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Lucky Lute: The story of Tucson's leading man

file photo/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Lute Olson gives his team instructions during a timeout of a game in McKale Center.
By David Stevenson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday September 27, 2002

The legendary coach who turned the UA basketball program into a national powerhouse finally gets his place in the Hall

He needed a change. After a Final Four appearance and nine successful seasons at the helm, something was still missing. He soon found it in Tucson, of all places.

He left his statewide celebrity status that didn't allow him to enjoy a restaurant dinner without interruption.

He left his new basketball arena, the one he led the fundraising for, which was set to open the next season with an $18.4 million price tag. But the hardest change was leaving his Iowa Hawkeye basketball team that was ranked No. 3 in the country.

But the stressful atmosphere demanded every minute of the coach and didn't allow him a personal life.

So, Lute Olson left it all ÷ his fame, his gymnasium and his players ÷ to become the new head coach of a non-existent basketball program in the middle of the desert in 1983.

The privacy in Tucson allowed Olson the chance, at first, to separate his winning ways and his personal life, but oh, how quickly that privacy turned into stardom.

As a young coach in Iowa, his fishing trips at his home in Lake Mcbride, Mo., turned into celebrity sightings as people sailed their boats up to Olson's to offer their congratulations and to talk about the upcoming season. Fans honked their horns when they whizzed by his house to show their appreciation during all hours of the day öö a little too radical for Olson's liking, his long-time assistant Jim Rosborough said.

"He was swamped with people all of the time, even though they were being nice. They just wanted to talk to him," Rosborough said. "I think it got too pressure-packed and overwhelming for him."
Photo courtesy of Arizona Basketball
Olson with his 1977 Iowa coaching staff. (From left to right) Head coach Lute Olson, assistant coaches Tony McAndrews, Jim Rosborough, Floyd Theard.

It was the tranquility of the desert that lured him away. A smaller city and a crippled basketball program was the perfect setting for Olson to seek refuge from the disturbances of the Midwest. But rather than giving up the winning in order to leave a more peaceful life, Olson simply brought his ways with him.

One of the components of his success was his wife, Bobbi. She became the first lady of Wildcat basketball and accompanied him on the recruiting trips. When prospects toured the Arizona campus, she cooked them breakfast and told them she hoped they would be part of the family. She held fundraising events, spearheaded numerous charity drives and attended every Wildcat basketball game.

Bobbi died of ovarian cancer in the middle of the 2001 season after a two-year battle with the disease. The players honored her by writing her name on their uniforms for the next game, but struggled to maintain focus in the following weeks as Olson went on a leave of absence. Olson would return to his familiar post on the UA sideline after five games, and together they played out the season dedicated to Bobbi. The court in McKale Center, which was once named Lute Olson Court, was changed to Lute and Bobbi Olson Court.

"Basketball was so good because it gave everyone an outlet after the events of his wife. It was therapeutic for everyone and it made you realize that life is very precious," assistant coach Josh Pastner said.

The Wildcats ran off five straight victories in the post-season but fell short of their national championship dream with a 10-point loss to Duke.

This year will be no different than the others. Olson will wear the same game-day outfit ÷ the khaki slacks and blue blazer.

He'll still have the same silver hairdo and prowl the sidelines barking orders or take his regular seat on the bench next to his longtime assistant, Rosborough. Plus, his team is back in its common position in preseason polls ÷ sitting on the top as No. 1. It's quite possible he could win his 10th conference title and play deep into his 19th-consecutive post-season appearance.

And who would bet against him? So far, everything along the way has given no one reason to. Especially since Olson is now in a place he calls home.


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