Hall of Fame basketball coach Lute Olson dies at 85

Hall of Fame basketball coach Lute Olson, who built Arizona into a national power and guided the Wildcats to the school’s only NCAA championship, has died at age 85.

Olson was hospitalized last year after suffering a stroke, and was recently moved into hospice care.

His death Thursday was confirmed by family to Arizona media outlets.

Olson went 589-187 in 24 seasons at Arizona and guided the Wildcats to four Final Four appearances, 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments and 11 Pac-10 titles, as well as the national title in 1997.

He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and a statue of Olson was erected outside the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson in 2018. The Wildcats’ home court inside McKale was named in his honor in 2000, then became “Lute and Bobbi Olson Court” a year later to honor his late wife.

Many former Wildcats players took to social media Thursday night to praise the beloved coach, who finished with a 776-285 record in 34 seasons at Arizona, Iowa and Long Beach State.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played under Olson at Arizona from 1983 to 1988, paid tribute to him in a tweet late Thursday.

“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!”

Georgia Tech coach and former Arizona player Josh Pastner called Olson “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,” he wrote in a tweet. “I love him dearly. My heart hurts, but I know he is now in heaven. May god bless his family.”

Arizona won just four games in 1982-83, the season before Olson arrived in Tucson, and had reached the NCAA tournament twice since 1951.

But the Wildcats turned things around quickly under Olson, reaching the NCAA tournament in his second season at the school and advancing to the school’s first Final Four in the 1987-88 season, when they finished 35-3.

Arizona reached the Final Four again in 1994 before winning its first and only NCAA title in 1997, when freshman Mike Bibby and junior Miles Simon led Olson and the Wildcats past heavily favored Kentucky in the championship game. That team remains the only one since seeding began in 1979 to defeat three No. 1 seeds en route to winning the title.

The Wildcats also advanced to the national championship game under Olson in 2001, when they were defeated by Duke.

Overall, Olson won seven NCAA tournament games against No. 1 seeds (7-5 record). The only coach to win more such games since 1979 is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who is 8-7 in those games.

“Lute Olson was so much more than a basketball coach,” University of Arizona president Robert C. Robbins said. “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.”

Current Arizona coach Sean Miller said he learned a lot about Olson in speaking with his former players and people in the Tucson community.

“He had no weaknesses as a coach,” Miller said. “He was a tremendous teacher of the game. He was a relentless recruiter. He was an astute evaluator of talent. He was a fierce and confident leader. He was more than a coach to all of his players. To this day, there is a connection and closeness between generations of Arizona players that will last forever.”

Born on a farm outside Mayville, North Dakota, on Sept. 22, 1934, Olson led his high school team to the 1952 state championship and was a three-sport athlete at Augsburg College in Minnesota from 1953 to 1956.

He started his career as a high school coach in Minnesota and Southern California before becoming the head coach at Long Beach City College, where he won the state junior college title in 1971.

In 1973-74, he took over at Long Beach State, where he went 24-2, before being hired at Iowa the following season. He coached the Hawkeyes to the NCAA tournament five times in nine seasons.

The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury issued a joint statement, calling Olson “a bright light in our industry.”

“While his Hall of Fame career will be remembered for the championship program he built in Tucson, his legacy is rooted in the mentor he was to young men, the teacher he was on and off the court, and the difference he made in the lives of so many,” the teams said in the statement.

Suns owner Robert Sarver added, “I have lost a friend and role model. Lute always exuded such class, confidence and integrity. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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