TUCSON, Ariz. — Lute Olson, the Hall of Fame coach who turned Arizona into a college basketball powerhouse, has died. He was 85.
Olson’s family said he died Thursday evening. The cause of death wasn’t given.
“It’s hard to put into words how much Lute Olson meant to me,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played for Olson at Arizona, tweeted. “He was an amazing coach & a wonderful man. Being part of the U of A basketball family changed my life forever.
“I will never forget Coach O, those awesome nights at McKale and all my teammates. Thank you Coach. I love you!”
Olson spent 24 seasons at Arizona, revitalizing a fan base in the desert while transforming a program that had been to the NCAA Tournament just three times in 79 years before he was hired in 1983.
Olson started his career as a high school coach in Minnesota and then moved to Orange County, where he coached at Western High in Anaheim, Loara and Marina, before becoming the head coach at Long Beach City College, where he won the state junior college title in 1971.
He spent one season at Long Beach State before going on to coach nine seasons at Iowa. He led the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament his final five seasons, including a trip to the 1980 Final Four.
Olson had a career record of 780-280 in 34 years as a Division I coach.
Olson first took the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament during his second season in Tucson to start a string of 25 straight appearances. The streak would have been the third-longest in NCAA history, but the 1999 and 2008 appearances were later vacated by the NCAA for impermissible benefits to players and recruiting violations.
The Wildcats won a national championship under Olson in 1997 with a team led by Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Miles Simon. Olson’s Arizona teams reached the Final Four four times and lost the 2001 national title game to Duke.
Olson won a school-record 589 games at Arizona, 11 Pac-10 titles and was named the conference coach of the year seven times. He led Arizona to 20 straight 20-win seasons and is one of five coaches in NCAA history with 29 seasons of at least 20 wins.
Olson’s 327 conference victories are the most in Pac-10/12 history and he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002.
“It’s rare that a man is a Hall of Famer and still under appreciated,” former Arizona and NBA player Richard Jefferson tweeted. “I’ll always feel like you never got the credit you deserved as a leader, family man, grandfather, coach and as a mentor. I love you Coach O.”
Olson had a series of health issues late in his coaching career, leading to his retirement in 2008.
Olson remained in Tucson and became a regular at the McKale Center during his retirement, drawing cheers every time he appeared on the video board.
Born on a farm outside Mayville, North Dakota, on Sept. 22, 1934, Olson led his high school team to the 1952 state championship and was a three-sport athlete at Augsburg College in Minnesota from 1953 to 1956.