TUCSON, Ariz. – The University of Arizona family is mourning the passing of Hall of Fame men’s basketball head coach Lute Olson, who died Thursday. Olson led Arizona to a national championship and was an iconic figure in college basketball and the Southern Arizona community.
A five-time national Coach of the Year and seven-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, Olson guided the Wildcats to the 1997 NCAA championship and amassed a record of 589-187 during his 24 seasons at Arizona. He also led Arizona to four NCAA Final Four appearances and 15 Pac-10 regular season and tournament titles.
Including stops as head coach at Long Beach State and the University of Iowa prior to arriving at Tucson, Olson amassed a career record as a head coach of 781-279. His 781 career wins rank 14th in NCAA Division I history and 23rd in NCAA history, regardless of division. His .737 winning percentage also ranks among the top 30 in NCAA history.
Olson came to Tucson prior to the 1983-84 season and inherited a team that had won just four games the prior year. He turned things around in a hurry, leading the Wildcats to 11 wins in his first season and taking them to the NCAA Tournament in his second year, starting a streak of advancing to the NCAA Tournament 23 straight years under his leadership. Olson also steered Arizona to 20 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins – the fifth-longest streak in NCAA history.
He also established himself as one of the best coaches in Pac-10 history, securing 327 conference wins, which is still the most of any coach in conference history. Olson’s Pac-10 conference winning percentage of .764 is second only to former UCLA great John Wooden, among coaches who coached in the Pac-10 for more than three seasons.
Under Olson, Arizona appeared in the Associated Press Top 25 poll 341 times out of a possible 431 polls, or 81.2% of the time. That is the fourth-best percentage in the country in that span. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the country for 29 weeks and in the top 5 nationally for 111 weeks.
Player development was a key part of Olson’s programs at Arizona, and that led to an array of student-athletes that would go on to star in the NBA. He coached 31 players who went on to play in the NBA, with 12 of those selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Olson’s coaching success extended to the international stage. As head coach of Team USA, the Wildcats head coach led the United States to the gold medal in the 1986 FIBA World Championships.
Olson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and was re-inducted in 2019. He also received the Naismith Award for Outstanding Contribution to Men’s College Basketball in 2013.
Olson’s success on the hardwood led to a response from the Tucson community that is still felt to this day. Every year since the 1984-85 season – Olson’s second at Arizona – the Wildcats have led the Pac-12 in attendance, an active streak of 37 consecutive years. The court inside McKale Memorial Center was named in Olson’s honor in 2000 and officially became “Lute and Bobbi Olson Court” in 2001 to honor his wife of 47 years after she passed away.
“Lute Olson was so much more than a basketball coach. He was an educator, a motivator, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend to so many. He was a true leader in every sense of the word and displayed such integrity and compassion in every endeavor. While Coach will no longer be with us, his presence will be felt for generations to come. On behalf of the University of Arizona, our community and generations of Wildcat fans, we extend our thoughts and prayers to the Olson family.” — University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins
“Since I arrived in Tucson almost 12 years ago, I have been asked hundreds of times ‘What made Coach Olson so successful?’ Having asked his former players, coaches and people in our community the same question, I came to a final conclusion:
“He had no weaknesses as a Coach.
“He was a tremendous teacher of the game – he loved the practice environment. “He was a relentless recruiter, often being the last coach to leave a high school gym on a hot summer night in Las Vegas.
“He was an astute evaluator of talent. So many of his most accomplished players were not heavily recruited prospects – Steve Kerr, Luke Walton and Gilbert Arenas come to mind.
“He was a fierce and confident leader. He utilized his iconic presence to make everyone around him BELIEVE in themselves and the team they were a part of.
“He was more than a coach to all of his players. The family atmosphere he created for each of them might be the most impressive accomplishment of his time. To this day, there is a connection and closeness between generations of Arizona players that will last forever.
“He was a leader in our community and gave his time and resources for more than three decades. The love affair that he created between Tucson and our basketball program has resulted in the unmatched fanbase and the home court atmosphere that we feel inside the McKale Center today.
“Finally, he was always helpful and supportive of me. I will miss seeing him at our home games and hearing our crowd yell “LUTE”. I will miss visiting with him when he would attend our practices. I will miss his support of everything Arizona basketball.
“My family joins all of the current members of the Arizona Basketball program in sending our condolences and prayers to his wife, Kelly, and the entire Olson Family. I am forever grateful to be a part of the basketball program and community that he impacted so immensely.
“Coach O will certainly be missed, but always remembered by us. Bear Down.” — Arizona Head Basketball Coach Sean Miller
“I am deeply saddened with the passing of the great Lute Olson. Coach was an iconic figure in college basketball who put the University of Arizona’s basketball program on the map. Yet his legacy extends well beyond the court. He impacted thousands of lives, inspiring young men to reach beyond their potential and instilling service to others as a cornerstone of a person’s character. He was more than a coach. He was an educator, motivator, husband, father, grandfather and friend to so many. His life was one of leadership, integrity, compassion and service, and he personified excellence in everything he did. He was the ultimate example of what it means to be an Arizona Wildcat. While Coach is no longer with us, his presence will be felt for generations to come. On behalf of the Arizona Athletics department, the University, our community and generations of Wildcat fans, we extend our thoughts and prayers to the Olson Family.” — Arizona Vice President and Director of Athletics Dave Heeke
“It’s hard to put into words how much Lute Olson meant to me. He was an amazing coach & a wonderful man. Being part of the U of A basketball family changed my life forever. I will never forget Coach O, those awesome nights at McKale and all my teammates. Thank you Coach- I love you!” — Former Arizona Guard and Current Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr
“Thank you coach for taking a chance on some skinny kid from Chandler (Arizona). I owe my whole basketball career to you and what you taught me. I’m gonna miss you.” — Former Arizona Forward Channing Frye
“It’s rare that a man is a Hall of Famer and still under appreciated. I’ll always feel like you never got the credit you deserved as a leader, family man, grandfather, coach and as a mentor. I love you Coach O.” — Former Arizona Forward Richard Jefferson
“I told Denny Crum I was coming to Louisville. Midnight Lute called. We talked for 3 hrs! He changed my mind, then changed my life! Never truly, in my eyes, got the credit he deserved. It’s okay though! Love you Papa Lute!!” — Former Arizona guard and Current head coach at Pacific Damon Stoudamire
“I’m saddened to (hear) of the passing of my former Arizona Wildcats coach and friend Lute Olson….He was a great and honorable man..He built an incredible program and helped mold some pretty incredible men…. RIP Lute…I love you” — Former Arizona Forward Tom Tolbert
“So blessed to be able to play for Lute Olson. An amazing teacher on and off the court. His legacy is many things but I am so grateful for his friendship and the UofA basketball family he built that will always live on Toasting a glass of Pinot to you Coach O #LuteOlson #BearDown.” — Former Arizona guard and Current Pac-12 Network Analyst Matt Muehlebach
“Coach Olson was a Hall of Famer that created an absolute 1st class program. It was clear he had everyone’s back from Gumby (me) to future NBA Star (many). He’s also the definition of family man (goals). I value every second he shared with me. RIP Coach O!” — Former Arizona Forward Peter Hansen
“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 show 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.” — Former Arizona guard Jawann McClellan
“Everything I am as man, father, friend, and mentor, is owed to the man I idolize like no other! My heart, like so many others I’m sure, aches so badly…I Love You Coach O!” — Former Arizona player Pete Williams
“Thanks for challenging me to become a better ball player, teaching me the game the way it’s supposed to be played. By far the best coach I ever had. You will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace. Bear Down.” — Former Arizona forward Fendi Onobun
“Rest In Peace to Coach O, he gave me a compliment that I’ll never forget while watching our practice. ” You remind me of Richard Jefferson.” I’ll forever remember it and may his legacy live on!” — Former Arizona forward Ray Smith
“In my 40 years in Tucson, no person has done more for this city than Lute Olson. It went beyond victories and championships. He galvanized this community with his dignity and genuine love for his players and all who knew him. His influence will be with us forever.” — Current Play-by-Play voice of Arizona Basketball Brian Jeffries
“R.I.P coach O! Won the championship the year before I was born and made sure everyone in Arizona knew who the real basketball school was in the state.” — Current Arizona forward Ira Lee
“When you were alone with Coach O, he was a man of few words. His presence did all of 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 managers together to form a family and we are all blessed to be 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.” — Former Arizona manager, director of operations and current Associate Head Coach Jack Murphy
“Coach Olson is the absolute best, one of the greatest coaches ever and one of the greatest human beings ever. My feelings of gratitude and appreciation cannot be put in words. I love him dearly. My heart hurts, but I know he is now in heaven. May god bless his family. #RIP” — Former Arizona Guard and Current Georgia Tech Men’s Basketball Coach Josh Pastner
“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.” — Arizona Softball Hall of Fame Coach Mike Candrea