A silver boon: Lute Olson gave Arizona a championship, Tucson an identity

Lute Olson, shown here after winning the National Championship at UA in 1997, went to 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments in 24 years. He passed away Thursday at the age of 85.

By Amna Subhan/Cronkite News

TUCSON – To understand Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson is to appreciate his relationship with former player Josh Pastner.

While at the University of Arizona, Pastner didn’t play much. If it was a “Pastner game,” that meant he entered during a blowout. During one that found the Wildcats down 25, Pastner waited for his coach to put him in. He never did. Olson later apologized for keeping him on the bench but he wanted Pastner to be able to tell his kids he went undefeated with the Wildcats.

Pastner finished his collegiate career 42-0.

“He was an incredible incredible basketball coach, but times that by 10 on the type of person that he was,” said Pastner, now Georgia Tech’s basketball coach.

Olson, who coached Arizona to its only basketball national championship, died Thursday. He was 85.

After a 4-24 season and 1-17 record in the Pac-10, Arizona gave Olson the Wildcats coaching reins. He left the program with 23 winning seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances in 24 tries.

Pastner played under Olson during the ‘97 national championship run.

Olson coached noteworthy NBA players in his career including Steve Kerr, Richard Jefferson, Jason Terry, and, of course, Sean Elliott.

Legendary former UA Basketball coach Lute Olson died Thursday at the age of 85.

Greg Byrne, former Arizona athletic director, said it all started with Elliott. Olson found Tucson native Elliott and had the foresight to subsequently recruit players of that echelon, Byrne said.

Byrne took over the athletic department in 2010 shortly after Olson left Arizona. Now Byrne runs the University of Alabama’s athletics.

He said Olson tirelessly built the program while battling through challenges to create continuing success.

“He was an icon in Tucson,” Byrne said. One that expanded past basketball sidelines, with a genuine character that players and non-players alike admired.

Both Pastner and Byrne noted Olson’s charismatic presence.

“When he walked into a room it was like a movie star,” Pastner said. “People were in awe of, they were starstruck. They just loved being around him.”

He may not have been an actual movie star, but the former Wildcats coach certainly dabbled in television commercials. Olson and rival Arizona State coach Bill Frieder starred in a series of ads for Bank One during their coaching tenure.

The commercials were light-hearted and played off the personalities of the two coaches. It depicted Olson as leveled and accomplished while Frieder was fun-loving and out-there.

They cast a lasting impact on the two Arizona coaches. The two spoke a couple of weeks ago about basketball and its current state, but Olson also wanted to talk about the commercials. Frieder said the fact that Olson brought those up with his health declining showed the importance to the two of them.

“The commercials we did were legendary,” Frieder said. “We had so much fun doing them, but more importantly than that, it brought the schools together. It showed the schools you can compete hard on the court, but you can be civil together away from that, away from basketball.”

Lute Olson versus Bill Frieder commercials

Frieder and Olson’s relationship bloomed into a lifelong family friendship. Frieder said doing the commercials brought the two families closer together.

There was nothing more important to Olson than family, Pastner said. When his wife Bobbi died of ovarian cancer in 2001, the coach raised efforts for awareness and funds to fight the usually terminal disease.

“That’s one of his greatest contributions to society,” Pastner said. “It’s no longer a death sentence for a female who gets ovarian cancer. Part of that was based on coach Olson’s work to raise awareness.”

Frieder described his friend in one word: consistent. Consistent in his coaching which included 20 straight seasons of over 20 or more wins. Consistent in his temperament which former players praised. Consistent as father and a husband to his wife and five children that he leaves behind.

Pastner said Olson was universally loved. He treated everyone the right way from players to officials. That’s what he tries to emulate at Georgia Tech.

“He exemplified that city, the university and also the entire state,” Pastner said.

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