Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson: The Iowa Years

By the time Lute Olson was hired on as Iowa's head coach in 1974, he was 40 years old and had been coaching for the last 15 years. Up until that point, he had compiled a career record of 308-98. But it wasn't until Iowa that he really got the attention and the notoriety that he deserved.

Iowa fans didn't know much about their new head coach when he first arrived in Iowa City in mid-1974. He wasn't given the respect most other coaches would have received because he had just come from Long Beach State, a team in trouble with the NCAA for pre-Olson infractions. They never saw Olson or his team on TV and they didn't see him in the NCAA tournament either. The consensus around the state was, "who is this guy?"

Olson's first season as the Hawkeyes' head coach was difficult. The team finished seventh in the Big Ten with a record of 10-16 overall; 7-11 in conference.

However, as Olson is prone to do, he had the team vastly improved by the following year. Iowa won 19 games (9-9 in the Big Ten) and finished a respectable fifth in a very tough conference featuring vintage Indiana (32-0 National Championship squad) and Michigan (National runners-up to Indiana) teams. In fact, that 1976 tournament was only the second time more than one team from the same conference could play in the Big Dance.

In 1977, Olson achieved his first 20-win season in Iowa City. His team's 12-6 conference finish was good enough for fourth that year. Yet bad things were on the horizon for Iowa a season later.

Olson's worst-ever team, conference-finish-wise, was his 1978 squad. The Hawkeyes wound up 12-15 overall but finished 5-13 in Big Ten play, good enough for eighth place. It was a disappointment for Olson and the fans but it would be very short lived.

Prior to the 1979 season, not much was expected from the Hawkeyes. They weren't thought to be a contender in the conference and many of the media experts picked the Hawkeyes to finish no better than middle of the pack. They were wrong.

Lute Olson is nothing else if he isn't a miracle worker when his teams are thought to be "down". The first time he got to prove that fact came in 1979 when he led Iowa to the Big Ten championship and an NCAA tournament appearance. The 20-8 finish (13-5, Big Ten) gave the program momentum going into the next year.

And what a year it would be.

Ronnie Lester remains one of Lute Olson's favorite players from throughout his career. He was also one of Olson's best players. In 1980, Lester helped lead defending Big Ten champion Iowa to the Final Four after knocking off a heavily favored Georgetown team.

Leading up to the tournament, Iowa had struggled a bit, finishing a distant fourth in the conference. Once again, not much was expected from Olson and the Hawkeyes.

Iowa was planted in the East Region of the tournament and proceded to knock off Virginia Commonwealth, N.C. State, Syracuse and then the Hoyas for a berth in the Final Four. An injury to Lester caused Iowa to lose the semifinal game to eventual champion Louisville and then to Purdue in the consolation game.

For what his team had done, however, Lute Olson was named the 1980 National Coach of the Year.

Olson wound up coaching at Iowa for three more years and won 20 or more games in each of his final five seasons, including five straight NCAA appearances. He was a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (1979, 1981) with a National Coach of the Year squeezed in between those honors. He finished his nine-year stint at Iowa with a 168-90 record (.651). His teams went to five NCAA tournaments (8-6 record) and finished second or better four times in the Big Ten.

Olson was also instrumental in helping to get the Hawkeyes a new arena - Carver Hawkeye Arena, that is. He left town after accepting the head coaching job at Arizona before it was finished but if it hadn't been for Lute Olson, Iowa might not have had a new arena for another decade.

Iowa was put on the map nationally by Lute Olson and it broke the school's tradition as a wrestling school only. Olson built a program at Iowa and it has remained competitive to this day.

But it is nothing like what he would do over the next 20 years at Arizona.

{Part IV examines Olson's first ten years at Arizona, including the recruitment of Sean Elliott and the 1988 and 1994 Final Fours}.


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