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Legendary UArizona basketball coach Lute Olson dead at 85

Lute Olson at a UArizona basketball game in 2009.
Posted at 8:32 PM, Aug 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-28 12:13:16-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — Lute Olson, a legendary University of Arizona basketball coach who led to the Wildcats to the 1997 NCAA Championship, has passed away at the age of 85.

Olson was placed in hospice care earlier this week, with family describing his condition as serious. He suffered a serious stroke last year.

Olson led the Wildcats to four Final Four appearances and an amazing 23 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Revered by the community and regarded as one of college basketball's greatest coaches of all-time, Olson brought a sense of pride to Arizona’s basketball program, and to southern Arizona.

RELATED: Tributes pour in for UArizona legend Lute Olson

However, the legendary Arizona Wildcat basketball coach didn't arrive in Tucson until he was close to 50 years old.

Olson was born in North Dakota and began his career coaching high school teams, first in Minnesota, then in California.

Olson taught his teams to want more, to reach for a dream, and drive for perfection. He compiled a 24-2 record in his only season at Long Beach State. It was followed by the University of Iowa, where he led the Hawkeyes to the 1980 Final Four.

Three years later, Olson surprised the college basketball world, leaving the Big Ten power for an Arizona Wildcat program coming off a 4-24 season.

Olson made a bold statement, advising fans in April of 1983 that they should get their tickets now.

Just two years later, Arizona was a winner.

Olson turned down other college opportunities, saying that Tucson was his home. He would also decline offers from the NBA.

“I love coaching college guys because you can just see them grow from kids to young men before they move on,” he said in a 2016 interview.

His first Wildcat Final four team came in 1988. It was a beloved group made up of not just basketball stars, but those who would be successful in other walks of life, including record producer Harvey Mason, baseball great Kenny Lofton and Steve Kerr.

Another Final Four team followed in 1994. Olson's teams were known for great guard play. With players like Kerr, Damon Stoudamire and Mike Bibby, his Wildcats were nicknamed “Point Guard U.”

Olson inspired, motivated, and got a community dreaming that the impossible really could come true. Then in 1997, the Arizona Wildcats did what no other team has ever accomplished, knocking off three number one seeds in the NCAA tournament, culminating in a win over Kentucky for the national championship.

“We had the great combination of guys,” Olson said in 2016. “Bibby was a freshman and could shoot the lights out. Miles was a penetrator and made things happen. Jason Terry was a big-game player.”

Olson brought wisdom, drive, and love to everything he did. By Lute's side was always his high school sweetheart, Bobbi. The two were married for 47 years. She was known in part for her hospitality to Lute's players.

“The first time I met her up in her house in Ventana, she cooked me pancakes on the recruiting visit,"said former player Harvey Mason. “ I thought, 'This lady is incredible.' I could come to her with my problems. She was always there for all the players. She was like a loving parent that wasn't a parent. She always had a smile on her face. You never saw her get angry or cross anybody.”

Bobbi Olson would lose her battle with ovarian cancer in 2001. Lute later called her, “The number one wife, number one mother, number one grandmother, always number one.”

The Mckale Center court would be renamed the Lute and Bobbi Olson court.

After taking time to grieve, Olson returned the Wildcats to the Final Four later that spring. The following year, Olson was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. His final season was in 2007, having coached into his 70s.

Remarried, Olson remained visible at games and stayed busy with his charitable work. Olson would stay close to the program he turned into a college basketball power.

His proteges would be coaching, broadcasting, even producing.

"Even today, I'm still trying to do things, and I'm still trying to make him proud," Mason said. "Is Coach going to realize that I accomplished this? Is he going to see the hard work that I put into this? That comes from respecting him so much, and learning so much from him.”

His players were inspired by his drive and his heart, while the Tucson community benefited from his generosity. In the end, his accomplishments became the story of a champion, and in time that of a Tucson legend.

“Coach is a special guy. He's a rare type of guy,” Mason said. “You are not going to find a guy like that anywhere else.”