By RICK BROWN AND MATTHEW WEITZEL
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Lute Olson, who returned men’s basketball at the University of Iowa to national prominence and the Final Four, passed away on Thursday at 85 years of age.
Olson inherited an Iowa program that had struggled in the four seasons after Ralph Miller’s 1969-70 squad won the Big Ten with a 14-0 record and finished 20-5 overall.
The Hawkeyes never finished higher than a tie for sixth in the Big Ten in any of the four seasons following Miller’s departure for Oregon State. Iowa was 41-55 overall in that four-year stretch, and 20-36 in Big Ten play.
But in nine seasons as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, Olson’s teams were 168-90 overall, making him the winningest coach in program history at the time. He has since been passed by Tom Davis (school-record 269 victories in 13 seasons) and Fran McCaffery. Olson’s record included a 92-70 record in Big Ten play. His last five teams made the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by a Final Four appearance in 1980. Olson was also instrumental in getting Carver-Hawkeye Arena built. That facility replaced Iowa Field House as the Hawkeyes’ home venue in the middle of the 1982-83 season.
Olson’s last five Hawkeye teams all finished fourth or better in Big Ten play, including a tri-championship with Michigan State and Purdue in 1978-79 and runner-up finishes in 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1982-83.
Olson was named National Coach of the Year by both the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) and Sporting News in 1980. He was also named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1979. Six of his last seven Hawkeye teams won at least 20 games.
Every one of Olson’s final five teams spent at least eight weeks ranked in the Associated Press Poll. Those five teams were ranked a combined 69 weeks, including 24 weeks in the Top 10.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of former head coach and Hall of Famer Lute Olson. I will always remember the way he embraced me when I was hired as the Hawkeye coach. Lute expressed many times how proud he was and how much he loved coaching at Iowa. Lute will be missed by everyone in the Hawkeye family.”Iowa Head Coach Fran McCaffery
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of former head coach and Hall of Famer Lute Olson,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. “I will always remember the way he embraced me when I was hired as the Hawkeye coach. Lute expressed many times how proud he was and how much he loved coaching at Iowa. Over the years, Margaret and I became good friends with Lute and his wife Kelly, which is something that I will forever cherish. Lute will be missed by everyone in the Iowa basketball family.”
Olson left Iowa after an NCAA Sweet 16 season in 1982-83 to take over at Arizona, where he coached that program to 23 consecutive NCAA appearances, four Final Fours and a national championship in 1997. He was Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times. Twenty-eight of his last 29 teams at Iowa and Arizona reached the NCAA Tournament.
Olson finished with a record of 780-280 as a Division I head coach and coached in the Final Four five times. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. Olson is one of 15 coaches to take multiple schools to the Final Four.
“It is with great sadness we learned about Coach Olson’s passing,” said Bob Hansen, who played four seasons under Olson (1980-83). “He battled his health setbacks over the last few years with the same competitive energy and strength as he displayed over his many years on the sidelines. It was an honor to be coached by someone who embraced the qualities of integrity, honesty and hard work; lessons that I carry with me every day. Coach Olson loved his Hawkeye Family and will be dearly missed by all. Prayers for strength and comfort to his wife Kelly and all of Coach Olson’s family and friends.”
Olson worked his way up the coaching tree. He spent 13 seasons as a high school coach at Mahnomen, Minnesota, Two Harbors, Minnesota, Anaheim, California, and Huntington Beach, California. He then took a step up to the junior college ranks at Long Beach City College, where he spent four seasons before getting his first Division I head coaching job at Long Beach State.
He led the 49ers to an undefeated Big West campaign and 24-2 record overall in 1973-74, but could not play in the NCAA Tournament because of violations by the previous coaching staff. Olson left Long Beach State after one season to take the Iowa job, a return to his Midwestern roots. Olson was born in Mayville, North Dakota, and graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
“Coach Olson will always be remembered with the class and respect he lived by. He did things with class and was always respectful of others. He was not just a coach, but a positive role model; he was a man of faith, a husband, and a father. Lute changed the culture of Iowa Basketball by just being who he was. I am very thankful for having played for him, as I learned a lot about basketball and most importantly about doing things the right way. I have much love and respect for Coach Olson.”All-American Ronnie Lester
Olson wasted no time reversing Iowa’s basketball fortunes, improving the victory total from 10 to 19 in his first two seasons. A 20-7 record in 1976-77 was just the third 20-win season in school history. In 1978-79 Olson’s squad earned a piece of the program’s first Big Ten title since 1969-70 with a 13-5 mark. The Hawkeyes also returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine seasons.
A year later, Iowa reached the Final Four for the third time in program history, joining the 1954-55 and 1956-57 teams coached by Bucky O’Connor.
Olson coached 14 NBA Draft picks at Iowa. That included one of Iowa’s greatest players, point guard Ronnie Lester, who was a first-round selection in 1980. Lester was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree. His No. 12 was retired late in his senior season.
“Coach Olson will always be remembered with the class and respect he lived by,” Lester said. “He did things with class and was always respectful of others. He was not just a coach, but a positive role model; he was a man of faith (never heard him curse), a husband, and a father. Lute changed the culture of Iowa Basketball by just being who he was. He believed that if you worked harder than the next team, you should have high expectations. He pushed us to believe in ourselves and the results of winning games reinforced that belief. I am very thankful for having played for him, as I learned a lot about basketball and most importantly about doing things the right way. I have much love and respect for Coach Olson.”
Kevin Boyle (1980-81) also earned first-team All-Big Ten laurels under Olson.
Olson was the 2017 recipient of the NABC Hillyard Golden Anniversary Award for more than 50 years of outstanding service to men’s college basketball. The Lute Olson Award is now presented to the nation’s top Division I player who has played at least two seasons.
“Playing for Coach Olson shaped my vision on how to teach the game of basketball,” said Iowa assistant coach and former player Kirk Speraw. “He gave me my start in coaching and helped me throughout my career. He was an incredible coach, teacher, mentor, and friend. All of us in the Coach O basketball family will greatly miss him.”