A CBSSN documentary on Lute Olson. A CBSSN documentary on Lute Olson. (Via The Arizona Daily Star.)

There is no shortage of iconic college basketball coaches worthy of documentaries. And yet, you don’t see many of them. Certainly not memorable ones.

College sports documentaries usually focus on a rivalry or a moment in time. But the people behind the passion and pageantry have compelling stories. 

Lute Olson passed away in 2020, so the statute of limitations has expired. Surely there are several fascinating tales and anecdotes about the man which can now be revealed. Who was Olson? We know he was a silver-haired Hall of Famer who coached the University of Arizona to its only men’s basketball national championship in 1997. But what was his personality like? What were his passions other than basketball and how did he connect with people away from the court?

We don’t fully get those answers in the new documentary LUTE (debuting nationally on CBS Sports Network at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Wednesday). Instead, we get a documentary focused more on Olson the coach than Olson the man.

The film is also surprisingly short, under an hour. You could have done 2 hours on Olson’s 1996-97 and 1997-98 Wildcats alone. Those teams were a microcosm of the unpredictability of the NCAA tournament: winning a national title when few expect you to and failing to reach the Final Four when everyone expects you to.

LUTE is directed, produced, and co-written by Emmy award winner Brett Rapkin, an Arizona alum. Former Wildcats stars are also heavily involved, with Jason Terry serving as one of the executive producers and Luke Walton as the narrator. This is the story they chose to tell: a familiar tale of a man from a small town raised on hard-working values. But there was nothing routine about Olson building a basketball power out in the middle of the desert.

The coaching fraternity is tight. There are often what-if scenarios. LUTE looks back at Olson taking over Long Beach State in 1973 when Jerry Tarkanian left for UNLV. Olson was there for only one season, going 24-2, and the documentary goes into the reasons why it was such a short stint. Who knows what might have happened if Olson stayed longer.

Olson’s next stop was at Iowa where he led the program to the Final Four in 1980. That was a lofty accomplishment considering the Hawkeyes haven’t been back since. He parlayed his success there into taking the Arizona job in 1983.

What Olson created from scratch in Tucson was special. It’s not like Arizona had an extensive tradition to lure recruits. UCLA was the giant out West. Olson’s Wildcats eventually surpassed the Bruins to become the premiere program in the then-Pac 10. LUTE dives into that journey and how committed he was to his vision, even turning down a chance to become the coach at Kentucky.

Rapkin could have expanded on that sliding doors moment, because the guy who wound up in charge of Kentucky was Rick Pitino. Curiously, the director did not. It’s one of the greatest what-ifs in college basketball. The decision worked out for both; each won a national championship at those schools. It was quite a coincidence that Olson’s title came at the expense of Pitino in 1997.

Before the 1997 championship, Arizona had a well-earned reputation for being underachievers. The most infamous loss was a first-round stunner to Steve Nash-led Santa Clara in 1993. It was only the second time that a No.2 seed lost to a No.15.

This pro-Arizona documentary doesn’t get into why the Wildcats came up short so often. But Steve Kerr, who played for Olson, does give voice to the frustration of the fans. Kerr says “Lute took a lot of heat for it. But that’s kind of the deal when you’re in the limelight as a coach or an athlete. You’re fair game.”

For a long time, Olson was known as the guy who couldn’t win the big one. 

The disappointments made the breakthrough in ’97 that much sweeter. Arizona (25-9, 11-7) not only didn’t win the conference. The Wildcats finished in fifth place in the Pac-10 and were a No.4 seed entering the NCAA tournament. LUTE explains how Arizona made its run, including the return of veteran guard Miles Simon, who was academically ineligible for the first half of the season.

Arizona wasn’t a fluke that year. The Wildcats beat three No.1 seeds (bluebloods Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky) over 11 days, including Kentucky in overtime in the championship game. But as magical as the 1996-97 team was, the 1997-98 squad was also noteworthy. They were the preseason No.1 overall, returning a loaded backcourt of  Terry, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, and Simon. They entered the NCAA tournament 27-4 and were the No.1 seed in the West. But they were stunned in the Elite Eight against a Utah team using an unorthodox triangle-and-two zone defense

LUTE skips over the ’98 upset. That’s a shame because it’s also a part of the Olson narrative. The documentary ends abruptly and there’s little mentioned about Olson’s final seasons, including going 30-7 and reaching the Elite Eight in 2004-05. He last coached in 2007.

Olson was one-of-a-kind. This documentary leaves you wanting to learn more about him and what made him tick. 

LUTE will debut on CBS Sports Network on Dec.7 at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

[Graphic via The Arizona Daily Star]

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.