Regarded as "one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball," Lute Olson excelled as a player in that sport in high school (Grand Forks Central) and college (Augsburg). Lute then served as a coach for 12 years at five different high schools, where his teams compiled a record of 180-76.
At the junior college level, Lute coached four years compiling a record of 103-22 and, at the college level, his teams, in 34 years, had a record of 780 wins and 280 losses.
Lute's recruitment strategy went beyond the player's past performance on the basketball floor. He also took into consideration the young men's character, potential, coachability, work ethic and devotion to basketball. Lute was known for developing players, and many of his former players have gone on to have impressive careers in the NBA.
Lute also was known for his basketball strategy during each game. He worked hard, drawing up effective plays that his team executed during the games.
Robert Luther "Lute" Olson was born Sept. 22, 1934, at a farm between Hatton and Mayville, N.D., to Albert and Alinda (Halvorson) Olson. At an early age, people began calling him by his middle name, which was shortened to either Luke or Lute.
Lute was the youngest of four children, and his two brothers, Amos and Marvin, played basketball at Mayville. Lute wrote that basketball was "love at first sight. Once I picked it up, I never put it down."
On the morning of Dec. 18, 1940, one week before Christmas, Lute got up to get ready for church and his father gave him a haircut. When Albert finished cutting Lute's hair, he collapsed as he walked to the stairs and died of a stroke. Amos, who was 14 years older than Lute, dropped out of college at Mayville to run the family farm.
In the fall of 1941, after the crops had been harvested, Amos was busy doing the fall plowing when an accident happened, and the plow badly gouged one of his legs. Gangrene set in, and he died on Sept. 28.
At the time, Lute had just celebrated his seventh birthday, Marvin was only 11 and Alinda was forced to sell the farm and move, first to Hatton, and then to Mayville. Alinda worked at a number of different jobs and, to help out, Lute found occasional employment, like stacking pop in pop machines and cleaning up at a cafe.
When Lute was in the sixth grade, he "started working for farmers" in the area. He wrote, "My childhood background emphasized work and discipline," and those characteristics remained with Lute the rest of his life.
Lute attended Mayville High School for three years and was coached in basketball by Harold Poier. During his junior year, Alinda moved to Grand Forks along with his sister Kathleen, who was studying nursing. Lute believed it would be disruptive to leave the basketball team, so he remained in Mayville, staying with three different families until the end of the school year, and then transferred to Grand Forks Central High School in 1951.
At Central, Lute was joining a basketball team for which there was little expectation of success. Central was expected to win the state title the year before, and almost all of the players had graduated. There were only four returning lettermen from the previous year, and none of them had been starters.
To make matters worse, Don Hall, the coach from the previous year had resigned, and the new coach, Fritz Engel, had no prior coaching experience, having graduated from UND earlier that year. Lute started out the 1951-52 school year playing football, and as soon as the season ended, basketball practice began.
Even though Engel had built a reputation as a “run-and-gun” all-conference player at UND, he employed a totally different strategy for his Central players. With a group of inexperienced young men, he “emphasized defense and patience on offense.” Engel named Olson, at 6 feet, 3 inches, as his starting center and designed a number of set plays to be run through him. Central surprised many, by finishing the regular 1951-52 season with an 18-5 record.
Going into the 1952 state tournament, Bismarck, with a 20-1 record, were the odds-on favorites, and Central had the misfortune of playing them in the first game. The year before, when Central was favored to win it all, Bismarck upset them in the first round, and then went on to win the state championship. In a 1952 tournament squeaker, Central defeated Bismarck 48-45.
In the second round, Central faced St. Leo’s from Minot, later renamed Bishop Ryan, led by a high-scoring junior, Dale Brown. The next season, Brown would set the record for the “highest scoring average in state basketball history." Central defeated St. Leo’s 52-44. That game marks the only time in North Dakota history where two future National College Hall of Fame basketball coaches faced each other in a high school basketball game. Brown was a highly successful basketball coach at Louisiana State University from 1972 to 1997.
The next game was against a strong Valley City team. During the regulation time, Central "never led" and, with 10 seconds remaining, Tom Brown, from Central, hit a clutch shot to tie the game and send it into overtime. "Neither team scored in the first overtime, so it became sudden death. Forty-five seconds into it, Larry Shaskey, from Central, swished a 20-footer for a 32-30 win."
Central was now set to play Williston for the 1952 state basketball championship, and Lute knew that winning it all was not just a dream, but that winning the title was well within Central's grasp. Central beat Williston 43-38 and Lute scored 16 points. Teammate Harold Newman pointed out that Lute "was a leader... He had a lot of talent, but he worked a lot harder than the other kids." Lute was named to the All-State team and received a number of offers to play basketball for several different colleges.
Lute chose Augsburg College, now Augsburg University, in Minneapolis, a private college founded by Norwegian Lutherans. Lute was 100% of Norwegian ancestry and an active attendee of the Lutheran church. Also, his Lutheran pastor in Grand Forks was an alumnus of Augsburg, and recommended his alma mater to Lute.
Lute lettered in both basketball and football for all four years at Augsburg but, the opportunity to excel in sports was not his main reason for choosing that school. He later said, "I was looking for a school interested in individuals (where)... The emphasis was on developing the total person — intellectual, athletic, and spiritual (where)... you were a student first and an athlete second."
While at Augsburg, Lute earned "All-Minnesota intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Minneapolis Tribune All-State Team honors in basketball and was named as the 1956 Augsburg Honor Athlete, for his student-athlete success on the playing field and in the classroom."
He graduated from Augsburg in 1956, with a double major in history and physical education. Following graduation, Lute coached high school basketball: one year at Mahnomen and four years at Two Harbors in Minnesota; two years at two different schools in Anaheim, Calif.; and five years at Marina-Huntington Beach in California. Then, in the summer of 1969, Lute began his college coaching career at Long Beach City College in California.
We will continue the Lute Olson story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.