The center and key player for Grand Forks Central High School in 1952 — a year they won the Class A North Dakota Basketball Championship — later became "one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball."
Lute Olson played three years of high school basketball for Mayville, N.D., before transferring to Grand Forks in 1951 to prepare for his senior year. Following graduation, he played college basketball at Augsburg in Minneapolis and was named an All-Minnesota basketball player by the Minneapolis Tribune. After graduating from college in 1956, Lute coached high school basketball for 12 years, compiling a record of 180 wins and 76 losses.
Lute then became head coach at Long Beach (California) City College (LBCC) for four years where his teams compiled a record of 103-22, and he wanted to remain there. However, in 1973, he was persuaded by the administration of Long Beach State University (LBSU) to become the head coach for their 49ers team.
LBSU was a four-year college in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, and what Lute accomplished there is truly remarkable for a first-year coach. The 1973-74 49ers established a school record with 24 wins and only 2 losses, and they were ranked No. 3 in the nation. However, Lute was extremely unhappy and resigned at the end of the season, because the school’s administration had lied to him. They knew the school’s sports teams were being placed on probation and they told Lute that it was a rumor which was untrue.
By 1969, Lute said, "I wanted a college job and at 35-years-old I felt I couldn't wait much longer." He was tired of mundane items "such as hall monitoring and checking restrooms for smokers." With five children, he also needed to work side jobs like being a driving school instructor and driving a gas truck for Texaco. The college offer came in the summer of 1969 when the basketball coach resigned from LBCC to become the assistant coach for the University of Nebraska. Del Walker, the athletic director at LBCC offered Lute the position as head coach, and he quickly accepted.
Lute would soon become the second former Grand Forks Central Knights basketball player to become a legend at LBCC. Tom Amberry was also a center for the Knights, playing during the latter 1930s. He graduated in 1940, and after one year at Concordia College, enlisted in the Navy. Upon his discharge on Nov. 25, 1945, he enrolled at the University of North Dakota where he played basketball for a year and then transferred to LBCC.
During the 1946-47 season, he was the nation's top scorer in college basketball, averaging 19.7 points per game, and was named "Junior College Player of the Year." The Minneapolis Lakers (now Los Angeles Lakers) tried to sign him as a player, but he turned them down to attend medical school. On Nov. 15, 1993, at the age of 71, Amberry entered the record books when he made 2,750 consecutive free throws.
- Basketball coaching genius born in North Dakota could shoot, recruit and execute
When Lute became head coach, LBCC primarily served San Pedro, Catalina Island and the cities of Long Beach, Lakewood and Signal Hills. Walker told Lute that he wanted him to recruit players "strictly from the Long Beach area," and that is what he did. Lute inherited a team at LBCC that had finished the season with a 23-5 record. Unfortunately, many of the players from the previous year had graduated.
Lute coached LBCC for four years, winning the Metropolitan Conference title three of those years. His 1970-71 team won "the Junior College Championship." During those four years, Lute's teams had a record of 103-22 and some of his key players were Chuck Terry, Dave Frost and Gary Anderson. Terry was honored as the "California Player of the Year" in 1970, and Frost was named conference "Most Valuable Player" in 1971. Terry went on play basketball for the Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs and the New York Nets; Frost became a MLB pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, California Angels and Kansas City Royals; and Anderson returned to LBCC to become assistant and then head coach for 40 years.
Lute had found a home at LBCC, and said, "I was perfectly content there, and had no plans to go anyplace (else). I loved it there." However, at the end of the 1973 season, Jerry Tarkanian resigned his position as head coach of LBSU to accept the position as head coach of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Lute was approached to become Tarkanian's replacement, but was hesitant to do so because he had heard rumors that LBSU "was about to go on NCAA probation."
His response was that he would "need about 10 days to think about it." Lute was assured that the school would not be placed on probation, and said, "I believed them, but they didn't tell me the truth." Lute did not learn until midway into the 1973-74 season that LBSU was being put on probation for three years because of recruiting violations by Tarkanian and Jim Stangeland, the former football coach.
Lute inherited an exceptionally talented team at LBSU. Five of the players on the team — Glen McDonald, Leonard Gray, Bobby Gross, and Cliff and Roscoe Pondexter — would be drafted by the NBA, four of them in the first two rounds. During the 1973-74 season, LBSU was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation, behind John Wooden's powerful UCLA squad and Norm Sloan's Wolfpack team at North Carolina State.
Besides the probation, Lute faced another crisis when two of his players, Roscoe Pondexter and McDonald, were declared ineligible because they were accused "of having someone else take their entrance exams." After a court order was obtained, the two were allowed to rejoin the team and the 49ers finished the season with 24 wins and 2 losses, a team record. The only two defeats were each by only two points. However, because the team had been placed on probation by the NCAA, they were not allowed to participate in the post-season tournaments.
Because he had been lied to, and with his team suffering from the restrictions placed on them by the NCAA, Lute told a reporter for the New York Times that this was “the worst season of my life.”
At the conclusion of the basketball season, Lute resigned his coaching position at LBSU and, in the spring of 1974, signed a contract to become the head basketball coach at the University of Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes basketball team had finished the 1973-74 season with an 8-18 record and ended up in seventh place in the Big Ten Conference.
Upon arriving at Iowa City, the home of the Hawkeyes, Lute received a telephone call from Jim Rosborough, who played for the Hawkeyes in the mid-1960s. Rosborough was offering to Lute a tip on a good prospect from Chicago. As they talked, Lute realized that Rosborough had a very good eye for prospective players and had a very good idea of how players could be recruited and developed.
A few weeks later, Olson hired Rosborough to be Iowa's graduate assistant coach and put him in charge of an Advanced Invitational Camp, where selected outstanding high school players could be judged according to their ability. Rosborough remained at Iowa during Lute's tenure with the Hawkeye's and then rejoined his former coach at Arizona in 1989.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.