REST IN PEACE, LUTE OLSON

By Adam Jacobi on August 28, 2020 at 8:30 am
Lute Olson
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Lute Olson, the man who brought Iowa men's basketball closer to a national championship than anyone since the 1950s, passed away Thursday at the age of 85. Olson had been in hospice care after a series of strokes and was able to pass surrounded by family; that's what you want. He was a titan in college basketball, and one cannot tell the story of the sport in the last 40 years without including Olson.

Olson, one in a string of legendary hires by Bump Elliott, came to Iowa in 1974, finding an athletic department in dire need of a bell cow among its coaches. Dan Gable was two years away from assuming the reins of Iowa's wrestling department, Hayden Fry was just getting warmed up at North Texas State, and C. Vivian Stringer wouldn't stalk the Hawkeye sidelines until 1983. 

Olson took over a program that was just four years removed from running the table in the Big Ten, only to be upset by one point by tiny Jacksonville University (and their 7'2" center Artis Gilmore) in the 1970 Sweet Sixteen.

Artis GilmoreDear God.

Coach Ralph Miller defected to Oregon State shortly thereafter, and replacement Dick Schultz had been terribly ineffective in Miller's stead. Olson knew he could succeed here; he just had a full rebuild in front of him first.

(Quick aside: very few Iowa fans look back on Jerry Tarkanian fondly, and Olson certainly didn't either, but Tark's shenanigans indirectly helped guide Olson to Iowa. Olson had replaced Tarkanian at Long Beach State in 1973 after Tark made his move to UNLV, and Long Beach assured Olson the rumors of an impending NCAA violation were untrue. Reader, they were very true; LBSU got hit midseason with a three-year sanction that included a postseason ban despite Olson guiding the team to a 24-2 record and #10 ranking, and that was all Olson needed to leave Long Beach — it has "Beach" right in the name! — for the comparatively arctic Iowa City after just one season. So... thanks, Jerry Tarkanian?)

Olson quickly got busy in the Big Ten, guiding Iowa to a 19-10 record in his second season and restoring a raucous aura at the Fieldhouse. It took five seasons under Olson for Iowa to actually make the NCAA tournament again, but that wasn't seen as a failure, because making the tourney back then was something dramatically more difficult, especially in a power conference like the Big Ten.

Olson's tenure at Iowa was concurrent with the expansion of the tournament away from its previous format, which had been limited to conference champions and independents. 1975 was the first season to allow at-large conference teams at all (limited to conference runners-up), and the tourney expanded from that 32-team format to 40 teams in 1979 (Olson's first bid), 48 teams and unlimited at-large entrants from any conference in 1980 (we'll get to that tournament later) and our familiar 64 in 1985.

Olson's quick success at Iowa helped land him a lightly recruited point guard out of Chicago named Ronnie Lester in the 1976 recruiting class. Lester had spent most of his high school career distributing the ball to high scorers, and it wasn't until his senior season that he broke out as a high-level playmaker in his own right. Olson had spent his weekends driving to the south side of Chicago (sometimes with wife Bobbi) to recruit Lester in his home in the infamous Stateway Gardens projects, and that effort and rapport helped land Olson his dream point guard.

Lester was immediately effective with the Hawkeyes, drawing on his experience as both a distributor and a scorer. He wasn't surrounded by bums; Lester played with future All-Big Ten athletes like Bruce King, Steve Krafcisin and Kevin Boyle, but Lester was the proverbial straw that stirred the drink. Soon, Olson had something — really had something.

After a flat season in a loaded Big Ten the year prior, Iowa exploded in 1979, tying for first place at 20-8 (13-5) and making the NCAA Tournament. The excitement was unfortunately short-lived; the 4th-seeded Hawkeyes dropped their first matchup to 5th-seed Toledo, 74-72, despite a 12-point halftime lead. Lester had been great, sure (23 points on 9-13 shooting, 6 of the team's 14 assists), but it just wasn't there that day. And once again, Iowa still hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1956. It was understandable when only champions made it that far. In this new, expanding era? A little less so. Such was the mindset in what would become known as "The Fishbowl." And the winters were still cold.

Lester came back the next year for his senior season, and with him Iowa was unstoppable. We can spend the entire article writing about Lester's knee injury that season, but facts are facts: Iowa was 18-0 with him starting and finishing games, and 8-9 without him. Behind Lester's brilliance, Iowa beat John Thompson and Georgetown to make its first Final Four since, well, the last season Iowa even won a game at all in the NCAA Tournament, and Denny Crum's Louisville Cardinals stood in the way. Lester's knee crumpled on a drive with Iowa leading in the first half of their game, and you know the rest.

It's one of the most tantalizing what-ifs in Iowa sports history — right up there with the aforementioned Jacksonville loss in 1970, Ronnie Harmon's nightmare Rose Bowl in 1986, Ricky Stanzi's knee injury at Northwestern in 2009, and even men's basketball coach Bucky O'Connor's tragic death in a car accident in 1958.

Louisville was beatable. UCLA was prime UCLA, but they were beatable too; the Cardinals sure beat them. And if Lute Olson had brought home the gold that season, all of the calculus that led Olson to Arizona — where he ended up actually winning a national championship — changes dramatically. Maybe Iowa takes the space in Big Ten men's basketball that Michigan State did instead. Maybe Lute learns to live with the Fishbowl. Maybe Bobbi does too. Maybe he's the Midwest Jim Boeheim, cantankerous and chilly but racking up wins every year. Maybe Lute's indelibly clean act becomes more the stuff of legend in the 319 than anything Dan or Hayden concoct.

All maybes. All alluring. All fiction.

Olson never regained the magic at Iowa City, even as the university eventually delivered his desired Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1983 — "the house that Lute built." The very next season saw a 20-win Hawkeye club bow out in the first round to Wichita State — another second-half collapse. And that "Fishbowl," that magnifying glass of media attention in a state that had never hosted a more high-profile sporting franchise, ended up pushing the Olsons away to sunny Tucson, and it's fair to say they never looked back.

It's also worth noting that not only did that fishbowl shrink on the Olsons, but by his departure in 1983, we were well into the reigns of Gable and Fry, two coaches that matched Olson's championship aspirations and — unlike him — reveled in the press attention that came with it. Spiritually, Lute was much closer to Stringer, with whom he never overlapped at Iowa, but may as well have been a mentor. Iowa City wasn't a forever town for either of them. It isn't for most people either.

Olson was at home at Arizona, much more than at Iowa, and there isn't a good argument to be made that he would have replicated his incredible run in Tucson had he stayed here. Would we have preferred his presence in the Raveling and Davis years? Almost certainly. But Lute wouldn't have. Not by a longshot.

It takes some maturity to accept that someone would be happier without you. It takes more maturity to encourage that for them, to de-center one's self for someone else's benefit.

The best thing Lute Olson could have done was continue his career at Arizona. That's where he'll always be known as a coach. He earned his championship there, and he earned his legacy having helped revitalize men's college basketball out west. Most Iowa fans who are old enough to remember those days intrinsically know this, even if there's just a little residual resentment in being a "stepping-stone" Power 5 men's basketball program instead of one with, y'know, a national championship in hand.

But that resentment is properly aimed at Fate: that treacherous, unpredictable, amoral force that took Lester's knee away from him after dangling that elusive top prize in his and Olson's and Iowa's face. It'll always be our "what if." It's unfortunate that it'll never be more than that, but Olson took Iowa that close and nobody else did or has since.

Yes, a successful coach leaving Iowa City because of Iowa City takes some wind out of the program's sails. Yes, Lute ultimately isn't "ours." But if it weren't for Lute Olson there's no telling how garbage the Iowa men's basketball program would have become. Olson gave us more than any men's coach since television turned color. He was legitimately great, he elevated the Iowa men's basketball program back to a place of prominence in his nine years in the Big Ten, he got his crown and aura at Arizona, and as Hawkeye fans we're lucky to have shared his space while he was here.

Rest easy, Lute. And on behalf of Hawkeye fans everywhere, thank you.

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