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Leistikow: Lute Olson's legacy goes well beyond a magical 1980 Final Four run


Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

Over 34 remarkable years, Robert Luther “Lute” Olson won 73.1% of his games as a Division I basketball coach. He accumulated 776 victories, 23 NCAA Tournament appearances in a row (and 28 overall), five Final Fours and the 1997 national championship.

Yet several former players who were part of the Iowa program’s unlikely 1980 Final Four run point to a different Olson coaching statistic that is among his most remarkable.

Zero swear words. At least that anyone's sure about. 

That was the tally according to Mike “Tree” Henry and Bobby Hansen, although Steve Waite and Vince Brookins may have heard Olson's one debatable slip of the tongue.

But their message was unified: That Olson brought a calming influence, a classy decorum and a calculated style on his way to becoming one of the great college coaches of all-time. Not to mention that perfectly-parted gray hair and a charisma that captivated the state of Iowa.

“A lot of coaches were yelling and screaming, and he never did any of that,” Henry says. “He never cursed … and he was proud of that. He just told you what he wanted you to do, and he commanded respect.”

A legendary coach. A legendary man. And a legendary life — which has now come to an end. Olson died Thursday night under hospice care in Arizona at the age of 85.

GUEST COLUMN: Remembering the 1980 Iowa basketball Final Four team

As former Hawkeyes shared their Lute stories this week, they spoke about a man who was much more than a coach. His players became family members for life.

Hansen recalls going over to the Olson house in Iowa City on Sunday mornings, where Bobbi — Lute’s wife of 47 years before she died Jan. 1, 2001, after battling ovarian cancer — would whip up apple pancakes with cinnamon syrup for the team. Players would relish testing their billiards skills against the coach at his basement pool table.

“The way he treated people, the way he respected people,” says Ronnie Lester, who was the most dynamic player during Olson's nine seasons at Iowa that launched his Hall of Fame career. “That’s what I remember most about coach Olson.”

About that one (maybe) swear word? Waite says it was directed at he and Brookins during halftime of one Hawkeye game. The perceptive coach wanted to see more hustle.

“It wasn’t a word that would ever get edited out of anything these days,” Waite says. “We joked we were probably the only ones in the history of Lute’s career that drew a bad word out of his mouth.”

At Iowa, Olson directed the Hawkeyes to 167 wins and five straight NCAA Tournaments. He remains the most recent coach to lead Iowa to a Big Ten regular-season title (1979) and Final Four (1980).

“The thing I appreciate about Lute more than anything?” Waite says. “He was a winner, and he could get it done by being a gentleman, a good guy.”

At Arizona, Olson would win 11 Pacific-10 championships. No coach, not even the iconic John Wooden, has won more Pac-10/12 conference games than Olson's 327.

“There’s no question that he is one of the top 10 all-time coaches,” says Jim Rosborough, a former Hawkeye player who was instrumental on Olson’s staff on Iowa and eventually joined him in Tucson. “You can take Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, whoever you want to throw in there. And I would say he’s in there. To do what he did at Iowa and Arizona … people don’t want to hear this, but those aren’t exactly garden spots for recruiting."

Olson's formula worked, perhaps most impressively in 1980.

With hopes of digging out of the failed, four-year Dick Schultz era, Iowa scooped up Olson from Long Beach State in 1974, at a salary of $35,000 a year. His plan to build winning rosters: Find good players who liked each other.

“He never had jerks on the team. That made a difference,” Henry says. “Even in his heyday, he never changed. You had to be a good person to play for him.”

Iowa went from 8-16 in Schultz’s final year to 19-10 in Olson’s second, in 1975-76.

Then came Ronnie.

While recruiting another player, Iowa assistant Tony McAndrews discovered Lester. And Olson got increasingly excited about luring Lester from Dunbar High School in Chicago. Lester became Olson’s No. 1 recruiting target, then became a Hawkeye.

Lester splashed from the start. He was a three-time team MVP, and the No. 12 he wore would be retired at Iowa. Rosborough, Iowa's lead recruiter in Illinois, channeled Lester's success into a Chicago pipeline. Henry, Kenny Arnold, Kevin Boyle and Steve Krafcisin followed Lester’s path from Chicago to Iowa City and helped hoist the Hawkeyes to the top of the Big Ten. They shared the league title in 1979 with eventual NCAA champ Michigan State (led by Magic Johnson) and Purdue, but painfully lost to Toledo 74-72 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We had led most of the game,” Lester says. “That’s probably the most disappointing game I played in at Iowa. I think that was the impetus to make the run we made our senior year.”

Expectations soared in 1979-80, and the Hawkeyes roared to a 7-0 start before Lester tore cartilage in his right knee at Dayton and missed 2½ months. Rookie Mark Gannon tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Hansen broke his left hand, but kept playing. Arnold broke the thumb in his right (shooting) hand, but pressed forward. Krafcisin was constantly banged-up. To cruelly top it off, McAndrews was critically injured but survived a plane crash while returning from a recruiting trip. He didn’t coach the rest of the season. (Of note: Kirk Speraw, a current assistant on Fran McCaffery’s Iowa staff, was his emergency replacement.)

How on earth did the “Fabulous Few” (as they were dubbed) manage a hobbled charge to the Final Four?

“Lute just kept us together,” Hansen says. “That’s where great coaching comes in.”

One of Olson’s strengths was an ability to stay even-keeled through adversity.

But he needed Lester, too, and the senior guard's return in Iowa’s final game of the regular season gave Iowa a lift. The Hawkeyes edged Illinois 75-71 and squeaked into the 48-team NCAA Tournament with a 19-10 record. Their draw was brutal. After cruising past 12th-seed Virginia Commonwealth, they had to face fourth-seeded North Carolina State in essentially a road game, at Greensboro, N.C.

Brookins began what would become a three-game tear with 17 points on 7-for-7 shooting in a 77-64 win, and Iowa earned a trip to Philadelphia — and a date against top-seeded Syracuse — in the Sweet 16.

“It kept building,” Waite says. “And each time you win a game, it was just, ‘We can do this.’”

With Olson, you couldn’t count Iowa out.

Rosborough describes practices that were meticulously organized, to the minute. If something went awry, Olson didn’t wait until tomorrow to fix it.

“He was a great coach, but he was probably an even better practice coach,” Rosborough said. “Every single thing that you could see in a game, we covered.”

So when the upstart Hawkeyes faced Syracuse, they were ready. Behind another 21 points from Brookins and 18 from Boyle, Iowa emerged an 88-77 upset winner.

“In the final eight or 10 minutes,” Olson would say after the game, “there was not a whole lot that we did wrong.”

Then against Georgetown, Iowa trailed by 14 points early in the second half.

Hansen provided a spark. Brookins was hot again, scoring 22 points. Lester, playing at 75%, stepped up with nine assists. And then, with the score tied 78-all and 14 seconds left, an unlikely hero sent Iowa to the Final Four.

“It definitely wasn’t, ‘Get the ball to Steve Waite and see what he can do with it,'" Waite chuckles. "Lute would tell you that."

But, Henry contends, Olson had coached Waite to be ready for that moment. The big man from Iowa City West took a pass from Boyle and powered to the hoop — a move teammates say they'd never seen from him before — to score with 5 seconds left and draw a foul. He made the ensuing free throw, and after a meaningless Georgetown bucket, Iowa emerged with a historic, 81-80 win.

“Everything clicked in the second half,” Hansen says. “It kind of worked out like Lute coached it.”

In the Final Four, Lester re-injured his knee and didn’t return after scoring 10 of Iowa’s first 12 points against Louisville. The Hawkeyes lost to the eventual national champs, 80-72.

“Had Ronnie not gotten hurt, Iowa could have had a national championship,” Hansen says. “We were really playing well, and our mindset was, ‘There’s no way we’re going to lose.’ That’s the way Lute coached. He kept you calm.”

Olson’s celebrity grew, and so did his legacy.

The Hawkeyes were just getting started after reaching the Final Four. They finished second in the Big Ten in each of the next three years.

The emergence of the statewide Hawkeye Television Network increased Olson’s exposure. Games on Thursday and Saturday nights became must-watch TV, with Olson playing a starring role inside Iowa living rooms.

Beyond that, Olson was instrumental in the concept and fundraising for what would become Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“People call it, ‘The House That Lute Built,’ and there’s a lot of truth to that,” said Rich Wretman, who was a fundraiser for the university at the time and developed a lifelong friendship with Olson. “We were traveling all over the state.

“He’d walk into a campaign event, and you could hear the conversation stop. Everybody just flocked to him. He was approachable. He was warm and caring. He was one of us.”

Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened in January 1983, but Olson would only coach there for a few months. After Iowa lost to Villanova 55-54 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Hansen, an outgoing senior, was talking with then-Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West about  future opportunities. He then saw Lute and Bobbi Olson walking with a man in an expensive suit.

“Who’s that?” Hansen asked West.

The Lakers GM told him it was somebody from the University of Arizona.

Hansen knew right away: "He's gone."

Indeed, Olson was leaving Iowa.

Departing a top Big Ten team to take over one that just finished 1-17 in the Pac-10 seemed curious.

But, as always, Olson's decision was calculated. Arizona was a desert basketball hotbed waiting to erupt and was soon flooded with star players attracted to Olson’s persona and coaching style. His first team in Tucson went 11-17. After that, Olson made 23 straight NCAA Tournaments. His 1988 team won 35 games and featured the likes of Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert, Jud Buechler and Steve Kerr. His 1997 team, led by Miles Simon and Mike Bibby, became the first to beat three No. 1 seeds in the same NCAA Tournament.

Olson's Wildcats were an annual juggernaut.

Lester, whose keen basketball eye helped him become a Lakers assistant GM, admires how Olson adjusted his coaching style as his career progressed.

“He had more talent (at Arizona), and he was able to let those guys play more freely, run up and down, and use their talent and abilities,” Lester says. “I saw that change in him. And I think that’s what the great coaches do. They take what they have. And they make the most of it.”

Hansen will never forget how happy Olson was at a get-together in Scottsdale, Arizona, shortly after that 1997 national title.

Likewise, Olson never forgot his Hawkeye family.

In 2005, Arnold’s long-running health struggles were continuing (he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1985). Olson paid for two plane tickets (one for Arnold, one for lifelong friend Henry) to come to Arizona’s cancer center in search of answers. There, doctors identified bad medication that Arnold was getting; Arnold lived another 14 years before dying in 2019.

“(Olson) wouldn’t want credit for it,” Henry says. “But he did a lot to take care of Kenny. He made sure Kenny got everything he needed over the course of his long fight.”

Those are the stories that capture the essence of Lute Olson, an equal master of basketball and human connection.

That combination is why he remains beloved in our state, even though he left so abruptly 37 years ago.

The tight-knit, unbreakable 1980 Hawkeyes will forever be remembered. And so will the man who led them.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.