When Lute Olson walked into summer gyms, he normally stood apart from the other recruiters. Why blend in?
He’d find his own vantage point, somewhere in the sight lines of the relevant players. He knew that his presence, anywhere, was big news. He also found angles, to see things others didn’t.
“If a guy wasn’t playing hard, he’d lose interest,” said Rodney Tention, the Cal Poly assistant who spent nine years on Olson’s staff. “He’d start talking to the people around him. He could tell who would fit in and who wouldn’t.”
When Mater Dei’s Reggie Geary sprang into the lane to rebound a missed free throw, his coach told him he’d scored more than two points. “Coach Olson saw you do that,” Gary McKnight said, “and he wrote it down.”
Geary joined Olson’s endless, self-sustaining basketball machine at Arizona, which was 1-17 in Pac-10 play the year before Olson arrived. At his first press conference, he warned, “Get your tickets now.”
Olson’s second team began a string of 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments. The Wildcats’ bounty included the 1997 championship, four Final Fours, five No. 1 seeds, six finishes in the postseason AP top five, and seven of eight Pac-10 regular-season titles beginning in 1988, 11 overall.
The tickets were long gone in McKale Center, which Olson turned into a screeching hotbox. The Wildcats were 344-40 at home for Olson.
The ‘97 team was Olson’s first in 10 years to lose as many as nine games. It got to the regional finals against pre-tournament favorite Kansas.
Asked if he enjoyed being the underdog, Olson smiled and replied, “Who’s the underdog?”
“I thought, come on, Coach,” said Matt Muehlebach, a top guard from 1988-91.
“For about 17 or 18 years, there was a bucket of maybe seven or eight teams who could win it all,” Muehlebach said. “All those years, Arizona was in that bucket. I thought they were good enough to win four or five titles. It was a bummer to win only one. But nobody else, not even Duke, had that type of consistency.”
Olson, 85, passed away last week. Georgetown’s John Thompson, who also built an orchard out of tundra, died Monday at 78.
College basketball is far too coach-centric, but there was a Tower of Coaches who glamorized the game. Now it’s almost empty. Olson won as a fundamental absolutist who, once he trusted his players, rarely impeded them.
“We went at it like ABC,” Tention said. “Do these things, and we’ll win.”
He also walked into enemy buildings as if he were about to uproot them and take them to Tucson. His teams borrowed his assurance. Fans despised it. That didn’t bother Olson either. He wore his confidence impeccably, like everything else.
“He didn’t have a system,” Geary said. “We were the system. He had a big team with Brian Williams, Ed Stones and Ray Owes, and then in 1994 he said, ‘Reggie, maybe you can start at guard for us.’ He went to three guards, which no one else did, and made the Final Four.
“He made us walk a little taller. He never got rattled. He was an imposing figure, a big, good-looking guy with the silver hair. He had that Cool Hand Lute persona about him, and you see how his players have succeeded, not just in the NBA but in life.”
The practices began with at least 30 minutes of drills that your son’s NJB team performs, down to the drop step and pivot. The Wildcats practiced taking charges. There was a proper way to dive on the floor. Everything was charted.
Yet the product was simple. “We make the shooters drive and the drivers shoot,” Olson once said.
NBA general managers viewed Arizona players as merit scholars. Seven of Olson’s players spent at least 800 games in the league, including Steve Kerr, who was looking at WCC schools before Olson arrived. Fifteen were first-round picks.
Olson rejoins his wife Bobbi, who died on New Year’s Day, 2001, and was more of a Vice President than a spouse. Bobbi fed the recruits pancakes and gave the players the hugs and solace that Lute couldn’t.
When Bobbi missed one road trip, Lute called her six times. She never missed another.
Muehlebach mentioned Olson’s rare blend of shyness and bravado. The great ones make their contradictions work. Olson and UCLA’s Jim Harrick are the only league coaches to win a championship since John Wooden, and none but Olson and UCLA’s Ben Howland reached more than one Final Four.
And he also taught younger coaches a lesson that few have yet learned. There’s room in those gyms. Stretch your legs. Stand apart.