When visitors first come to Tucson, some notice the towering Catalina Mountains first and the way it lights up with colors during sunset. For others, they notice the iconic desert landscapes that could easily be a shot in any old Western film.
For me, I see Tucson the same way I did when I moved here from Iowa more than 30 years ago to start the most rewarding part of my career. I also see it through the eyes of the hundreds of recruits I brought to the town for the first time, and the excitement in their eyes as I showed off the place that I call home.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Tucson had a wild, wild West appeal to me. But, having never been there before coaching for the University of Arizona, like so many others who have never visited Tucson before, I expected more ruggedness, less diversity and certainly not the small-town friendliness that defines Tucson today. For this Midwestern boy, I immediately felt at ease with Tucson’s beauty and the friendliness of the people.
I always say that I’ve never met a stranger here.
The University of Arizona’s basketball program, as you can imagine, kept me very busy over the years. But, during my downtime, I found opportunities to relax outdoors. This included exploring the Desert Museum, hiking Sabino and Ventana canyons, visiting Saguaro National Park and golfing at La Paloma Country Club, which I still belong to today.
I traveled often out-of-state during each season, so when I did have time, I enjoyed small road trips across Arizona. My favorite has always been the Sedona area – the natural red rocks has to be one of the most beautiful sites in nature I have ever seen. Flagstaff is another favorite, especially when there’s enough snow to ski Arizona Snow Bowl, just a short drive from the northern Arizona town.
While I have spent my fair share of time exploring Arizona, Tucson is, and always will be, my favorite city. I think my passion for the community was often just as strong as it was for the University of Arizona, and I enjoyed when new recruits visited Tucson for the first time. You could see the look in their eyes when they fell in love with the campus and city, taking in the experience of what it would be like as a student athlete at UofA. I loved that look – it was one of excitement, anticipation and pride in a college campus and town that fully embraced the Arizona Wildcats.
I, along with the other coaches, would show recruits around U of A. To this day, I believe the U of A staff is one of the friendliest of all college campuses, a true reflection of Tucson’s small-town community. We had a little fun with them too; some of the coaches would even warn our East Coast recruits to watch out for snakes.
Over the years, I became an unofficial ambassador for Tucson. Not only did I help recruit the most talented young basketball players to the city, but I managed to convince my family to make their way West. In our early days, my late wife Bobbi and I would call our children from the Jacuzzi in the middle of the Winter and brag about how we were enjoying the nice weather and the view of the mountains. We told them if we missed the snow, we could drive 30 minutes and be throwing snowballs in the Catalinas. One by one, all of our children moved their families out here and our grandchildren grew up in Tucson.
Like me, my family immediately felt at home. For those who haven’t been to Tucson or spent a significant amount of time here, it’s the kind of place where the people smile when you pass by. They are kind and genuine. When Bobbi passed away, the community’s support was unbelievable. I had always felt completely embraced by the community, but after Bobbi’s passing, I felt like Tucson residents had become family.
After handing over the reins as head coach in 2008, I eventually became an official ambassador for the University of Arizona and Tucson, traveling across the country talking about everything the college has to offer. I get to spread the word about the great place I chose to spend my retirement. Of course like most in the community, one of my favorite things to do is attend UofA basketball games – the toughest ticket to get in town – but I also enjoy quiet strolls with my wife Kelly and our dog. And if we bump into someone during our walk, I can always count on a friendly wave, smile or hello.
Lute Olson is the retired legendary basketball coach at the University of Arizona and in 2002 was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball.