What Would Lute Do?

Coach Olson's autobiography won't become a classic, but it will delight UA hoops diehards

Lute Olson, for those who don't know, is the messiah of University of Arizona basketball, having led, since 1983, the Wildcats to 569 wins, nearly two dozen NCAA tournaments, four Final Fours and a national championship. He's also a 2002 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Of course, it's unlikely that the number of Tucsonans who haven't at least heard of Olson could fill a basketball roster. Tucson conversations abound, especially between November and March, with talk of Lute and his valiant charges. He's appeared in a slew of newspaper and TV ads and on numerous billboards, most recently the "Safe for the whole family!" campaign for Family Life Radio in which Olson, with his alabaster aureola of carefully sculpted hair, beams down at traffic like a guardian avatar.

It's not surprising that Family Life Radio would seek an endorsement from Olson. His image seems tailored for conservative, evangelical causes. Whether on the bench, at a press conference or in an ad for Sparkle Cleaners, Olson comes across as straight-laced, a devoted family man with a reputation unblemished by scandal.

Olson is also a man who keeps his private life well-screened. Aside from a few salient facts--he has several children; his first wife, Bobbi, died of ovarian cancer in 2001; he's since remarried--the public really doesn't know a lot about the man.

In his recently released autobiography, Lute! The Seasons of My Life, written with David Fisher, Olson grants an extended glimpse of the man behind the image. What we find is a highly focused individual whose life, as you might expect, revolves almost entirely around basketball.

To say that basketball is Olson's career is a serious understatement. It's an overriding passion that began when he was a young child.

"I don't know," he writes, "how old I was the first time I touched a basketball ... but once I picked it up, I never put it down again. I knew right away what I was supposed to do with it."

When he was 6, Olson's father and older brother died within months of each other, and he spent his youth throwing himself into work and basketball.

By high school, Olson had decided to become a coach, and he details his steady ascent from high school player to major college coach. He's been successful at virtually every stop along the way (with a state championship as a junior college coach and a Final Four appearance at Iowa), and his success seems due to both his intuitive grasp of the game and his prodigious capacity for work.

Conceding that he's a perfectionist who hates losing (he's still vexed over losses that occurred decades ago), Olson describes what it's like to build and maintain a top program. Writing that for every hour on the court, a winning coach devotes at least 20 hours to related activities, Olson details the competitive world of recruiting (an unidentified university president, sounding suspiciously like Oral Roberts, once beat out Olson for a recruit by telling the recruit's mother that he'd had a vision of the young man playing for him), the constant monitoring of athletes' academic progress and personal conduct, and the cultivating of community relations.

He chronicles his battles with the media, relationships with players and, with a seemingly photographic memory, many of the significant games of his career.

Olson isn't afraid to cast an occasional revealing light on himself. He writes of decrying loudly, over a family dinner, a sportswriter's suggestion that he's overly controlling--while meticulously arranging his silverware. And, in the book's most amusing moment, he tells of colliding with an assistant coach during practice while demonstrating a play, and the ensuing heated argument between them, witnessed by their bemused players, over whether it was a foul or a charge.

From the beginning of his marriage to Bobbi, family fused with basketball. Children, grandchildren and especially his wife, drawn into the vortex of Olson's fervor, were always involved in the sport.

"Bobbi never felt competitive or threatened by my love for basketball," he writes. "Instead, she understood it and accepted it."

Olson admits he has trouble revealing his feelings, but his reserve begins to melt when he recalls his wife's illness and death. He writes movingly about his despair as her illness worsened, holding her as she died, and the emptiness he experienced as he tried to move on alone.

This is a sincere book, but it's not destined to become a sports classic. Its main appeal will be to Wildcat fans who will likely overlook Olson's sometimes prosaic storytelling in exchange for the wealth of insider tidbits regarding their beloved hoops dynasty.

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