Ex-Hawkeye coach Lute Olson made big impact on basketball media

Jon Darsee
Special to the Register
Former Iowa basketball coach Lute Olson is pictured in 2014.

When former Iowa basketball coach Lute Olson returns to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Thursday's game against Iowa State, the press will gather around him.

Even at 82, Olson has a commanding presence that turns heads everywhere he goes. While the cadence of his thoughtful responses have slowed with age, his aura and charisma are as powerful as ever, rivaled by few people I’ve ever met.

Yet Lute’s media legacy extends far beyond his coaching or interviews. When you consider the number of his former players who became broadcasters, he is in a class of his own.

Three of my Hawkeye teammates from the 1981-82 season made a name for themselves in broadcasting. Kevin Boyle is the long-time Northern Iowa radio analyst, Bobby Hanson has a similar role for Hawkeyes radio, and Steve Carfino became the television face of professional basketball in Australia following his long playing career there. A fourth teammate, Mark Gannon, walked away from a career behind the microphone in the 1990s.

Members of Iowa's 1980 Final Four team were honored at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2005. In front, from left, Ronnie Lester, Jon Darsee and Kenny Arnold and in back, from left, Mike Heller, Steve Waite and Vince Brookins.

It gets even more impressive with you consider Coach O’s University of Arizona players. Five of them became successful in broadcasting. Matt Muehlebach is a TV analyst for the Pac-12 Network, former NBA All-Star Sean Elliot is the TV analyst for the San Antonio Spurs, Tom Tolbert worked for ESPN, NBC and ABC and today is a talk radio fixture in the Bay Area. Miles Simon does ESPN college basketball games, while Steve Kerr was roundly considered the best NBA TV commentator in the business before he took the Golden State Warriors head coaching job.

Nine former players in broadcasting must be some sort of record. Could the fact that eight of them played on a Final Four team be a factor?

I randomly Googled other high-profile coaches overlapping Lute’s Hall of Fame career — guys like Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski. As far as I can tell, only Coach K comes remotely close, producing four broadcasters.

It is clear that Coach Olson built teams around kids who would get along and who could communicate well. But as Tolbert told me, “If that was the only factor, we would have had broadcasters from every Arizona team.” Tolbert said a factor might be that Coach O recruited kids capable of thinking on their feet. “Not everyone was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school like Sean Elliot,” he said. “Steve Kerr and I were not highly recruited but we could improvise when a play broke down and that’s a useful skill in broadcasting.”

I asked Coach O’s wife Kelly about the phenomenon and she pointed out that the success of Lute’s players after basketball never surprises her. “He sought to teach you all much more than basketball,” she said. “He had you at one of the most impressionable times in your life.” She is right. Coach’s influence off the court shaped our lives; how he conducted himself and communicated, how he handled the press when tough questions arose, and how he improvised had a profound effect. I remember feeling proud and in awe of how he ran press conferences. At Iowa, we were also blessed to have been influenced by two exceptionally kind and fun loving broadcasters, legends in their own right, Jim Zabel and Bob Brooks. I suspect both of them will be in Coach’s thoughts tonight.

I can’t point to one reason why Lute Olson has so many more players in broadcasting than other coaching greats, but I’ve met these Arizona guys multiple times and two things stand out to me: Lute consistently brought great people together and all of us feel pretty special to have played for him. As coach often said, if you give good people a chance, they will do great things. One can’t fully consider Coach’s career without connecting it to the remarkable impact of his players in the media, an influence with no chance of waning anytime soon.


Jon Darsee

Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. Today, he is an executive vice president of health policy and payer relations for iRhythm Technologies, Inc., a privately held digital healthcare solutions company that works in cardiac arrhythmia information. He lives in Austin, Texas. Jon has previously written about experiences with his fatherand his fondness for Des Moines' art scene. 


  • Iowa State at Iowa
  • Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
  • 7 p.m., ESPN2