My youngest son’s name is Lute, after our coach who just passed away. I wanted him to have a strong Tucson name. One that embodied wisdom, compassion and class. I fell in love with the game of basketball when I was 9 years old due to two people: Coach Lute Olson and Coach Dave Lynch. Coach Lynch was the girls’ coach at Santa Rita High School and my youth coach. Coach Olson signed my program when I attended my first University of Arizona basketball game. I attended one of his basketball camps. I was already a Wildcat fan, but Lute showed us how to love and understand the game. The theme of the camp was that to be good at basketball, you had to be a good person first. He taught us our fundamentals, but moreover, he reminded us to work hard in school and take pride in our endeavors. He was a coach and a teacher.
I attended every game of Lute Olson's first season in Tucson. At the time my father was working at the University of Arizona and was very excited that Coach Olson took the job. Though the team finished with a losing record, they won 5 of their last 7 games. The following season, I was fortunate to become a ball boy. I got a front row seat to watch Coach and his staff build something from nothing. By the 5th year, Arizona was in the Final Four. Building something from nothing is a familiar story in Tucson, many of our success stories start small and make our community proud.
Over the years I had several encounters with Coach Olson, and to me his mere presence was so awe-inspiring. I always felt honored to be in the presence of someone admired by so many. Over the years, I noticed something about Coach that many probably take for granted. I noticed it from the time I first met him at the age of nine when he signed my program and it carried through when he helped host the Rwandan National Team in Tucson. He treated everyone like a someone. He didn’t have to. He was a legend in this town, but he was never too busy to shake a hand, pose for a picture or listen. He treated everyone with dignity and respect, from his former players, to staffers, to fans, and even to politicians. It wasn’t just that he won games (and a lot of them), but that he was a great example of what it meant to be a citizen of Tucson.
Tucson will forever be grateful for the wild ride: we cried when an amazing 1988 team came so close to winning it all, the surprise of 1994 after going to the Final Four a second time after a couple of early tournament disappointments, the triumph of the 1997 team and the emotional 2001 season when we lost Bobbi. Through all of it he was pure class.
I could go on and on about his technical acumen for basketball, or the fact that he adapted with the evolution of the game of basketball. However, some of Coach's biggest contributions to our community were off the court. From Lame for a Game, which benefited disabled athletes, numerous charitable events, to his work for the UA Foundation after he retired, he made sure to use his position to better our community. The world is a bit less wise, compassionate and classy with this loss.
Last year, the UA athletic department issued a statement about Lute, and it sums it up:
Coach Olson is not only an icon of our men’s basketball program and all of college basketball, but he is also an embodiment of greatness to Arizona Athletics, the University of Arizona and the Tucson community.
Thank you for everything Coach. Tell St. Peter to Bear Down. Peace and Paradise.