Legendary college basketball coach Lute Olson passed away Thursday evening at the age of 85 after a brief stay in hospice care. Olson built the University of Arizona into a national power and won the Wildcats’ only national championship. He’s won of only five NCAA men’s basketball coaches with 20 20-win seasons.
The 2002 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee is best known for his exploits at Arizona and Iowa, but he got his start in college basketball in Long Beach, with championship stays at LBCC and Long Beach State, which earned him induction into the LBCC and Century Club Halls of Fame.
Olson began his career coaching high school basketball at Western and Marina High, before getting his first-ever college coaching job as the head coach at LBCC, where he coached from 1969-73, winning the 1971 state championship. Olson’s 103-22 record over four seasons still puts him at the top of the Vikings’ winning percentage records.
Olson earned an induction into the LBCC Hall of Champions for his run with the Vikings, which he said could have lasted forever.
“I was perfectly content there, and had no plans to go anyplace, I loved it there,” Olson said in an interview with Long Beach sportswriter Doug Krikorian. “Del Walker, a great guy, was the athletic director, and I recall his telling me when he hired me that he wanted me to recruit players strictly from the Long Beach area, which I did.”
His prowess at LBCC led him to be hired by Long Beach State in 1973, where his one season coaching the 49ers has led to some of the greatest “What ifs?” in LBSU sports history.
Olson was hired to replace Jerry Tarkanian after Tark left for UNLV. Olson said he was hesitant about taking the job because of rumors that Tark’s recruiting methods were about to land Long Beach on NCAA probation. Long Beach State athletic director Lew Comer persuaded him that wasn’t going to happen, so Olson left LBCC for Long Beach State, where he coached a 24-2 49ers team in 73-74 that was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation. That 24-2 record is still the best single-season winning percentage in program history.
“I really liked my job at City,” said Olson in an interview with Chris Trevino in 2015. “I didn’t want to leave a job like City if probation was coming.”
Olson said that Kansas State coach Tex Winter–who would become the Long Beach State coach to succeed Olson–helped persuade him to leave LBCC for the NCAA job.
Five players on that historic Long Beach State team were drafted into the NBA: Cliff and Roscoe Poindexter, Glenn McDonald, Leonard Grey, and Bobby Gross.
“They were so good it was incredible,” said Gary Anderson, who played for Olson and had his own legendary coaching career at LBCC. “It wasn’t even fair.”
Midway through the historic season, the NCAA issued sanctions against Long Beach State that banned the 49ers from the postseason.
Olson found out through his wife, Bobbi, who was friends with Comer’s wife and other wives of LBSU administrators, that Comer and others had known the sanctions were coming.
“They weren’t truthful,” said Olson. “I would have been happy in Long Beach. If the sanctions hadn’t come down or they would have told the truth about them, I would have stayed…I wasn’t going to work for someone I couldn’t take their word for.”
A heartbroken Olson departed the school for the University of Iowa that offseason.
Long Beach State Hall of Famer and NBA champion Glenn McDonald, one of the stars of that 73-74 team, said the team believed it would have won the national title had it been allowed into the NCAA Tournament.
“When we walked into an arena, we knew we were going to win,” said McDonald. “UCLA had a really great team with Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes, but I just honestly feel we could have beat that team.”
Olson believed throughout his career that it was the most talented roster he ever coached, including his 1988 NCAA championship team at Arizona.
“At Arizona with Steve Kerr in 1988 was great, and certainly the NCAA championship team is there,” said Olson. “But that team at Long Beach State…it would have been interesting to see what could have happened. That team would have had a shot to win the whole thing.”