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Lute Olson, Part 2


Yesterday, we told you about the formative years of Lute Olson, now coach of the Arizona Wildcats. When he was just five years old, both his father and older brother died. His mother sold their farm near Hatton and squeaked out a living by working odd jobs in Mayville.

In 1951, the family moved to Grand Forks, where Lute’s older sister was studying to be a nurse. That winter, Lute helped Grand Forks Central win the State Basketball Championship. He also met East Grand Forks native, Bobbi Russell, while singing in the church choir. They became inseparable, and were married right out of high school.

Lute had long before decided he wanted to be a coach, and chose to enroll at Augsburg in Minneapolis. “You were a student first, and an athlete second,” he said. “I felt fortunate to get more than just an academic and athletic experience in my college days. Augsburg’s emphasis on developing the total person – intellectual, athletic and spiritual – was important to me.”

Bobbi supported Lute to put him through school. He graduated in 1956, with a degree in history and physical education. He started coaching high school, including stints in Mahnomen, and Two Harbors in Minnesota, and then three high schools in Anaheim, CA.

Olson made the leap to college coaching in 1969, first in Long Beach, where his team lost only two games that year. The following year, he returned to the Midwest, coaching the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. During his 9-years there, he took his team to the NCAA tournament five times. In fact, when they reached the Final Four in 1980, Lute was named National Coach of the Year. By the time he left Iowa, he was the winningest coach in the school’s history.

In 1983, Olson moved on to the University of Arizona, where he’s been coaching the Wildcats ever since. He’s led the team to the NCAA tournament the last 15 years in a row, and they’ve reached the Final Four three times. When they took the national championship in 1996-97, Olson earned his second National Coach of the Year award.

Coach Olson has run up such a long string of milestones, it’s hard to know where to begin. He had his 1,000th lifetime coaching victory last December and is second only to UCLA’s John Wooden in winning percentages in Pac-10 Conference play. Only three other coaches in NCAA history have scored 27 or more 20-win seasons. In fact, Olson’s streak of 18 consecutive seasons is the longest in the Nation’s history, and his overall 27 tournament appearances makes him second only to Bobby Knight – a record Olson could easily break in the near future.

Of the men Olson has coached at college level, 51 have been NBA Draft picks. In fact, in the past 22 years, no school in the Pac-10 has produced as many first-round draft picks as Arizona.

Through it all, Bobbi was always at Olson’s side and, he says, was often more enthusiastic about his career than he was. She became a surrogate mom to the team, and when she died of cancer on New Years Day, 2001, it was a crushing blow to all. That night, the Wildcats paid tribute to Bobbi by writing her name on their basketball gear and dedicating the rest of the season to her.

Lute Olson has come a long ways from his early days in Mayville, but has remained true to his upbringing throughout. Augsburg College has invited him back to speak at their 75th Anniversary of their Hall of Fame, stating: “His tailored, classy demeanor on the court, combined with his tireless philanthropy... have made him one of the Nation’s most admired college coaches.”


Basketball Hall of Fame. <http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/olson_lute.htm>

Augsburg College website. <http://www.augsburg.edu/athletics/anniversary/luteolson.html>

The Official website of Lute Olson. <http://coachluteolson.com/>

The News. (Frederick, MD) 2 Jan 2001.

The Intelligencer. (Doylestown, PA) 4 Apr 2001.

Arizona Daily Star. 20 Sep 2002.

The Chronicle Telegram. (Elyria, OH) 12 Dec 2004.

The Post Standard. (Syracuse, NY) 11 Feb 2005.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm