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Lute Olson, legendary coach who led Iowa basketball team to Final Four, dies at age 85

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Lute Olson, the silver-haired, gentlemanly coach who led the Iowa men's basketball team to its most recent Final Four appearance in 1980, died Thursday, Aug. 27, in hospice care in Tucson, Arizona.

Olson, 85, had been in failing health since he suffered a stroke in 2019.

The North Dakota native had one of the most unusual — and triumphant — career arcs in basketball coaching history. He started out in the 1950s coaching high school in a pair of small Minnesota towns, moved west to California and worked his way into the college ranks at Long Beach State. 

In 1974, Olson arrived at Iowa and quickly built a Big Ten Conference and national contender. He won a league title in 1979 and brought his 1980 team to the brink of an NCAA championship before falling to Louisville in the national semifinals. Star guard Ronnie Lester went down with a knee injury early in that contest, leaving generations of Hawkeye fans to wonder "what if?"

March 1980: Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Lute Olson signals from the sideline during the NCAA Men's Final Four in Indianapolis.

“The first thing I would say about Lute Olson is he’s a class individual. He always did things the right way, he always did things with class — representing himself and the university," Lester told the Register. "He recruited a certain type of player. I think that was a part of him, his whole persona. He changed the culture at Iowa, I think. He was the right coach at Iowa to get that program back to winning, because of the culture that he brought there.”

In nine seasons with the Hawkeyes, Olson went 168-90.

He then headed to the desert to construct a powerhouse program at Arizona. Olson's Wildcats reached four Final Fours and won a national championship in 1997. They won at least 20 games in a remarkable 20 consecutive seasons.

After 780 collegiate victories, Olson retired in 2008 due to health problems related to a stroke he suffered the previous year.

He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

'Even after a road game, he would take off and go recruiting'

Michael Payne came to Iowa to play for Olson in 1981 and appreciated the way his coach let him use his biggest strength — his agility — to the team's advantage.

"I'm very, very proud to have been coached by him and recruited by him," Payne said. "I really liked his coaching style. I liked the way he was team-oriented. He was definitely fundamentally oriented, which I loved. The players on the team almost seemed to be like brothers to each other, and I appreciated that."

Flowers and sports memorabilia surround the statue of legendary basketball coach Lute Olson on the north side of the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 28, 2020. Olson died Thursday evening, Aug. 27.

Ron Gonder was the radio voice of Olson's Hawkeye teams on WMT in Cedar Rapids. Gonder said he never saw a coach with a stronger work ethic, especially when it came to recruiting.

"He just would get in that small airplane that they would contract with at the Cedar Rapids airport and fly around in winter weather and see high school games," Gonder said. "Even after a road game, he would take off and go recruiting like that."

But Olson wasn't fond of having those potential recruits attend Hawkeye home games in their aging arena.

"He said many times, 'They ought to burn down the Fieldhouse,'" Gonder recalled with a laugh. 

Olson pushed for a new home for Iowa's basketball team, and Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened during his final season with the school.

Fourteen of his Hawkeye players were NBA Draft picks.

'He didn't let me go'

Steve Krafcisin initially resisted Olson's overtures. The Chicago native wasn't sure he wanted to play basketball in a Big Ten Conference that he saw as primarily interested in football. So he went to North Carolina, only to realize his mistake after one season.

Krafcisin called Olson and they arranged a meeting. Olson gave the player a sly smile and said, "You know you should have come to Iowa at the beginning."

Krafcisin got the message. He signed on with the Hawkeyes in 1977, occasionally butting heads with his new coach.

Midway through his junior season, Krafcisin found himself on Olson's bench, punished for not practicing with enough intensity. Finally, Krafcisin realized he was a victim of his own stubbornness. He won his starting job back, and averaged 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds over his final two seasons.

"I wish I could say to him, 'Thanks for not giving up on me,'" Krafcisin said of Olson. "He certainly could have. He kept on me and we had our little battles, and he would win. And then it would go away. I knew I had to buy in. I can't thank him enough that he didn't let me go."

That's why news of Olson's death hit Krafcisin so hard Thursday. He said he came to realize years later that his coach had been right all along.

"Everything that we went through, everything that my life has been since then has a great deal to do with him and the program," said Krafcisin, who stayed in Iowa and went into coaching.

Father figures

Olson was born Sept. 22, 1934, on a farm outside Mayville, North Dakota. When he was 5 years old, his father, Albert, died after suffering a stroke. Olson's oldest brother, Amos, returned from college to run the family farm, only to be killed in a tractor accident six months later. The family had to abandon the farm and move into town.

"Otherwise, I'd probably still be sitting on a tractor in North Dakota," Olson told Seth Davis in a 2013 interview. "That was a tough life."

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In the absence of a father, Olson said he turned to his coaches to serve as male role models.

"I learned qualities that I believed really helped me in coaching on the college level, because these kids are away from home. I tried to be a father figure to the players, just like coaches had been a father figure to me," Olson said in the 2013 interview.

'Who could ever aspire to the heights he reached?'

Olson attended Augsburg University in Minneapolis, starring in basketball and football and being named the school's top athlete as a senior. Then, he embarked on his coaching career — 13 years at the high school level, four at a junior college in California and 35 in Division I.

Olson's second stop was at Two Harbors, north of Duluth, where he lived next door to Dave MacDonald, a sixth-grader who became a longtime friend. MacDonald and his family would entertain Olson at their cabin on Stone Lake, with MacDonald at the wheel of the boat while the coach water-skiied.

MacDonald and Olson bonded over the electric football game that was then popular. Olson would call over to his house and summon him to play, getting down on the floor and eagerly trying to set up elaborate offensive formations before watching them devolve into a mosh of vibrating plastic figures.

MacDonald grew up to become the basketball coach at Two Harbors, and said he marveled every time he stepped on the court that Olson was one of his predecessors.

"Who could ever aspire to the heights he reached? To go from a high school and move up. All the sudden he's at a Big Ten school and then the phenomenal record at Arizona," MacDonald said.

For two years, MacDonald was the basketball coach at Riceville, Iowa, when Olson was with the Hawkeyes. He said Olson was always generous about inviting MacDonald down to watch practices and pick his brain about coaching.

"The best thing he ever did was set an example for every other coach, the class act that he was," MacDonald said.

'He pushed you beyond what you thought you were capable of'

Olson worked his way up to head coach at Long Beach City College in California for four seasons. There, he recruited Dave Frost and his younger brother, Dan, who became frequent visitors to the Olson home, swimming in the backyard pool.

After Dan's freshman year at LBCC, Olson took over as head coach at Long Beach State, replacing Jerry Tarkanian. But Tarkanian had left behind a program facing NCAA sanctions, so Olson bolted for Iowa.

Dan Frost followed him as part of Olson's first two Hawkeye teams.

"I loved that he would converse with you. He'd call you into his office and explain what your strengths and weaknesses were," Frost said. "He pushed you beyond what you thought you were capable of. But he also saw in you things that you didn't see in yourself. Those two qualities made you want to run through a wall for him, because he believed in you."

Members of the 1980 Iowa Final Four team reunited at former coach Lute Olson's home in Tucson, Arizona, in 2005.

Frost also saw the personal side of Olson, always feeling comfortable that he could drop by his house. He said he last spoke to his former coach a couple of months ago. Olson was lucid and they reminisced about their days at LBCC. Olson had once challenged Frost to hold an opposing team's best player below double-digits in scoring. His prize would be an ice cream sundae. Frost allowed 12 points.

"I'll buy you the sundae any day," Olson told Frost this summer.

In retirement, Olson came back to Iowa occasionally. His former players traveled to Iowa City for the reunions.

Payne said Olson was in good spirits at the most recent gathering, in 2016. He was surprised a year later when Olson phoned him out of the blue to inquire about Payne's family and to give him information about a charitable foundation Olson had started.

"We had a chance to catch up and talk. He was of good, sound mind at the time," Payne said. "It was unexpected, but definitely a nice memory to have."

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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