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Legendary coach Lute Olson on UND-Arizona: 'That's going back in time for me'

Lute Olson laughs when asked what he thought when North Dakota and Arizona were paired together in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. "Oh my goodness," Olson said. "That's going back in time for me." Thursday's game between No. 15 UND and No. ...

Lute Olson
Former Arizona coach Lute Olson, who graduated from Grand Forks Central High School, patrols the sideline during a game against the University of Victoria in 2006./Photo courtesy of Arizona athletics
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Lute Olson laughs when asked what he thought when North Dakota and Arizona were paired together in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"Oh my goodness," Olson said. "That's going back in time for me."

Thursday's game between No. 15 UND and No. 2 Arizona in Salt Lake City is worlds colliding for the legendary retired basketball coach.

Olson, 82, grew up in Hatton and Mayville, N.D., graduated from Grand Forks Central High School and became one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time during a 25-year career at Arizona.

This is North Dakota's first trip to the Big Dance as a program, but Olson had North Dakotans paying attention to March Madness decades earlier. He led the Wildcats to a run of 23 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and won a national championship in 1997.


Olson ranks eighth all-time in NCAA tournament wins with 46, which places him one spot behind UCLA's John Wooden and one spot ahead of Indiana's Bob Knight.

Olson retired in 2008.

"I think Arizona will have a lot more talent," said Olson, who plans to watch the game on television because he will be in Phoenix during the game. "There's some pressure as a high seed, but they've been to the Elite Eight recently. They're used to the pressure.

"I would expect the Fighting Hawks to be really excited for the opportunity to play in the tournament. Just getting into the tournament is a real accomplishment."

After graduating from Central, Olson sought a smaller college and opted for Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

"When I finished high school, they had interest in me coming to the 'U,'" Olson said of UND. "I had only been in Grand Forks for a year. Being from Mayville, a town of about 1,500 at the time, my interest was going to a smaller school; that's what I had grown up with."

But Olson did play at UND's basketball facility at the time-the UND Fieldhouse which later became known as the Hyslop Sports Center.

Olson played center on Central's 1952 state championship team that beat Williston 43-38 for the title at the Fieldhouse. Olson scored 16 points in the game.


In the first round of the 1952 state tournament, Central beat Minot St. Leo's, which featured future Louisiana State coach Dale Brown.

Olson also played tackle on the Central football team and first base on the Grand Forks American Legion baseball team.

Lute was actually known as Luke Olson when he was at Central. Back then, Luke Easter was a power hitting first baseman for the Cleveland Indians. Central coach Fritz Engel, who coached Olson in basketball and baseball, was an Indians fan and nicknamed him Luke.

"That was a good time for me," Olson said. "But that's a generation ago ... that's three generations ago."

After graduating from Augsburg College, Olson spent time coaching high school sports at Mahnomen, Minn., Two Harbors, Minn., and Boulder, Colo. He first coached college basketball at Long Beach City College. He then went to work at Long Beach State and the University of Iowa before accepting the Arizona position.

Olson said he tries to go to all of the Arizona home games, and even travels to road games at California and UCLA.

He also attends many NBA games as he keeps tabs on his former players Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors) and Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers).


Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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