I was a red head kid with a girls name born in California, raised in Pennsylvania and always rooted in Arizona with two parents who were from Phoenix. Yet the most defining characteristic of my childhood was my undying love for the University of Arizona basketball team.
Introduced to the Wildcats basketball family by an older brother who had been born in Phoenix and who had also loved UofA, I was hooked at an early age. When my family would take our annual pilgrimage to Arizona every spring for our annual dose of desert sunshine and spring training, I would insist as much as any kid could that we take the extra drive to Tucson so I could just SEE McKale Center.
Wearing a Chris Mills jersey or any number of Arizona hats on a daily basis got me more than a few puzzled looks in the heart of Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania but at that point Coach Olson's progress in establishing Arizona as a college basketball powerhouse was such that everyone in my rural corner of the world at least KNEW of Arizona in the early 90's.
The world was much larger then. Social media and constant connectivity had not yet shrunk the world as we knew it and for the University of Arizona to make its mark and for Tucson, AZ to make its mark all the way across the country was like an explorer discovering new lands across an ocean. But by the time Lute had Arizona firing on all cylinders, there wasn't a part of the country that did not know what he was building.
In 1997, I was in high school and my parents planned a family camping trip in southeastern Arizona for spring break. It also happened to be during Arizona's miraculous national championship run which saw them vanquish three number one seeds. On the night of the national championship game, I sat alone in the cab of my parents truck listening to the great Brian Jeffries describe every twist and turn of Olson's battle versus Rick Pitino. When the final buzzer sounded and Arizona had finally won a national championship to validate everything Coach Olson had built and everything Tucson represented, I blasted the horn on the truck for what felt like 5 minutes straight in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere and it was glorious.
I immediately ordered the VHS of the championship run and when it arrived, watched it repeatedly over the next few months.
This love of Arizona basketball would take me to the University of Arizona as student the next year. Like so many of the friends that I would make on campus, we were there because of Lute. Without Lute and his greatness, I may have never attended the UofA, met lifelong friends who spoke at my wedding and I spoke at theirs, lived in Tucson for 15 years where I met my wife and experienced so many joys personally and professionally. I was just one kid but Coach Olson indirectly had a massive influence on my life. And if you were to count up how many high school kids across the country made the same decision as I, it would look like sand on a beach.
That's a legacy.
I covered Arizona basketball from 1999-2013 first as a student media member and then the last ten years as a sports talk show host in Tucson. During this time, I had the extreme pleasure of developing a relationship with Coach Olson. He was always personable, gracious and a few times willing to regal me with war stories from his college basketball battles.
One year, I was recording a television PSA for a charity event that we were both involved in and with plenty of time between takes, he told me one of the most satisfying but PG stories about Coach K and Duke that validated all of my Duke antipathy.
Another year during another round of TV PSA's for yet another charity event Coach O and I were involved in required me to meet Coach Olson and Steve Kerr at a resort in Tucson. I sat in the room for about 20 minutes while they both laughed and shared stories from the "glory days" of Arizona basketball. I wish I had recorded every word said but the memory of just being in that room is enough for me.
Later, when a private issue spilled into public between Coach Olson and his second wife Christine, Lute called me on my cell phone asking if he could come on my radio show to set the record straight. Of course, anytime, was my response. By the afternoon, someone had convinced Coach that continuing the conversation in public was not in his best interest and I never got the scoop. But the fact that Coach Olson had called me personally to communicate his message was the most validating experience you could have as a young broadcaster.
Over the years, I would continue to run into Coach Olson at Arizona football games and charity events and he would always want to talk sports and it never stopped being a thrill for me.
We know all about the players Lute Olson developed into NBA stars and millionaires. We know about the Hall of Fame plaque, the 781 career wins, five Final Fours, two National Championship appearances and one National Championship.
You can look that part of his legacy up on wikipedia or visit his statue outside of McKale Center.
But Coach Olson was so much more than his professional accomplishments. He built an identity for a sleepy southwest town that became a source of pride for everyone in Tucson and in the state of Arizona. He built relationships. And memories. And bonds. He created something that will be resonate for generation after generation.
He built a community. I should know, I'm part of it and my life likely wouldn't be the same without Robert Luther "Lute" Olson and for that I'll forever be grateful.
Rest in peace, Coach Olson, you will be missed but never forgotten.