Ace Thakore & AK Murthy
Lute Olson was in the San Diego area spending time in Coronado Island, a place where he has so often absconded from the desert heat for a summertime (or wintertime) jaunt. But Coach Olson wasn’t too busy to grant us a few moments of his time so that we could talk about life, charity, and of course, the Wildcats.
Life after coaching has afforded Olson with a much more open schedule, yet he still keeps busy as ever. Olson is part of numerous charitable events and organizations, including the locally famous Lute Olson Golf Tournament. The event’s 24th year was another success, as many fans and former athletes teed off with Olson himself at the Ventana Canyon Golf Club and raised money for the University of Arizona Arthritis Center a few weeks ago.
“It worked out really well this year,” Olson told PGU. “We actually raised over forty thousand dollars, which was great. A lot of the old players participated, that was a big draw. We had Khalid Reeves, Michael Dickerson, Sean Rooks, Joe McLean and a couple more guys there.”
Olson has been very actively promoting some great causes, and is working with the University of Arizona Cancer Center as an ambassador and consultant. He is also still a major part of the Bobbi Olson Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research.
“The fund is doing great,” Olson said. “Just three weeks ago Channing Frye had a golf tournament in Honolulu so we went over there and participated in that, which contributed to the Bobbi Olson Fund. And we’re also having a coaches night in the fall with U of A sports coaches that will raise money for the fund as well.”
Though Olson has fewer basketball related items on the agenda these days, he’s still a diehard Wildcat fan and has kept a close eye on the hardwood while deliberately not letting his shadow cast over it.
“I think the team will be really good again this year,” Olson said of the 2011-12 edition of the Wildcats. “The class Sean Miller has coming in is very talented.”
“They have the big kid from San Diego, Angelo Chol,” Olson said. “When you think of a guy his size at 6’9″ or 6’10” you think of an inside guy but he’s a shooter and a good passer so he’ll be a guy that will spend a lot of time in the high post and popping out on drives.”
“Josiah Turner, the guard from Sacramento, I haven’t seen him personally but I understand that he’s a very good one,” Olson explained, “and you also have Nick Johnson from Phoenix in the backcourt with him, who I’ve seen because he was at our camps. Nick has tremendous athletic ability, but he’s also a really good all around player. They’re probably going to use him as dual type guard, he’s got a great handle and passing ability.”
“And then you have Sidiki Johnson, the kid from Oak Hill back east. He’s an inside type guy, so he’ll fit really well with Chol,” Olson told PGU.
“I think it really looks good for the Cats this year,” Olson added, “but the only thing is the schedule. The schedule looks really tough, they play in New York again, down in Florida, in Seattle, and they get North Carolina State in McKale. It’s a tough schedule so I think people are going to have to be patient. Playing on the road with a number of freshmen isn’t easy.”
Olson also gave his thoughts on the returning players, and the growth he expects to see.
“I think Kyle Fogg has continued to get better every year, and I think he will do that again this year,” Olson told PGU. “I was in the Richard Jefferson Center the other day and Kyle was in there working on his strength and quickness. He’s always been a hard worker, and I think we’ll see him step into the leadership role in his senior year.”
“I thought Kyryl Natyazhko made really good progress last year, particularly the last third of the season he did a really nice job,” Olson said of the rising junior. “He’s a really big guy, he could play at 290 lbs and even if he’s not the quickest guy he still has the size to play. I think he’ll have a good year.”
“I liked Jordin Mayes from the start,” Olson said. “During the time I was at Arizona, the biggest improvement in players was between their freshman and sophomore years because the freshmen come in and they really don’t know what it’s going to be like. But they go into their sophomore year already working on the things they learned last year and hit the ground running. I would look for Jordin Mayes to be a key factor next year.”
Olson also had high praise for one of the basketball team’s most recent alumni.
“I think Derrick Williams is going to be a really good player in the league,” Olson said. “His biggest adjustment is going to be on the defensive end, but I think he has the foot speed and lateral quickness to defend well on the perimeter, and that’s going to be a key for him and how much he’ll be able to contribute his first year as a pro.”
Obviously Olson is still a keen observer of Arizona basketball, but he hasn’t lost touch with some of the more senior members of the Wildcat family either.
“I keep in touch with Channing, Steve Kerr, I just got a long text from Andre Iguodala the other day, Damon Stoudemire, Jud Buechler, all the guys do a good job of keeping in touch with everything that’s going on,” Olson said.
“I was texting with Jason Terry all through the NBA playoffs and I had the opportunity to watch the Mavericks play,” Olson told PGU. “I really liked the group of guys because they played like a team, they really moved the ball well and got it to the open man. I was disappointed in the lockout because it disrupts all the contract discussion, and Jason is heading into what is probably the last contract of that size for him, so I’m hoping the league works that out.”
“There are specific reasons that the Pac-10 can’t put him in the hall of honors or retire his jersey, but that’s a very political part of it,” Olson said. “He’s always been a great representative of the program. He of course got a championship ring in college, but he’s always conducted himself so well throughout his entire career.”
PGU couldn’t have a conversation with the godfather of Arizona basketball without reminiscing about our favorite moments over the years, and Olson was happy to tell us which moments were most special to him.
“The championship was obviously great for us and the program,” Olson said, “and that first Final Four team with Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott was big in so many ways. The 2001 team and the way they handled themselves with all the things that were going on with Bobbi was special too. There were so many special moments. It was a really good run with a lot of great players and fun people to be around. I think those years really established Arizona as a top 10 program.”
The Silver Fox has seemingly always had a sagely knowledge of college basketball — even when his coiffure was less monochromatic. And not just for the X’s and O’s of the game either, Olson truly understood the convoluted flowchart that is the ecosystem of collegiate athletics. He offered a few retrospective thoughts on the ways the recruiting game has evolved since his tenure.
“I’d say especially over the last 10 years I was at Arizona, the thing that changed the most was with the summer AAU leagues,” Olson said. “There are a lot of people that want to get their hand in the mix, some of them good people and some of them not good people. When I first started coaching you dealt with the parents and the high school coach, now you see a lot more AAU coaches and other people in the mix. There’s some really good people in that group but the thing that’s really scary about it is that most of them don’t really have anyone to answer to.”
In light of recent reports linking Olson’s name to the deceased David Salinas, a Houston area AAU supporter whose financial dealings with college coaches are being investigated, we wanted to give Olson the opportunity to make a comment on the matter.
“He was in it for the right reasons, his death was quite a shock” Olson said, “and there are a lot of rumors flying around, new rumors everyday so I don’t really pay attention to that. David was one of the good guys in terms of handling kids and holding them accountable for their academics and how they conducted themselves. I have nothing but great things to say about him.”
More is coming to light regarding the Salinas situation, as most people are uncertain how things will unfold. However, the NCAA is not expected to take any action.
While the Arizona basketball program continues it’s startling ascent back to the pinnacle of the college hoops world, it is becoming easier and easier to appreciate the foundation that Olson engineered and that Miller is so vigorously strengthening. There are few programs in the country that can lose a Hall of Fame coach and recover so quickly, which is yet another testament to the machine that Olson built in Tucson.
So as the program steps further into the Miller era and creeps quietly away from the Olson era, don’t let the young Wildcat fans forget their history lessons. It sounds like sacrilege to the long time Cat fanatics, but a new generation of fans is growing up without the experience of seeing a national power built from the once dusty and basketball-barren Sonoran Desert. Most young Arizona fans can’t remember the time when Arizona basketball was the epitome of mediocrity, not the household name it is today. So let’s not let that part of our history become glossed over. Let’s remember how our beloved program was built, and the man that built it — Lute Olson.
PGU would like to thank Coach Olson and his family for taking the time to communicate with us and the rest of the Wildcat fans out there. Coach O, in true Coach O fashion, has a busy lifestyle and we appreciate the time that he so willingly granted us. Thanks coach.