He came to town like a barnstorming preacher, a silver-haired, silver-tongued personification of promise, telling the good people of Tucson to believe in his philosophy of recruiting good, wholesome young men, to follow those good, wholesome young men in their endeavors on the hard court at McKale Center, and to trust in the inevitable resurrection of the University of Arizona's basketball program.
Those who heeded the word of Coach Lute Olson have season tickets today. Those who hesitated--oh, ye of little faith--are watching the Wildcats on live TV.
There is not a seat to be had this season as the Wildcats aim for the Pacific 10 title and beyond.
So just how did this man of miracles take a basketball team that was down and out in the middle of the desert from last place in the Pac-10 in '83--the Wildcats won just one conference game that season, over Stanford on a controversial call--to the title in 1985-86, when they won it by beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion for the first time?
The same way he did it at Iowa, where he took a perennial also-ran and turned it into one of the country's top programs, stringing together 20-win seasons and taking each of his last five Hawkeye teams into the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. playoffs--a Big Ten record for consecutive NCAA berths.
He did it with classy players. Good kids. He took what he calls the "family" approach. He considered attitude equally with height. And he considered how all the personalities would mesh, what would be the chemistry of the team. He signed kids with heart. Kids who made their grades.
It sounds too simple. It sounds too hokey.
But it works.
Take Steve Kerr, for example.
Kerr is a 6-foot 3-inch blond kid from Pacific Palisades who used to be a ballboy for UCLA. He was not recruited by UCLA. He was not recruited by anyone.
Olson still had a scholarship to offer him in August of 1983 because Olson had taken the job at Arizona just before the signing deadline, and most of the star players were spoken for.
But what a great call that was, signing Steve Kerr, who is now the heart of a very good Arizona team.
Kerr is not quick and he can't jump, but he can shoot. There are lots of guys like that. But Kerr is the hustling kind who always makes the play, the smart kind of ballhandling guard who coaches on the floor and makes the right decisions, the leader who steps forward when the game is on the line and takes charge.
The Wildcats might have won the Pac-10 title last season if Kerr hadn't been out with a knee injury suffered during the World Championships in the summer of 1986. Arizona lost several games in the final minutes, when his experience and maturity were missed.
"Steve Kerr is the ideal player, the kind of kid you win with," Olson said. "Now, don't misunderstand me. You could not win with five Steve Kerrs. You need talents like (6-8 junior) Sean Elliott. But you need a Steve Kerr on your team."
Steve Kerr is needed on and off the court. He's needed in the recruiting effort.
Olson perpetuates an amazing tradition when it comes to recruiting--beyond scouting high school games, beyond being the one who picks up recruits at the airport, instead of sending an assistant.
Olson allows his players the power of veto if they think a prospect won't fit into the program.
In the Big Ten, they tell of the time that Olson was recruiting a 7-foot center who went on to become an All-American and is in the National Basketball Assn. today, but who was dropped by the Hawkeyes because the players didn't like his attitude and didn't want to play with him.
It is said that Olson once dropped a prospect because he was abusive to a waitress.
Now, understand, this is all in the interest of winning. It goes beyond winning points with mothers and university presidents.
Olson believes that strength of character eventually wins on the court, in the close games. And that the camaraderie of a team is important if those individual youngsters are to be expected to play as one.
Once the program has a nucleus of good kids, they, better than anyone else, can judge who will fit and who will not fit. "Good kids attract other good kids," Olson said. "Jerks attract jerks."
And, Olson has discovered, having good kids on the floor helps in another way.
"I have found that loyalty of the fans to the team is in direct proportion to the people who are on the court," he said. "The fans get hooked on players they like and respect. There will always be people in the stands when you're winning, but you will still have those loyal supporters in the years when you're not so good if they are coming out to see good kids that they care about."
Which brings us back to Steve Kerr. In his freshman season, his father, Malcolm Kerr, the president of American University in Beirut, was assassinated. That same week, Arizona played archrival Arizona State, and Olson gave Kerr the option of sitting out. Kerr decided that he should play.