A Tucson institution, Olson approaches coaching milestone

By Patrick Klein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 9, 1996

A high school baseball coach tried to give him a new name once. "Luke" was what the coach called him, after Cleveland Indian first baseman Luke Easter. He did that for all of his senior year, but the player never really liked it and the name never stuck.

So, as he has done since he was old enough to remember, Robert Luther Olson has answered to a derivative of his middle name, Lute.

Perhaps there was a reason the coach called the young ballplayer "Luke," for in Biblical times, Luke was an author of the New Testament, and what Olson has done with the UA men's basketball team has been nothing short of heavenly.

In his 13 years in Tucson, the 61-year-old Olson has resurrected a floundering basketball program and turned it into a perennial national power - two Final Four appearances (1988 and 1994), 10 20-win seasons, 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, seven Pacific 10 Conference titles, and with his next victory, Olson will win his 500th career game.

By Olson's count, however, he's passed that magical number long ago.

"I was in education 17 years before I coached my first Division I game," he said about his years as a high school counselor and basketball coach in both Minnesota and California. "So for me personally, the numbers I guess are between 700 and 800, so it's not a big deal."

But to ask someone who has been with Olson for the last seven years at Arizona, and as an assistant when Olson coached Iowa from 1974-83 and helped Olson take the Hawkeyes to the Final Four in 1980, it is a big deal. UA assistant Jim Rosborough said the Iowa and UA programs are in a tougher spot than other schools, such as Michigan or UCLA, because they don't have a wealth of in-state talent to recruit from.

"Where he's done it might be even more impressive because both Iowa and Arizona - while both are wonderful schools - neither are located in basketball hotbeds," Rosborough said.

Five-hundred wins is rarified air. Olson will become only the 66th college coach to ever reach that mark, joining such luminaries as former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and North Carolina's Dean Smith. But he and his teams seem to be judged, rightly or wrongly, by another statistic that hasn't stuck to other coaches as it has to Olson - NCAA Tournament flameouts.

The joke went like this: "Why can't you get drunk at Olson's On Broadway (the Tucson restaurant he used to own)? Because you get kicked out after the first round." Since the 1991-92 season, Arizona has lost three times in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, to ungracious upstarts East Tennessee State in 1992, Santa Clara in 1993 and Miami (Ohio) last year.

While those losses have marred Olson's reputation in the eyes of some, it doesn't cause Olson to bat an eye.

"What I would say to the critics is, one, how many people have been to 11 straight tournaments?" Olson said. "How many schools have been to the Final Four twice? How many other times has Arizona been to the Final Four? I can answer that very easily. There weren't any."

"Doing well in the tournament is part of it ," Rosborough said, "but part of it's getting there, and a bunch of people don't get there. He's been very consistent. ASU had a nice run last year (the school made it to the Sweet Sixteen), but where are they this year?" The Sun Devils are 8-10.

Consistency is a by-product of hard work and preparation, and Olson, who Rosborough called "a perfectionist," is a stickler for details.

"Sometimes you get tired of doing all the fundamentals, and you don't understand why you do it all the time," said senior forward Joe McLean. "But you notice Arizona's one of the most prepared teams in the preseason, especially in the NIT. You saw different guys out there. Other teams weren't really in sync, but we were in sync already."

Tucson is known as the Old Pueblo, and that would make Olson the head honcho. Even before his Bank One commercials with Sun Devil coach Bill Frieder made them both statewide celebrities, Olson was everywhere in Tucson - commercials on television and radio, on billboards, at fund-raisers.

Part of his appeal, besides his 499-190 record, has to be his appearance - dapper, in control (even his game look - pacing the sidelines, arms folded, eyes fixed - he looks like a professor proctoring an exam). But any discussion of Olson has to include his most famous trademark: his hair.

White because of his Scandinavian heritage, short and perfectly combed, Olson's hair is as recognizable to any Tucsonan as Dick Vitale's voice is to ... well, anyone.

"I was blond as a young kid, then it changed to very dark by high school, and I had a lot of gray in my early twenties," Olson said. "My mother was gray by 27."

"Is it real?" Lydia Lubben, Olson's administrative secretary for 12 years, asked. "Yes, it's real. If he wanted fake hair, why would he have gray hair?"

"It's always the same way," said sophomore forward Michael Dickerson. "It's perfect all the time. Does he get it done?"

Dickerson can ask him that someday, as long as he doesn't call him "Luke."