Arizona coaching legend Lute Olson dies at 85

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Jack Baer
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LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 19: Former Arizona Wildcats Head Coach Lute Olson looks on during the nation anthem during an NCAA basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans on January 19, 2017, at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lute Olson built a power program at Arizona. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lute Olson, the all-time winningest coach in Arizona men’s basketball history, died on Thursday, the school announced. He was 85.

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Olson had been previously reported to be in poor health earlier this week. He had also been hospitalized in Feb. 2019 after suffering a stroke.

With his death came tribute after tribute from both members and rivals of the program he essentially built from scratch.

Lute Olson is Arizona basketball

Olson began his coaching career in the high school ranks, eventually reaching the college level at Long Beach City College in 1969. He went onto coaching at Long Beach State University and Iowa before landing at Arizona.

While Arizona is known as a traditional power in the Pac-12 today, that was not the case when Olson arrived. The man took a massive gamble with his move West, going from a Hawkeyes program with five straight NCAA Tournament appearances to Arizona, which had three appearances in its entire history. In the season before his arrival, Arizona had won just four games. The terms of his first agreement to coach the team: one year, $64,000.

Olson built a perennial NCAA tournament contender in Tucson from the ground up. Arizona would reach the tournament 23 times straight under the North Dakota native, winning the school’s first championship in 1997.

Olson retired in 2008 after his first stroke, calling it a career with that 1997 title, four Final Fours, 11 Pac-10 regular season titles and a 587-190 record with the Wildcats. He also took Iowa to the Final Four in 1980. His 781 career wins ranks 14th all-time among Division I men’s basketball coaches.

Arizona players remember Lute Olson

Among the players Olson coached at Arizona were Steve Kerr, Jason Terry, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. All of them and more posted tributes to their departed coach after news broke of his death:

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