(The ink has faded a bit over the years. But the words have not. Lute Olson knew how to inspire; how to lead; how to “coach” everyone)
Just a note to express Bobbi’s and my appreciation for the first-class manner in which you handled a very difficult assignment the last few days.
Sometimes in both of our jobs we only hear from people when they have complaints & that is unfortunate.
It is our opinion that the new basketball coach at the University of Kentucky is fortunate to have a person of your caliber covering the Cats.
(That hand-written letter, on the stationary of the University of Arizona basketball letterhead, was dated on April 1, 1985 and was signed by the basketball coach Lute Olson. It is framed and hangs on my office wall at our Lake House. It is one of my most prized possessions. But our friendship was much more important to me. Then. Now. Forever.)
One of the greatest pleasures of my entire life — either personal or professional — was getting to know the late, great Lute Olson, and his wonderful wife, Bobbi.
Our introduction came in the Spring of 1985, when the college basketball world descended on Lexington, Ky. for the Final Four. It was the year that the Villanova Wildcats upset the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas to win its’ first national championship.
But, to be honest, that was the sidebar news story of the entire tournament. That was “below the fold” stuff. That was not the reason that many scurried to pick up their newspapers in the early morning, or turned on their favorite newscast in the evenings.
The real “story” that everyone in Kentucky wanted to know was who was going to be the new head basketball coach of the only “Wildcats” that truly matters in these here parts: the beloved Kentucky Wildcats.
You see, it was only a few weeks before that early Spring in the Bluegrass that Joe B. Hall announced that he would soon be the former coach of the beloved Kentucky Wildcats. He had announced that he was stepping down from his job, and for the first time since the hiring of the legendary Adolph Rupp, and the man that Hall had worked for as an assistant, the new coach of the beloved Kentucky Wildcats was suddenly in doubt. It was a jump ball for coaches, if you will.
And, you see, as a sports reporter for “The Lexington Herald-Leader,” at the time, I was assigned the story. A job that I took on eagerly and aggressively. But, then again, that’s what I was known for and did normally, no matter the issue.
And, there is one more “you see:”
You see, one of the leading candidates for the UK opening was none other than Lute Olson, the former coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and, then the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats. (Wildcats is a popular nickname in college sports, as you can tell.)
Simply put, it was our respective jobs that threw us together for a whirlwind week of many ups, downs, ebbs, flows, picks and screens, interviews and chats — some of which were on the record and many of which were not.
We talked many times deep into the night. We talked several times in his hotel room, along with Bobbi. She was Coach’s wife, alright. But she was so much more. She was his most trusted advisor, and best friend. She was his conscience and the angel on his shoulder. She was his guardian, and his Centurion.
Once, our conversation extended until the morning sun greeted us and revealed what a sleepless night truly looks like.
We talked a lot.
And, we became friends about as fast as his team’s played the game of basketball. Quickly. Rapidly. We didn’t need a shot clock. It just happened. And, our friendship endured and lasted from 1985 until last week — some 35 years in length — when I got the news of the Coach’s passing.
It was a gut punch, in a year full of them.
It was a head ache, that paled in comparison to the heart ache.
It was sadness, manifested in a mood swing that dipped to the bottom of the soul.
Oh, I knew that Coach had suffered a horrible stroke about a year ago, and I had gotten word recently that he was being treated by Hospice. The great folks at Hospice do a tremendous job. So valuable. But it is a job that you don’t recover from or live to tell about.
But the moment the news finally did arrive, it was difficult to swallow. The lump was in my throat; in my soul; and in my eyes. The flood came in the form of both tears and memories. I got a flash of both.
As the first drop inched its’ way down my cheek, I remember fondly our very first conversation. It was just a few minutes after I had sent a dozen red roses to the Coach’s hotel room at the Marriott at Griffin Gate. With the flowers, I sent a note that read something like this:
“Coach Olson: I just wanted to send these flowers to your lovely wife in advance. I hope you accept them as my apology for the aggravation that I am sure to cause both of you over the next few days.”
I signed my name and left my phone number.
Honestly, I had no clue if he would appreciate the gesture, or use the phone number.
It was a gamble, but, by now, you know that I love a good bet.
Come to find out, Coach had a great sense of humor. And, a better demeanor.
It didn’t take long before my phone was ringing and it was Coach on the other line. He was laughing when I answered the phone. He acknowledged that Bobbi did, in fact, love the flowers, and he admitted that it was the first time that a reporter had apologized in advance. In fact, he said that it was the first time that he had ever heard a reporter apologize for anything.
We were off and running.
The second tear dropped onto my chin and woke me just a bit. The second memory was soon to follow:
As things turned out, Coach Olson did — in fact — have several discussions with officials at the University of Kentucky about the vacant job as the head basketball coach.
In fact, the job was offered to him, and, for a brief period of time, he accepted that offer. In principle. Don’t let anyone, for a second, ever convince you otherwise. It was a deal. And, it was done.
In fact, I wrote the story and had it ready to go to print. It was that close to being announced publicly.
Until I got a call from Coach and he told me that the deal had fallen through. Coach Olson was a man of principal. Always. Foremost. Forever. And, he just couldn’t accept some of the parameters that then UK Athletic Director Cliff Hagan demanded in the contract.
(Editor’s Note: You will have to read my book when it is published for the “Paul Harvey” and the “Rest of the Story” on this account. How is that for a teaser?)
The third tear rolled along quicker than the first two. It was followed by several of its’ friends. And, the memories started to rally, as well.
I remembered, as if it was only yesterday, meeting Coach and Bobbi back at the hotel, before they checked out and headed back to Arizona.
We hugged. We vowed to stay in touch. And, we did.
I remembered getting his letter, and how it touched me that he took the time to write such a personal note. And, I remember getting that letter, and another very similar from Coach Gene Bartow, framed and mounted on my wall. Coach Bartow also interviewed for the job. He also declined and withdrew his name from consideration.
The University of Kentucky later hired Eddie Sutton for the job. That’s another story. For another day.
I remembered sending Coach Olson and Bobbi another dozen roses at the end of the 1987-88 season. They were in the Final Four. The first time the Arizona Wildcats had ever made it that far in the tournament.
I remembered sending Coach Olson and Bobbi another dozen roses in 1994, when they reached the Final Four again.
And, I remembered sending them another dozen roses in 1997 — when they won their first and only championship at Arizona.
It was the year they beat the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game. After they were greeted and celebrated at home, I sent Coach a note. I told him that he had made the right decision by staying at Arizona. I told him that I was so happy for his success. I told him that he had earned it.
Each time, I got a return call from Coach.
Each time, the call was professional, personal and profound.
Each time, I told him how much I truly respected him and what he had meant to me.
Each time, Coach Olson would say something that resembled the same.
But I remember, too, that he would also close out the conversation with the same line of questions:
How are you doing? How is life treating you? Do you like what you do? Are you happy? How are your kids, Gene?
Class acts are hard to come by, especially in this day and age.
Lute Olson was a class act.
But here’s the thing, folks.
It was no act.
Luke Olson was just pure class.
So long, Coach.
See you again, soon.
And, when we do?
I’ll send Bobbi another dozen roses.