The red and blue train of Wildcat basketball—at the time located in the depths of despair and little hope—was being turned around completely.

Everyone knew Arizona's dull days may be over. 

Lute Olson enjoyed 24 years of great success as the head basketball coach of the Arizona Wildcats. His tenure made him one of the most charismatic, brilliant, and loved coaches of all time.

How could one not smile when looking at a 74-year old, white-haired head coach stomping up and down the court after a referee? The fact that he did so without the use of profanities only enshrined him more in the hearts of his fan base.

Despite Olson's long list of accomplishments, this recent news of his stepping down will be coupled with a storm of controversy. 

Back in May 2008, Olson stated that he planned to coach for another five to six years, or at least until his contract ran out in 2011. This same promise was issued to many potential players, including top recruits Abdul Gaddy, Mike Moser, and Soloman Hill. All three have committed to Arizona, but Gaddy is quoted as saying that this announcement will certainly make him think again and possibly change his mind entirely.

It is ironic that the main cause of debate surrounding Olson's retirement was also perhaps the strongest aspect of his coaching ability.

Olson had no trouble finding the top high school players in the country and getting them to commit to Arizona. He was renowned for his nationwide roving eye for talent; he didn't limit his searches to the Southwest.

In fact, Olson has produced some of the greatest NBA stars of all time. Steve Kerr, Mike Bibby, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Terry, Damon Stoudamire, Andre Igudala, and Richard Jefferson are all products of Lute Olson and the Arizona Wildcats. Former Wildcats have amassed over $500 million in NBA contracts.

Those astounding numbers and his sensational recruiting methods say nothing about Olson's brilliant basketball mind. Who would have thought that a North Dakotan Norwegian would have one of the highest basketball IQs in the world?

The list of things that Olson has provided for the city of Tucson and the University of Arizona is endless. 312 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press national poll. Five seasons holding the No. 1 position in the poll. 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Four trips to the Final Four. One National Championship.

589 wins.

All this success seems to be coming to a crashing halt, though, according to various members of the Arizona fan base. Some believe that Olson shouldn't be held in such high regard now that he backed out on a promise to future recruits, current players, the University, and every fan who ever sported a blue and red shirt.

The majority of the blame for Olson's departure is being thrust upon health concerns, though. His first wife—Bobby Olson—died of ovarian cancer in 2001. Lute Olson took a leave of absence for the entire 2007-08 season due to his own "medical condition that was not life threatening."

Whatever the condition was, it certainly played a role in Olson's decision to leave basketball entirely.

Arizona basketball would never have reached the height of success it has without the work of Lute Olson. This two-time Coach of the Year played an instrumental role in the lives of hundreds of young men across the country, and he will never be forgotten.

While some may say that this is the end of Lute Olson's legacy on college basketball, some know it to be just the beginning.