Jerry Colangelo on Lute Olson: ‘He was a class act’

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Years ago, longtime Valley sports journalist Scott Bordow and I constructed a Mt. Rushmore of Phoenix sports for the old East Valley Tribune. If we had expanded it to the entire state, University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson surely would have been on it.

This quick piece has nothing to do with the Coyotes beat, as you probably have guessed, but Olson's passing on Thursday is such a profound loss for the state that, as a 25-year veteran of Arizona sports media, I felt compelled to check in with another member of the state's Mt. Rushmore of sports, former Suns and Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, to get his thoughts on Olson's passing.

I think I have told the story on the Natural Hat Trick podcast of the time I called Colangelo while a young Suns reporter at the Tribune. He answered the phone. Colangelo always answers the phone. He understands the importance of media and teams’ relationships with media better than any executive with whom I have come in contact. He respects our profession.

On this particular occasion, he was having dinner with his family. In Tuscany. Yes, that Tuscany.

I apologized profusely for interrupting his dinner and told him we could talk another time. His response: “No, that’s alright. I’ll step out of the restaurant and we can talk.”

It has been a while since I had occasion to talk to Colangelo, so I texted him on Friday to see if he would like to chat about Olson. Naturally, he called me right back.

“My memories of Lute go back to when he was head coach at (Cal State) Long Beach (1973-74) before he took the Iowa job and way before he came to Arizona,” said Colangelo, who got to know Olson at the old Aloha Classic when Olson was coaching one of the teams. “When he came to Arizona, he really made a name for himself.”

Colangelo has been the chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame since 2009, affording him ample opportunity to interact with Olson, who was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2002

“We have an event each year when we bring in the new class,” Colangelo said. “Usually at the Final Four, I throw dinner for the new inductees and their families and whatever Hall of Famers are going to be in attendance. It’s an intimate gathering of maybe 50 people. I initiated these 10 years ago and would have the Hall-of-Famers talk about their experience, their family, their career and what it means to be inducted. It’s a pretty good prelude for the new inductees. It’s almost like being indoctrinated into the family.

“Lute was always terrific and articulate in sharing his journey and he was always terrific about being there. Whenever he possibly could, he attended. I had great respect for him as a person, and as a coach. He was a class act.”

Colangelo said he marvels at Olson’s accomplishments at Arizona, which include 11 Pac-10 championships (1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005), four NCAA Final Four appearances (1988, 1994, 1997, 2001) and one NCAA Championship (1997)

“What he did is remarkable,” Colangelo said. “He created a pipeline in terms of talent and then development of talent. His results are there in his wins, his Final Four appearances, his championship and the number of players who went on to play professionally whose lives he impacted.

“It was a pretty good situation to be the only show in town. It was an advantage in terms of support but he created quite an ordeal down there. He established himself and the program, had success, and he did it totally unscathed in terms of problems, issues, suspensions. He ran a tremendously clean program. He represented the university with class and dignity and he represented the state in the same way as a result. He will be remembered as one of the true leaders in the world of sports in the history of the state.”

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