Tucson's elder statesman is nowhere near retirement

Originally Published: October 23, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Lute Olson walks down his driveway at a quarter to seven in the morning, his white, toy Yorkshire-Papillon mix tugging at the end of a leash. Christine, his wife of three-plus years, is coming too, and she has her huffing, snorting pug along for the couple's daily exercise regimen.

Every morning, regardless of the heat -- or even winter's modest chill -- the 72-year-old Olson and his wife, 23 years his junior, head off for their wake-up routine. The sun's already up, but the saguaro cacti that dot the mountains near the Olsons' home are still in shadow.

The chatter on this walk ranges from basketball to family to politics (Christine is a key finance organizer for Lynn Swann's Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign) to, of course, the climate and the scenery that never seems to get repetitive.

As the Olsons, essentially Arizona royalty, pass different lookouts, they offer notes on flora and fauna as if they were resident tour guides, but the walk isn't without reflection, either.

One of the homes along the road in this gated community is Olson's former home, the one that he shared with his first wife of 47 years, Bobbi Olson. She died on Jan. 1, 2001 after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. She was his devoted partner and as much a fabric of the University of Arizona and Tucson communities as Lute, which is why the university took the unique step of naming the McKale Center court for both of them.

Olson is a rock, chiseled largely by the trauma of Bobbi's cancer fight, finding the new love of his life in Christine (who brought three sons from a previous marriage into Lute's life), and continuing on with his passion for basketball, one that is still as strong today as it was in the early 1950s when he was growing up in Grand Forks, N.D. Having the chance to spend a day with him, you quickly understand how he stays so mentally and physically sharp, how he has the energy of a 40-year-old and how he very well could coach into his 80s as long as nothing happens to his health.

Seeing Olson at home gives you part of the picture, but you also need to see Olson at practice. You have to hear his stern voice teaching and lecturing his Arizona players. You have to see him still get in a defensive slide stance. You have to listen to the players, the assistants and the managers as they detail their respect, admiration and awe of Olson's commitment to his body and the game.

Lute Olson
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenLast season was a struggle at times, but Olson has the Wildcats pointed up this season.

If you're still not satisfied, then wait until the heart of recruiting tips off in July, when Olson usually is one of the first to arrive at a game, even if it is before 8 a.m., and many times one of the last to leave, even when the games go past midnight.

To fully understand this Hall of Fame, championship coach, one whose career has flourished in a retirement community, not a hoops hotbed, you have to see him in both places. Once you do, you get it.

Christine Toretti Olson, whom Lute met at the 2002 Final Four in Atlanta, has embraced Lute's passionate fight to make Tucson and the Arizona Cancer Center the foremost research area for women's cancer, all in the name of the Bobbi Olson Fund. Her support, and the unique life they share, should make it no surprise that Lute dedicated his new autobiography to "the women in my life."

"He wants to coach and he wants to be young for a long time and I'm thrilled to be a part of it," said Christine. "He's an amazing man who believes in honesty and integrity, and as a mom with three sons that's what attracted me to him. He walks the talk.

"Every day it's like another drink from the fountain of youth with him being around the players," she said. "He's passionate about physical fitness. He's convinced he can be whatever he wants to be."

Olson went through hell in the spring of 1998, a year after winning his only national championship. He was in Hungary, doing clinics and fitting in a vacation with Bobbi, when she became ill. The detail in which Olson recounts -- both in person and in his book -- suddenly rushing Bobbi to a Budapest hospital for emergency surgery to clear up a potentially fatal blockage is extremely moving.

Hearing him describe the shock of finding out that Bobbi had a tumor and then the challenge of figuring out a way to get her back to Tucson reveals a side of Olson that few ever see. Bobbi survived another three years, but her private battle tore him apart. When she was dying, Lute took a leave of absence.

In his book, he detailed the emotional trauma of finding himself alone for the first time as an adult at age 67, unsure of what path to choose. Speculation ran rampant that he would retire, but he awoke one morning and "knew what I had to do. I'm a coach, that's who I am. I had to coach." He returned to the team five games after he left.

Arizona remarkably advanced to the 2001 national title game, losing to Duke (a loss that the staff still is bitter about because of a disputed call or two). A year later, Olson was inducted into the Hall of Fame and also met Christine. Olson was so in love with her that he considered retiring after he asked her to marry him, because he feared what it would be like for her to live in Tucson, which was as much Bobbi's town as Lute's. He said in his book he wasn't ready to retire but offered to anyway; Christine responded, "You're not quitting coaching because of me."

This endorsement from Christine is one of the reasons Arizona is a national title contender today. If she had accepted Olson's offer, he might actually have walked away from basketball. Three-plus years later, it's clear that would have been a mistake.

"I love what I'm doing," said Olson, who is as vibrant as ever and, according to his assistants, is far from through. "I've never felt like I had to go to work. I enjoy the kids. We're very selective with the players we recruit. That doesn't mean you don't make mistakes along the way. The biggest thing I love is the involvement with the kids."

Olson signed a new five-year contract in the spring. He intends to honor it and no one would be surprised if he signed another one -- ironic because for the past decade or so, Olson and the staff have encountered negative recruitment issues concerning whether Olson would be around to coach the recruits in their senior seasons.

"The first thing I do when I go into the home is say, 'Yes, I'll be at Arizona longer than your son will,' and since all this stuff started in the Pac-10, not one coach is left except me," Olson said. He laughed off the rumors that have circulated in the past, like the one about Kelvin Sampson someday taking over for him since Sampson used to work for Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood at Washington State.

Assistant Josh Pastner, who was a walk-on for the Wildcats before becoming a coach, said he recently evaluated high school freshmen with Olson.

"The guy is amazing," Pastner said. "There are times we have to tell him, 'Coach, you don't have to go to this event,' yet he will. He's a grinder. He loves watching high school practices, he loves practices, and he's as motivated now as ever with the women's cancer center. The longer he goes, the more awareness for that, too."

Assistant Jim Rosborough, who was with Olson at Iowa before Arizona, said Olson is one of the best practice coaches ever, calling him a great analyst of talent and game situations and a perfectionist.

Rosborough, who is 62, said he doesn't anticipate Olson's retiring either, because "he feels good, and what are you going to do? Hang it up, play golf and sort your albums?"

"What I love about coaching is that you don't do the same thing all year long," Olson said, with a nod toward recruiting, fund-raising and vacation time, too. "It's not boring. If I had to get up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and punch in for eight hours, that would get to me more than doing what I do for 15 hours a day."

Freshman Chase Budinger said Olson's age was never a factor in his decision to play for Arizona.

"We know he'll be coaching another six years or so," Budinger said. "He looks like he's 40 out there with how much energy he has."

There's a reason for that.

"I have been blessed with great genes, I exercise daily, I eat the right foods," said Olson as he chomped on fresh fruit and half a bagel while sitting on a magnificent patio that butts up against hills so close that Olson can't leave his dog, Sake, out alone for fear that an owl or hawk could swoop down and snatch him.

"I just went for my yearly physical and my blood pressure was 110 over 70," Olson said. "I eat the right fruits and vegetables. The biggest deterrent to most diseases is daily exercise. The food without the exercise won't do it."

The morning walk starts the day, and three times a week, he's in the weight room at lunch.

"He's in the weight room more than we are," said Arizona junior guard Jawann McClellan.

"You should have seen him a few practices ago," said senior point guard Mustafa Shakur. "He is coaching with more energy than my freshman year. It seems like he wants to get out there when guys aren't running hard. He's like a young guy. You might catch him right after practice working out on the elliptical machine. It's crazy that he's actually 72."

Olson said he tries to work out before practice so none of the stress of coaching gets to his body.

"That way I'm not as uptight," Olson said.

The key word here is "as." Olson controls the practice. His voice is the most powerful and his presence is felt around every drill. If a player isn't buying into the program of the day, he'll hear about it loud and clear. On this day, J.P. Prince is feeling Olson's wrath for his uninspired efforts.

"Watch practice and you'd think he's going for another 15 years," Pastner said.

"It doesn't look like he's going anywhere anytime soon," McClellan said. "He's energetic and still loves the game."

Don't think it's all rosy. Last season's team wore on Olson. He had to suspend senior Chris Rodgers before bringing him back near the end of the season. There were injuries and an overall inconsistency that may have even messed up his perfectly coiffed white hair.

"We all go through that," Olson said of times like last season. "It was one of the most stressful years, but I was never to the point where I said this isn't worth it."

After what Olson went through with Bobbi and then contemplating leaving coaching for Christine, do you think a frustrating season would drive him out? Not a chance.

Rosborough said he's not sure what Olson's personal goals are, but it's obvious if he keeps coaching he'll get over 800 wins (he's at 761 now, good for 14th all-time), with the chance to shoot into the top five. He also has a chance to create some separation from other coaches if he can win another championship or two, a possibility that's reasonable starting with this season. That's not to mention the ongoing quest to procure millions of dollars for the Bobbi Olson Fund.

Lute Olson doesn't carry himself like a man finishing his career. Spend the day with him and it feels as if it's all just beginning anew.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com