IOWA CITY, Iowa – When I think of Lute Olson’s nine-year run as Iowa’s basketball coach, one player comes to mind quicker than the rest.
Grace on the court and a kind and gentle spirit off it, Ronnie Lester was the straw that stirred one of the greatest teams in school history.
Olson’s 1979-80 Hawkeyes survived a long list of injuries to reach the Final Four after squeezing into the tournament on the last weekend of the regular season.
I talked to Lester a few months ago about that team and the man he played for. His love for Lute Olson hadn’t dimmed, four decades after playing for him.
“I feel good about that, being connected to Coach Olson,” said Lester, whose number, 12, is retired. “Not so much the coach part, but Lute Olson the man. That makes me feel good.”
Lester never stopped looking up to Olson, who passed away Thursday at the age of 85.
“He was a great coach,” Lester said. “Beyond that I think he was a great role model, too.”
Ronnie would talk to his coach at least once a month.
“We talked about a little bit of everything,” Lester said. “”About life, about family or current events. A little bit about basketball, but a whole lot of other things, too.”
Olson gave a troubled Iowa basketball program a heartbeat again when he took over in 1974-75. This was a program that had hit tough times after Ralph Miller left for Oregon State following an undefeated Big Ten championship season in 1969-70.
In the four seasons after Miller’s 14-0 Big Ten champions rewrote league scoring records, Iowa was 20-36 in conference games under Dick Schultz and never finished higher than a tie for sixth. Three of those four seasons ended with losing records (41-55 overall).
Athletic Director Bump Elliott knew a change was needed, and he hired a North Dakota native name Robert Luther Olson away from Long Beach State after one season.
Few in the Hawkeye State knew much about him. But Olson quickly gained first-name status with Iowans: Lute.
Olson’s rebuilding project quickly gained traction. And a statewide television package that was the brainchild of Bill Bolster at KWWL in Waterloo turned Iowa basketball into a bigger-than-life attraction. Popularity soared through the roof.
Olson, a handsome man, was the megastar. Chants of “Lute, Lute, Lute” followed his every step.
His players were also celebrated and idolized from Sioux City to Keokuk. The Hawkeyes started to win, and Olson used his leverage to push for a new arena. Carver-Hawkeye Arena, opened in the middle of Olson’s final season at the school, is the House that Lute Build.
Six of his last seven Iowa teams won at least 20 games, at a school that had enjoyed just two 20-win seasons before he arrived. Olson’s last five teams made the NCAA Tournament. And the 1979-80 team got to the Final Four for the third and most recent time.
The 1978-79 team won a share of the Big Ten title. No Iowa team has done that since. Iowa also finished second in 1980-81, 1981-82 and 1982-83. Olson left with a record of 168-90.
Lute had created a larger-than-life monster. Some said that monster, and living in a fishbowl in a state where colleges don’t share attention with professional sports, is what sent Olson to the desert. But a monster would have never been created had the Hawkeyes not started winning again.
Olson’s final game on the Iowa bench was a crushing 55-54 Sweet 16 loss to Villanova on March 25, 1983. Crushing because Iowa had gone just six-for-11 from the free-throw line and missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities late in the game. Villanova made 13 of 16 free-throw attempts.
A few days later, when Olson pulled up stakes and headed for Arizona, Iowa fans were crushed again. But that move proved to be a wise one.
Olson quickly turned Arizona into a national level program. He coached the Wildcats to 23 consecutive NCAA appearances, and a national championship in 1997. He finished with a career record of 780-280 at the NCAA Division I level, and is one of just 11 coaches to take two different schools to the Final Four. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
“I enjoyed everything about Iowa,” Olson told me in an interview for Hawkeyesports.com in November. “Bump Elliott was one of my all-time favorites, and he worked hard to keep me from going to Arizona. But it was a great move.”
Olson loved to tell the story of riding up an airport escalator one time after moving to Arizona and being recognized by some Iowa fans.
“They said, “Hi, Lute, we’re from Iowa,’ ” he recalled. “When are you coming home?’ ”
Olson was fond of his 1979-80 team, one that had to beat Illinois at home (75-71) in the final regular-game of the season to even get an NCAA at-large berth. That season of adversity and injury sharpened the competitive edge for that post-season run.
A run that had Olson and his Hawkeyes feeling unbeatable. A team that was a team in the truest sense of the word.
“They were all tuned into team,” Olson said four decades later. “That was a great team. A team from the word go. And they did a tremendous job of remaining a team.”
Lester reinjured his knee 12 minutes into the national semifinal game against Louisville. Olson felt that had Lester had an injury-free senior season, the Hawkeyes would have won the national title.
Olson also admired how his players rallied around Kenny Arnold, a key player on that Final Four team, after Arnold had a series of health issues. It had been Arnold who picked up the slack when Lester was injured. And it was his teammates who picked up the slack to help their fallen teammate when he suffered a brain tumor and several strokes. Arnold passed away in April of 2019.
Olson talked in November about how proud he was of that team, rallying behind one of their own.
“It’s a family, for sure,” he said.
That’s only fitting, since playing basketball in a family atmosphere is what made Olson’s Iowa teams so successful and popular with the fans.
“Coach was fair with everyone,” Lester said. “And you loved him for that.”
Current Iowa assistant Coach Kirk Speraw saw Olson from two angles. He played for the Hawkeyes under Olson, and was a graduate assistant on his staff in 1979-80.
“Playing for Coach Olson shaped my vision of how to teach the game of basketball,” Speraw said. “He gave me my start in coaching and helped me throughout my career. He was an incredible coach, teacher, mentor, and friend. All of us in the Coach O basketball family will greatly miss him.”
Added Bobby Hansen, another Olson alum and now a member of Iowa’s radio broadcast team, “Coach O loved his Hawkeye Family and will be dearly missed by all.”
Family. It was the Olson way.