Arizona's Lute Olson revered in Tucson long after retiringPosted: Updated:
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- The Most Revered Man in Tucson emerges from an arena tunnel and stops to talk before heading up to his seat. A group of fans notice him and yell out: "Luuute!"
Once a game, inevitably, he appears on the large video board, that perfect shock of white hair still perfect.
Even at restaurants, the grocery store, the golf course, the reverence is apparent, though it's more often demonstrated through handshakes or pats on the back than someone yelling out his name.
Lute Olson could have faded into the background after retiring as Arizona's coach. Instead, he remains a visible part of the program, branching its storied past with its return-to-prominence present.
"Coach, his presence, I think is a very healthy thing for our team, for our program, for our future, for our community," current Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "And it is something in his own right that he should be able to enjoy."
In 25 years as Arizona's coach, Olson transformed the program from an also-ran into a national power.
He led the Wildcats to the 1997 national championship, four trips to the Final Four and 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Arizona won 11 conference championships, had 20 straight winning seasons and Olson was named conference coach of the year seven times during his tenure.
Even if Olson had become reclusive in retirement, he would have held a high place in the Arizona pantheon.
Because he's still in the public eye with the program and the university, Olson remains a popular current figure, not just a fond memory.
"It's nice that they recognize that this whole thing started when I first came here," Olson said. "I tell Kelly (his wife) that it's better than people throwing things at us."
Olson's leave of absence and eventual retirement in 2008 caused Arizona's program to fall into disarray for a couple of seasons.
Miller rebuilt it rapidly, re-establishing the Wildcats as one of the nation's elite programs in his six years as coach. He easily could have turned his back on Olson, broken away from the past and given the program his own identity.
Miller instead embraced Olson's involvement, encouraged him to attend practices and games, to play as big a role with the program as he's comfortable with.
By doing so, Miller rebuilt the program in his own image while still embracing the foundation that helped make it possible.
"It's fabulous what Sean Miller has done to continue the legacy and encourage Lute Olson to always be around," said Hall of Famer and television analyst Bill Walton. "He is one of the just smallest number of most important people in the history of the state of Arizona in terms of making people believe in values."
Miller has told Olson to visit the team or practices whenever he wants, but the 80-year-old coach tries to keep his distance to avoid interfering.
Olson attends every home game and tries to make the Bay Area road trip with Kelly, but only attends a few preseason practices so he can get to know the new players.
Though retired from coaching, Olson is still heavily involved with Arizona, serving as an ambassador and consultant for the university foundation.
So when he's not at games or on his weekly golf outings, Olson goes to events and speaking engagements around Tucson and the country to tout the university.
"I love when the foundation sends me places because I think it's a great university and I enjoy interacting with people and talking about it," Olson said. "I enjoy representing the university."
Because health issues led to Olson's retirement, the question over the past few years is always about how he's feeling.
Other than the aches and pains that come with getting older, the coach is in good shape. He takes four-mile walks with Kelly several times a week, has a small workout area in his home and plays golf with a group of friends every week.
"I feel good," Olson said. "My golf game isn't very good right now, but I don't worry so much about the score as enjoying myself."
Olson's good health has allowed him to still be a public figure for the university, which he enjoys, and allows the school to keep ties to the most revered man in Tucson.
"It's almost impossible to measure the impact Lute Olson had on our basketball program, our community and our state," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "He may have been the most well-known person in Arizona; I don't think that's a stretch."