It is no surprise that University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson and the Tucson Weekly arrived on the local scene within a few months of each other.
The similarities abound. Both appeared out of nowhere, as though emerging from the mists of Avalon. Both brought something sorely needed to Tucson. And both have gone more than 20 years without cussing in public. (Except the Weekly. But only sometimes. Each week.)
To be sure, Lute Olson had more of an immediate impact on the fabric of Tucson life. The Old Pueblo is an active, vibrant city, with people crazy enough to run in the daytime heat and ride bicycles in the Tucson traffic. Tucsonans also love their spectator sports, and Lute Olson is absolutely godlike in that particular facet of local lore.
Roughly half of the people living in Tucson weren't here when Lute Olson (or the Weekly) hit the streets of this burg. Things were different back then, but not always in a good way.
Olson inherited a basketball program in total disarray that was part of an athletic program that was in near-total disarray. For decades, Arizona had been a solid athletic school, first in the old Border Conference and then in the Western Athletic Conference. It was during the WAC days that the Wildcats began getting fleeting national attention. An NCAA baseball championship here, a minor football bowl game there. But for some reason, basketball was the main event in these parts.
Bruce Larson, who is still around the UA and can be seen at football and basketball games, coached the Wildcats from 1961-72. He had an overall winning record until a disastrous 6-20 year dropped him below .500 and bumped him out of a job. What most old-timers will remember from the Larson years is the time a bunch of students, protesting the racial policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stormed into Bear Down Gym (where the home games were played before McKale Center was built) and sat down at mid-court as the Cats were playing Brigham Young University. To make this doubly bizarre, the game was being played on Richard Nixon's birthday.
The police cleared the floor; the student body president was thrown (or fell, depending on who's telling the story) down the stairs and suffered a skull fracture; and lots of the protesters were charged with felony trespassing. Arizona won the game, snapping a seven-game losing streak in the process and winning one for their coach, who, by coincidence, happened to be Mormon himself.
Then came Fred "The Fox" Snowden, one of the first African-Americans to hold a head-coaching job at a Division I school anywhere in the country. Wild and flamboyant, Snowden came to town and started winning immediately. His first year coincided with the first season that freshmen were allowed to play varsity basketball. Snowden brought in a flashy freshman class and hit the ground running. That first team was also the first to play in the new McKale Center, and they packed the place from the jump.
His first four teams went 16-10, 19-7, 22-7 and 24-9. I remember that he used to dress in used-car salesman chic--maroon pants, pink shirt, white belt and white shoes. Yes, that fashion trend really did happen. It was not a bad dream that we all had at the same time.
But, in the early '80s, Snowden's golden recruiting touch left him, and the Cats fell on hard times. Snowden was eased out, and Arizona brought in Ben Lindsey for one disastrous season (see the story about 20 years of Tucson sports). Then the clouds parted, the angels sang, and Lute showed up.
The first thing everybody notices is how ridiculously handsome Olson is. He's like a better-looking Cary Grant. (For you young people out there, Cary Grant was the Tom Cruise of his day, except Grant didn't have to buy his clothes in the Juniors Department.)
Shortly after his first season at Arizona, I first interviewed Olson for the now-defunct Tucson Magazine. As a stay-at-home father, I took along my daughter, who wasn't yet 2 years old. She sat on the floor of Olson's office and quietly colored in a coloring book. And yes, Olson occasionally looked over to see if she was staying in the lines. I asked him if he read Tucson Magazine, and he, ever the politician, relied, "No, not really."
Now, my daughter is a senior in engineering at the UA, and Olson still looks the same. It's way creepy. My theory is that if he ever cusses, he'll crumble into dust like Dorian Gray.
Near the end of Olson's first season at Arizona, the Weekly hit the stands. The two forces of nature at first seemed destined to follow different paths, but then fate pulled them together. The overlapping is nothing short of stunning. For example:
· In 1984, Lute Olson suffered his only losing season at Arizona. The Tucson Weekly also suffered a losing season when a coffee shop on Fourth Avenue closed, cutting the paper's circulation by nearly 30 percent.
· The next year, the Weekly found a couple other stores willing to take their paper (including one not on Fourth Avenue), and circulation started heading upward. The Wildcats, only two years' removed from a 4-24 season, made the NCAA Tournament.
· In 1986, I wrote the first-ever sports-related article for the Weekly. That same year, the Cats won their first-ever Pac-10 championship. Coincidence? We think not.
· 1987: Steve Kerr blew out his knee in the World Championships, where he was being coached by Lute Olson, and the Cats barely made the NCAAs, losing at home to UTEP in the last NCAA men's tournament game allowed to be played on a team's home court. Soon after, the two founding partners of the Weekly feuded over the paper, somewhat ironically leaving the publication without two good legs to stand on. It almost went under.
· 1988: The Weekly ran a cover story on Sean Elliott, a local kid from Cholla High who stayed home and led the UA to greatness. The Cats started off the season by winning the Great Alaska Shootout, then steamrolled through the Pac-10 season with a 17-1 mark. As they roared into the Final Four, the Weekly ran a special section devoted to the Cats. Arizona finished with a 35-3 record; a month later, the Weekly won a record number of Arizona Press Club Awards.
And so it went.
When interviewed by the Weekly during that amazing season, Olson reflected on how he loved Tucson and how he almost left early on, because of a series of defamatory articles that ran in the Arizona Daily Star, in which financial misconduct was alleged. People at the Star ended up getting fired, and Olson stayed around. When asked if he read the Weekly, Olson said, "Yes, sometimes. I read that article about Sean."
"Yes, sometimes," is a quantum leap over "No, not really." The Weekly had arrived and was a part of the consciousness of the gem of the Sonoran Desert.
(Olson later was said to have stopped reading The Star altogether after columnist Greg Hansen wrote a piece claiming that Olson uttered a string of expletives after a gut-wrenching loss to UNLV in the Sweet Sixteen of the 1989 NCAA Tournament.)
The alternative paper and the coach continued on through the 1990s, winning awards and winning games, respectively. The paper's popularity and circulation grew geometrically, and Lute's teams were the toast of the town. And still, the eerie coincidences continued to pop up. In 1993, the Cats lost in the NCAAs to Santa Clara. That same year, the Weekly appeared in a Circle K on South Santa Clara Avenue!!
In all seriousness, Lute Olson has gone through some tough times during the past few years. His life has been tumultuous, with the loss to cancer of his high-school sweetheart/wife of more than 40 years, Bobbi, on Jan. 1, 2001. He's been inducted into the Coaches Hall of Fame and was listed among the "Ten Greatest Coaches in College Basketball History" prior to the 2003 Final Four.
However, despite returning basically the entire team from that 1997 championship, they haven't been able to repeat the magic. The 1998 team got smashed in the round of eight by Utah. The 2001 team lost in the national championship game to Duke, but the other four teams between 1999 and the present lost in the first, second, third and fourth rounds, respectively.
At 69 years of age (and looking every bit of 48 or so), Coach Olson is understandably reluctant to go over the past. His record speaks for itself; his personal life and tragedies have been laid bare for all to see; and his secret to staying young and active is to concentrate on the task at hand and always look ahead.
However, after sharing 20 years in the desert, having impacts both great and subtle on the lives of Tucsonans, Lute Olson and the Tucson Weekly are inextricably intertwined. Why, just the other day, when asked whether he reads the Weekly these days, Lute said, "Yes, sometimes."