UA unveils Lute Olson statue
TUCSON — In the months and years ahead – forever, really – basketball fans can stroll past, gather around, and take photos with the Lute Olson statue that now stands on the pavilion outside McKale Center's north entrance. When they do, Arizona AD Dave Heeke said he envisions them sharing good memories about the Hall of Fame former UA coach. “That’s what it’s all about,” Heeke said. “It’s a symbol right there at the front door. Thursday afternoon, during and after a ceremony to unveil the $300,000 artwork, dozens of former Olson-era players, staffers and donors gathered around to get a head start on that mission.
Before Olson’s bronze likeness was unveiled – and, yes, Olson said that designers “got the hair right” – they spoke of his attention to detail, work ethic, and determination to help his players grow on and off the court more than they did about the four Final Fours or the 1997 national title he won.
That didn’t mean it was always fun to be around Olson at the time.
A freshman already unhappy with his playing time in 1992-93, former UA forward Corey Williams said he went up for a rebound and crashed to the floor after teammate Etdrick Bohannon hit him in the eye in a practice shortly before the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
“I thought my face was broken,” Williams said. “I’m rolling on the ground, holding my eye and guys are crowding around me.
“Then I see coach. He looks up and says, 'OK guys, we’re going to move the drill over here,’ and he stepped over me.”
Momentarily, Williams’ unhappiness soared.
“I took it personally, like, 'This dude is crazy.’" Williams said. “But everybody else, their reaction was, 'That’s what we always do.’ It wasn’t that he didn’t care. It was that we only had two hours to practice, so let’s stay focused. Let’s not get distracted.”
By the end of practice, of course, Williams realized Olson did care about him, getting with trainers and asking Williams how he was doing.
Williams became grateful for his trials four years later, when he started playing professionally in Europe.
“I wanted to transfer so bad my freshman year, but I’m glad I stayed,” he said.
Olson didn't mind taking a few hard knocks himself, either, if that sent the message through.
While speaking during Thursday’s ceremony, former UA guard Matt Muehlebach relayed a story about how Olson jumped head-first into a coaches' demonstration of a screen-and-roll play — then claimed he picked up a foul after running into then-assistant Ricky Byrdsong.
“Lute was there to hedge on the screen and Lute went down,” Muehlebach said. “All of the players are are looking around like, 'What’s going on?’ And the first thing Lute said when he hit the floor was, 'Charge!’"
Olson could be just as demanding off the court, trying to mold his players into adults in the same manner that he was molding them into professional players.
The new statue of former University of Arizona head coach Lute Olson stands at the Eddie Lynch Pavilion at McKale Center on Thursday with a photo of Miles Simon from the team’s 1997 championship run.