By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Lute Olson created a monster at the University of Iowa.
“A really good one,” Olson, now 85, said from his home in Tucson, Arizona.
The University of Iowa basketball program had fallen on hard times in the four seasons since 1969-70, when Ralph Miller had coached the Hawkeyes to a 14-0 record in Big Ten play.
Athletics Director Chalmers “Bump” Elliott hired Olson away from Long Beach State, a masterful stroke that soon paid dividends.
Behind Olson’s touch, both on the court and recruiting trail, the Hawkeyes returned to prominence. And fueled by a Final Four appearance in 1980, a statewide television audience and a hungry fan base, a monster had been created.
Olson had sustained success during his nine seasons at Iowa. Each of his final five teams made the NCAA Tournament and spent at least eight weeks ranked in The Associated Press poll, with 24 weeks in the Top 10. He was 168-90 overall, and 92-70 in Big Ten play, when he left for Arizona after the 1982-83 season.
That move to the desert broke a lot of hearts in Iowa.
“I enjoyed everything about Iowa,” Olson said. “Bump Elliott was one of my all-time favorites, and he worked hard to keep me from going to Arizona, but it was a great move.”
Twenty-three consecutive NCAA appearances with the Wildcats and a national title in 1997 followed. Twenty-eight of Olson’s final 29 teams at Iowa and Arizona were in the NCAA Tournament.
Olson, who also coached a season at Long Beach State before Elliott hired him at Iowa, will be honored for his success when he is formally enshrined in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, on Nov. 24.
Earlier, Olson was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. When the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame was organized in 2006, all previous Naismith inductees were grandfathered in, but a decision was made to honor those individuals.
Olson will not be able to return to Kansas City for the ceremony, but he has a history with that city.
On March 25, 1983, the Hawkeyes played Villanova in an NCAA Sweet 16 game at Kemper Arena. The crowd of 17.036 was dominated by Iowa fans rooting on the monster they had helped create.
“That was a great team,” Olson said. “We just missed too many free throws. That kept us from moving on.”
Iowa lost, 55-54. The Hawkeyes missed the front end of two late one-and-one opportunities and were just six of 11 from the line. Villanova was 13 for 16.
So instead of preparing for an Elite Eight game, Iowa’s season was over. Olson’s run at Iowa was over, too. Reports surfaced on March 29 that he would be named the head coach at Arizona.
Olson grew up in North Dakota.
“I used to kid them that when I went to Iowa, I was going to a warmer climate,” he said.
The lure of the desert after nine seasons in the weather-challenged Big Ten proved a sage move. His years at Iowa remain a warm spot in Olson’s heart.
“We’ve been blessed with a lot of good things that have happened to us,” Olson said. “I enjoyed everything about Iowa. They took great care of us there.”
Olson loves to tell the story about riding up an escalator one time when he was coaching Arizona. Some Iowa fans recognized him.
“They said, ‘Hi, Lute, we’re from Iowa.’ When are you coming home?’ “
Olson coached a lot of great players and great teams during a career highlighted by a 780-280 record and five Final Four appearances.
One of the special ones was that 1979-80 Iowa team.
“They were all tuned into team,” Olson said.
That team had to play through a knee injury to star point guard Ronnie Lester, one of Olson’s favorite players.
Olson recruited Lester out of Dunbar High School in inner-city Chicago. One of Olson’s favorite stories was the time he was at a Dunbar game and an assistant coach from Kentucky walked in. The assistant asked Olson if he was watching Lester. Olson nodded.
“I said, ‘You know, if he could just shoot better he’d be something, because he’s a heck of an athlete,'” Olson said, hoping to throw off the Kentucky assistant.
Olson got his man, and he remains close to Lester today.
“Ronnie’s a great guy, and he’s proven that in a lot of ways,” Olson said.
Lester returned in time for the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament run, and victories over Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Georgetown to reach the Final Four. Lester reinjured his knee just 12 minutes into the national semifinal against Louisville and Iowa’s title hopes were over, 80-72.
Olson contends that if Lester had made it through his senior season healthy, Iowa would have won a national title.
“Those kinds of things don’t happen very often,” he said.
As he reflects on that 1979-80 team, Olson talks like a father who is proud of his sons.
“That was a great, great team,” Olson said. “A team from the word go. And they did a tremendous job of remaining a team.”
They were a brother hood, a family, Olson will tell you, by the way they rallied around Kenny Arnold.
A three-year starter at guard, Arnold picked up his game in Lester’s absence. When Kenny was challenged by health issues, including a brain tumor and several strokes, his teammates picked him up.
They raised money for their friend, showered him with love and showed what loyalty meant, many years after the 1979-80 season. Arnold passed away in April.
“They did a tremendous job of remaining a team,” Olson said. “It’s a family, for sure.”
By RICK BROWN