Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson: Arizona, 1984-93

Lute Olson left Iowa's program in great shape, leading the Hawkeyes to five straight NCAA tournament appearances in his final five years as their head coach. When he accepted the job at Arizona prior to the 1983-84 season, he inherited a program in disarray, with the Wildcats having gone 4-24 the year before Olson arrived. Things would change and in a hurry.

Lute Olson came into Arizona having inherited a team that had won a mere four games the previous season. Arizona basketball was a joke in the Pac-10 and nationally. How was he to deal with the problem? There couldn't have been any expectations so he was in a win-win situation. Win and you're a genius, lose...who cares?

Olson's lifelong penchant for hard work wouldn't allow him to accept mediocrity or put up with the apathetic state of the program. Players from Olson's first Arizona team said that they worked harder on the first day of practice than they had the entire year prior under Ben Lindsey. Olson let them know immediately that he was all business.

One of Olson's recruits in his first year was Steve Kerr, a player that would go on to a brilliant career, both in college and in the NBA. Kerr was the first of Olson's hidden gem recruits but there would be many more.

The 1984 team improved from a four-win team to a team that finished 11-17, and 8-10 in conference play (up from a dismal 1-17 showing in '83). After the season, Olson landed his first McDonald's All-American in guard Craig McMillan. Things were on the rise in Tucson.

The next two years saw Olson lead Arizona to consecutive 20-win seasons, two NCAA tournament appearances and the 1986 Pac-10 championship. He was named the conference Coach of the Year because his team won the league title. Unfortunately, both the 1985 and '86 teams lost in the first round of the NCAA's.

Perhaps the biggest moment in Arizona basketball history came about when Olson signed local high school sensation Sean Elliott to his recruiting class of 1985. If Olson was the architect in building Arizona's program from scratch, Elliott was no worse than the foreman.

With Elliott as a sophomore in 1987, the Cats went 18-12 overall and came in second in the Pac-10 before going out in the first round for the third straight postseason. Yet it was during that season that some national basketball experts took notice of what was to come from Olson's Arizona team.

Kerr had missed the entire '87 campaign due to a torn ACL suffered in the World Championships that Olson led to the Gold Medal in Spain in 1986. But it was because of that injury that Arizona (and Kerr) was able to have the season of a lifetime in 1988.

Going into that year, the Wildcats were actually ranked in the preseason polls. The 17th-ranked Wildcats traveled north to Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout tournament that featured No. 11 Michigan and No. 3 Syracuse. Arizona destroyed both of them and came home with Olson's first of six preseason tournament championships.

On December 21st Arizona was ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history. The team began the year 12-0, won the Pac-10 by a mile with a 17-1 record (only five years removed from 1-17 in league play) and advanced to Arizona's first Final Four in Kansas City closed out the season with final record of 35-3.

Along the way, Olson went back to Iowa for a game against his former team and beat the 2nd-ranked Hawkeyes in the arena he helped build. Oddly enough, Arizona defeated Iowa once again in the Sweet 16 on its way to the Final Four.

Elliott and Kerr were named to the All-American team after the season ended and the Cats won a big offseason battle when Elliott announced that he would return for his senior year in 1989.

As a senior, Elliott led Arizona to another 17-1 conference finish and second consecutive Pac-10 championship while also helping the team wind up with a 29-4 record before being upset by UNLV in the Sweet 16. But 1989 will be remembered much more for what Elliott did individually than for anything else.

On February 18th, Elliott scored 35 points against UCLA to become the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer, passing the great Lew Alcindor from the Bruins' glory days. Later that year he would win his second straight Pac-10 Player of the Year award, his second straight Pac-10 tournament MVP honor and was named as a consensus All-American for the second year in a row as well. To top it off, Sean Elliott won the 1989 John R. Wooden National Player of the Year award. He was drafted third overall by the San Antonio Spurs in June's NBA draft.

The next four years saw Olson's teams win 25, 28, 24 and 24 games, respectively. Arizona captured three more Pac-10 titles - giving Olson six conference championships in his first ten years as head coach at UA.

Problem was that his teams had a tendency to flame out early in the tournament. In his first ten years, Olson's teams were only 9-9 in NCAA tournament play with five first round exits. It was after his tenth year (1993), that Olson decided to use a more guard-oriented lineup. He wanted speed and quickness instead of size and strength. It would work out better than even he imagined.

So the first ten years of the Lute Olson era at Arizona came to a close with the coach owning a 238-80 record. That brought his 34-year coaching total record to 714 wins, 268 losses. He had now achieved great success at three high schools, in the junior college ranks and now at three Division I programs. A program builder if there ever was one.

But it has been the last nine years at Arizona that put him over the top and into the Hall of Fame. In fact, the past nine years at Arizona have made Olson into one of basketball's best coaches of all-time.

{Part five gets into the Olson Arizona years from 1994-present. The amount of success has been staggering and only figures to get better in the next couple of years as well.}

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