Sports

Lute Olson and the championship that never was

The year was 1974 and Barbra Stresiand’s “The Way We Were” blared over the Billboard Hot 100 chart across the nation.

Long Beach State men’s basketball team would go on to climb its own charts that year.

Head coach Lute Olson sits with his team during team photo day in 1974. Photo courtesy Glenn McDonald.

Posting a 24-2 record and achieving the program’s most successful season in its history under legendary coach Lute Olson, the Beach was robbed of a shot at the National Collegiate Athletic Association title.

After losing only to Marquette University and University of Colorado by just two points, the team was slated to take it all. 

Under Olson, the 49ers were ranked as high as third in the nation behind coach John Wooden and Bill Walton‘s University of California, Los Angeles squad.

Whathe did for that program in the one year he was there, particularly when you consider the level of experience that Lute had given he had never had coached at a four-year level, was incredible,” said Jim McCormack, former Press Telegram sports editor and Long Beach State sports reporter. “There was a real cloud over the program because of the possibility that they were going to go on probation.” 

Before coming to coach at the Beach after a four-year career at Long Beach City College, Olson wanted to make sure there were going to be no obstructions standing in his way of winning a championship. 

Coach Olson looks for mistakes made on the court before calling a timeout. Photo Courtesy of Jim McCormack

Former head coach Jerry Tarkanian, after turning the Beach into a national powerhouse, got the team banned from appearing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. 

The team was also put on a three-year probation mid-season due to recruiting violations during his five year career. 

Olson was told at the time of his transfer that Long Beach was not going to be put on probation. He believed them but was not told the truth.

With a dream roster in place, the Beach in ‘74 was taking the NCAA by storm under Olson. 

“He inherited a team that was just loaded. I mean he had Clifton Pondexter, Roscoe Pondexter, Leonard Gray and Glenn McDonald,” McCormack said. “All four of those guys were among the first 53 players taken in the 1974 NBA draft that year.”

Glenn McDonald takes a minute to catch his breath during an exhibition game in 1974. Photo Courtesy of Glenn McDonald

According to former NBA champion and Boston Celtics small forward, Glenn McDonald, Olson came into the head coaching position knowing he wasn’t just going to focus on one person, but rather looking to distribute the ball around equally.

Coming from LBCC, Olson’s style of play revolved around giving every possible player an opportunity to score. 

“We didn’t know what we were getting with a new coach. Lute had come in after Tarkanian as a father figure but had different ways he did things,” McDonald said. “Lute was a true family man. He and his wife, Bobbi, together were just family people. He tried to implement how to grow up strong, young men and I really looked up to him to care about you as a person.”

Olson earned respect early on and was unparalleled in the way he protected his players.

The Beach that season, according to McCormack, was treated like a motorcycle gang due to the sanctions. They were constantly heckled and tormented on the road.

“Lute’s purposefulness and professionalism was far beyond his coaching experience. It was really impressive how the kids just rallied around him and stayed together,” McCormack said. “I just have nothing but absolute respect for Lute. Lute treated me really professionally and was successfully candid.” 

Coach Olson comes off the bench to give the team direction during a game. Photo Courtesy of Jim McCormack

Olson would spend time that season tapping deep into players to unlock better performances. 

McDonald was mainly known as a defensive specialist throughout the duration of his career at the Beach, until he met Olson. Like with any other player, Olson pushed McDonald for greatness, and greatness he met.

Playing a pivotal role in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, he scored eight points in the third overtime period as the Boston Celtics won 128-126.

The Celtics went on to win the championship in six games.

Lute remembered in high school when I would score 30 points in a game. He’d tell me ‘When are you going to start looking to score more?’ He just had a way that you knew he was for you,” McDonald said. “There was no favoritism, we won as a team and lost as a team.”

Dennis Pitts, a season ticket holder and athletic booster member since 1972, recalled how  

Olson impacted the team during his time at the Beach. 

The year that Lute was here was, for me, a busy year because the age of my kids were fairly young at the time. We had season tickets for the games at Long Beach,” Pitts said. “We would have functions after the game where we would interview players and Lute was always so friendly.” 

In addition to being a force on the court, Olson was a well-respected leader at home and in the community as well. 

Olson first met his wife, Bobbi Russel, in 1951 while singing in the Grand Forks, North Dakota church choir. 

Two years later while attending Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the couple was married. 

Together for nearly 47 years, Olson’s love was split over his wife, his five children and his admiration for the game. 

“What I admire most about Lute was his affection for his wife, Bobbi,” McCormack said. “The road can be a really tempting place for a lot of coaches, but his steadfast love for his wife and his behavior on the road was impeccable.”

Throughout a Hall of Fame career, Olson spent 25 years coaching at the University of Arizona and nine for the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

In over 30 seasons of being a head coach, Olson only had one losing year. 

Olson compiled a 781–280 record (.736) and is still  tied for the most NCAA tournament appearances with 28 in 34 seasons as a Division I head coach. 

“Lute really made you just say, ‘I need to play for this man,’” McDonald said. “Him coming from a junior college, we knew we were good, but when Lute came in, he was a real winner and hated to lose.”

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