Former Hawkeye coach Lute Olson, who led Iowa men’s basketball team to 1980 Final Four, dies at 85

The Hall of Fame coach won 165 games in nine seasons leading the Hawkeyes.

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Lute Olson after accepting the position as Iowa's head men's basketball coach in 1974.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor


Former Iowa head coach Robert Luther “Lute” Olson, who led the Iowa men’s basketball team to the Final Four in 1980, died Thursday at the age of 85 while in hospice care in Tuscon, Ariz.

Olson suffered a stroke in 2019 and had been in failing health since. Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported the news of the Hall of Fame coach’s death.

Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott hired Olson in 1974. The season before, Olson led Cal State Long Beach to a 24-2 season. The Hawkeyes were coming off an 8-16 season, led by coach Dick Schultz, who finished with a 41-55 record in four seasons with the team before resigning.

In his first season as Iowa’s head coach, Olson and the Hawkeyes finished with a 10-16 record. But the program eventually returned to national prominence under Olson’s leadership.

Olson coached at Iowa for nine seasons from 1974 to 1983, compiling a record of 165-93.

In his fifth season as Iowa’s head coach in 1978-79, Olson led the Hawkeyes to a 20-8 record and a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. It would be the first of five consecutive seasons that the Hawkeyes made the NCAA Tournament under Olson.

The next season was Iowa’s most memorable under Olson.

The Hawkeyes made their most recent trip to the NCAA Final Four in 1980 under Olson. The team won four consecutive games in the East Region as a No. 5 seed. It was the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1956 and its third overall.

Iowa upset No. 1 seed Syracuse 88-77 in the regional semifinal, and No. 3 seed Georgetown in the regional final. Against the Hoyas, the Hawkeyes overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to win the game 81-80 and advance to the national semifinal. Vince Brookins led Iowa with 22 points, followed by Steve Waite (15), Kevin Boyle (14), and Kenny Arnold (12).

“It feels good,” Olson told more than 100 reporters at the postgame press conference after defeating Georgetown. “We felt when we came out here we had a good shot. But we knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

“We lost to a very good team — a team that was patient,” Hall of Fame Georgetown head coach John Thompson said postgame. “I thought they were very patient. They moved the ball and got good shots. Anytime a team plays out of their region and plays good the way they did, they’re very, very good.”

Iowa lost in the Final Four, 80-72, to Louisville, the eventual national champion. Star guard Ronnie Lester, who averaged 16.9 points per game in his Hawkeye career, injured his knee in the first half, leaving many Iowa fans to ask, “what if?” in the years since.

The program’s popularity soared under Olson, so much so that it built a new arena. The team moved from the Iowa Field House to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1983, which ended up being Olson’s final season as a Hawkeye.

Following a 21-10 season in 1982-83, which ended in a loss to Villanova in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, Olson took the head coaching job at Arizona. The Mayville, North Dakota, native turned the Wildcats into a national power over 24 seasons as coach.

Olson’s first season at Arizona ended with an 11-17 record. He followed that up with 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, which included four Final Fours and the 1997 NCAA title.

Olson retired in 2008 with a 776-285 Division I college coaching record. He was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year at Iowa in 1978-79 and was a seven-time recipient of the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award.

Olson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000.

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