Skip to content

Debate!: Who you got? Lute Olson or Jim Calhoun

Sep 14, 2012, 11:05 AM EST

200249331-001

In 2008, Lute Olson retired from coaching at the ripe old age of 74, having spent the past 25 years taking Arizona from a West Coast afterthought and turning them into a national championship program that was a mainstay in the top 25 through the majority of his tenure. Just four years later, Jim Calhoun retired from UConn having built the Huskies into one of the nation’s premier basketball programs when no one believed it could be. 

Both Calhoun and Olson single-handedly built programs from the ground up and turned them into national players in locations where basketball wasn’t a priority. But here’s the question of the hour: who was more impressive? Whose is the better “program builder”? Raphielle and I will now do our best sports bar impression and argue this out. Hopefully, things stay peaceful. 

Rob: UConn basketball was nothing prior to Jim Calhoun arriving on campus from Northeastern in 1986. In their seven seasons in the Big East up to that point, UConn had managed to make just a single NCAA tournament and, when Calhoun was hired, were coming off of 9-19 season. Within four years, Calhoun had managed to win the NIT, take home the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and advance to within a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from the Final Four. As of his Thursday retirement, UConn had won 10 regular season conference titles, seven conference tournament titles, made four Final Fours and taken home three national championships. Those 25 years are packed with more history and tradition than all but a handful of programs have managed to put together since James Naismith invented the sport.

Raphielle: When Lute Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983 the Wildcats were just five years removed from joining the then-Pac-10, and it would be an understatement to say that the Wildcats he found weren’t equipped to be a factor in the conference. That changed quickly. He took a team that won four games with little talent and pushed them to 11 in his first campaign, and from that point forward Olson would fail to reach 20 wins in a season just twice: 1986-87 and 2007-08. Like Calhoun with Bridgeport’s Chris Smith, Olson’s most important recruiting victory early on was keeping Tucson native Sean Elliott in the Old Pueblo. By the time Elliott was a junior (Olson’s fifth season) the Wildcats were in their first Final Four. From that point forward it was almost as if Olson ran a conveyer belt from McKale Center to the NBA, and a number of those players had a tangible impact at the next level. Olson won 608 games in his 25 seasons at Arizona, which works out to an average of 24 wins per season (24.3 to be exact), 11 Pac-10 championships, five Final Four appearances and a national title in 1997. And we can’t gloss over him taking the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances (yes 1999 was vacated but that’s a bit silly) either.

Rob: I’ll give you consistency. The fact that Olson was able to get Arizona to 23 straight NCAA tournaments is downright mystifying. Calhoun had some ugly season mixed in with his national titles. But the key word in that sentence is “titles”. Plural. Calhoun won three of them, and while there may be some element of luck when it comes to his 3-0 record in national title games, the fact of the matter is that Calhoun was able to capitalize when he had the talent on his roster.

And while Olson’s track record of getting players to the NBA is inarguable, it’s not like Calhoun was winning with future all-Euroleague players. He sent just as many players to the next level. What’s most impressive about Calhoun’s pros is that there weren’t many that entered the program as guaranteed lottery picks. Andre Drummond was a pro, everyone knew that. The same with Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva. But Jeremy Lamb wasn’t a top 10 recruit. Ray Allen was overlooked coming out of high school, and he went on to become the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Emeka Okafor chose UConn over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and went on to become national player of the year and the No. 2 pick. Ben Gordon was the No. 3 pick that year, and he was closer to a top 50 recruit than he was a guaranteed NBA all-star.

Raphielle: Oh here we go with the “titles” talk. Yes titles are important, there’s no denying that. But let me ask you something: which power forward are you taking, Robert Horry (7 titles) or Charles Barkley (0 titles)? There’s the flaw in that argument, because winning a championship involves a certain level of luck in addition to skill. Were there a few forgettable “one and done” trips for Olson? Yes, but to get your team to the tournament for 23 straight years is a major achievement. And in those 23 trips the Wildcats’ average seed was a 4-seed (4.4 to be exact).

As for the NBA talent we can argue that one all night as both programs have sent many players to the NBA to not just occupy a roster space but make things happen. But which school is known as “Point Guard U”? I’ve got love for Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best but we’re not talking Georgia Tech here. That would be Arizona, with players such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner have run the show at one point or another. When it comes to “unexpected” pros, how many thought Gilbert Arenas would become what he was (pre-idiotic gun incident) when he was in high school? And he’s got a nice list of off-guards/wings when looking at players such as Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala and Miles Simon (just to name three).

Rob: The Robert Horry-Charles Barkley comparison isn’t fair. Players are much different than coaches. The better comparison, in my opinion, would be who would you rather have coaching your team in the NBA: Pat Riley or Lenny Wilkens?

There’s no denying Olson’s success with point guards (can’t believe you didn’t mention Kenny Lofton in with that group). That also just so happens to be the only position where UConn doesn’t have a storied history when it comes to producing NBA players.

Thus far, we’ve determined that Olson was really good at putting together teams that earned four seeds and sent point guards to the NBA while Calhoun could develop off-guards, wings and big men while building teams that won titles. That right?

Raphielle: Pat Riley was the epitome of smooth, so I’ll give you that argument. I didn’t mention Lofton because he went pro in baseball; I’d think that his raw athleticism (didn’t play baseball until his junior year and ended up getting drafted despite limited PT) had more to do with that.

And I notice that you conveniently left out Olson’s title in your wrapping up of the discussion. That suddenly not count? Yes Calhoun has more, that’s been established, but do we really just say “well Lute produced point guards and 4-seeds”? Winning titles is about luck in another aspect: recruiting. If your school produces guards at a higher rate it’s going to be tougher land the elite big men that generally win titles at the college level (Duke 2010 being the most recent exception). Just ask Villanova’s 2006 team what happened when they ran into Joakim Noah, Al Horford and company. But back to Arizona, in the Final Four trips they lost the Wildcats ran into Stacey King (1988), Corliss Williamson (1994) and Carlos Boozer (2001). Those great big men at the pro level? Hell no, but they were damn good in college. All I’m saying is that in a one-and-done scenario you have to be careful to completely gloss over how much of a crapshoot the tournament is.

Rob: Changing gears a bit, the most interesting part about the debate between Calhoun vs. Olson is how similar their exits were. Both found themselves caught up in NCAA red tape (Calhoun because of Nate Miles and the APR, Olson because of the Cactus Classic) while battling health issues, which eventually became too much and resulted in a September retirement.

The difference, however, is that UConn ended up with Calhoun’s “coach-in-waiting” — Kevin Ollie — getting a chance at the job, while Mike Dunlap couldn’t work things out with the Arizona brass to take over for Olson. It worked out for the Wildcats, however, as their interim coach led them to the Sweet 16 (quite Olson-esque, eh?) before Sean Miller took over and became arguably the best recruiter in the country this side of Coach Cal.

More institutional pull = better coach, right?

Raphielle: Yeah but Calhoun also finished out “in his office” so to speak, so I wouldn’t be so quick to make that correlation. More difficult to have a say when you’re not around on a consistent basis. That led to Olson not getting his wish of Dunlap being the man more than anything. Arizona mishandled that situation for three years and frankly lucked out that Sean Miller was available (oh, he landed Rondae Jefferson today). And Ollie got a 1-year contract, which while it’s something that he’s more than used to given his NBA career it’s not the best situation to have on the recruiting trail. So sure Calhoun “won” in getting his guy the job, but we’re really not going to know how big of a win it is until next March when their season ends and Ollie is evaluated.

So who’s got the “juice”? Guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

Latest Posts
  1. Rebounding, foul shooting help No. 2 Duke make up for 19 turnovers in win over UConn

    Dec 19, 2014, 12:41 AM EST

    Mike Krzyzewski Mike Krzyzewski

    Even with the win there are things Duke needs to improve upon, most notably the fact that they’ve committed 36 turnovers over the last two games.

  2. Late Night Snacks: No. 2 Duke, No. 6 Virginia move to 10-0

    Dec 18, 2014, 10:45 PM EST

    Ryan Boatright, Tyus Jones Ryan Boatright, Tyus Jones

    Also of note was Ole Miss avoiding what would have been their fourth home loss of the season.

  3. Right foot injury to sideline Tennessee forward for at least one game

    Dec 18, 2014, 8:44 PM EST

    Steve Taylor Jr., Kevin Punter, Jabari McGhee AP

    Jabari McGhee suffered the injury in Tennessee’s loss to NC State on Wednesday.

  4. Michigan State starting forward to miss next two games with non-displaced wrist fracture

    Dec 18, 2014, 7:09 PM EST

    Branden Dawson, Brandon Nazione AP

    Branden Dawson is the team’s leading rebounder, as he’s grabbing 8.7 boards per contest.

  5. Minnesota adds 6-foot-9 freshman power forward to roster

    Dec 18, 2014, 5:59 PM EST

    Richard Pitino AP

    Gaston Diedhiou was denied admission to Minnesota during the summer, and he is now eligible immediately after passing an English proficiency exam.

  6. New Year’s Resolutions: San Diego State Aztecs

    Dec 18, 2014, 5:08 PM EST

    Steve Fisher AP

    While the focus has been on the Aztecs’ shooting percentages, their ability to find quality looks has been a big reason why they’ve struggled.

  7. Pregame Shootaround: Is Duke-UConn a rivalry?

    Dec 18, 2014, 3:45 PM EST

    brimah AP

    When do we start counting Duke-UConn as a rivalry?

  8. Louisville loses former top 100 big man to transfer

    Dec 18, 2014, 3:33 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Agau was buried on the Louisville bench with a number of young guys in front of him.

  9. Film Session: What’s plaguing Marcus Paige?

    Dec 18, 2014, 2:34 PM EST

    Marcus Paige (Getty Images) Marcus Paige (Getty Images)

    A deep look into the early-season struggles of Marcus Paige and whether or not they are fixable.

  10. Throwback Thursday: UConn ‘Shocks The World’ against Duke (VIDEO)

    Dec 18, 2014, 12:48 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    The last two times these teams have squared off in big games, the outcome has been memorable.

  11. New Year’s Resolutions: Virginia Cavaliers

    Dec 18, 2014, 10:53 AM EST

    Justin Anderson (AP Photo) Justin Anderson (AP Photo)

    Three-point shooting might be the key to the Virginia season.

  12. Lauren Hill’s playing career over, to become honorary coach

    Dec 18, 2014, 9:59 AM EST

    Lauren Hill AP

    She may not be playing anymore, but Lauren’s time with the basketball program has not yet come to an end.

  13. Cal Poly’s David Nwaba spins through traffic for a two-handed finish (VIDEO)

    Dec 18, 2014, 8:45 AM EST

    Cal Poly Athletics Cal Poly Athletics

    David Nwaba scored 11 second-half points to help lead the Mustangs back from a 14-points halftime deficit. Here are two of those points.

  14. Cody Doolin’s late-game heroics push UNLV past Portland (VIDEO)

    Dec 18, 2014, 8:00 AM EST

    Will Cummings, Cody Doolin AP

    Doolin finished the game with 15 points, three assists and no turnovers, and made two huge plays to get UNLV the two-point win over Portland.

  15. American’s struggles makes Cincinnati’s win over San Diego State enormous

    Dec 18, 2014, 12:04 AM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    This is the first win that the American has landed over a ranked team.

  16. Michigan State’s Branden Dawson suffers sprained left wrist in win over Eastern Michigan

    Dec 18, 2014, 12:00 AM EST

    Branden Dawson, Jalen Hayes, Matt Costello AP

    Dawson’s injury occurred on the same night that freshman Javon Bess made his regular season debut for the Spartans.

  17. Senior forward/center Erik Copes leaves George Mason program

    Dec 17, 2014, 10:33 PM EST

    Fordham v George Mason Fordham v George Mason

    Copes played in just four games this season due to injury.

  18. Green Bay with an off-the-glass alley-oop in a half court set (VIDEO)

    Dec 17, 2014, 10:07 PM EST

    AP AP

    The best part is that it was very much intentional

  19. Late Night Snacks: Ralston Turner, Trevor Lacey lead NC State past Tennessee

    Dec 17, 2014, 9:20 PM EST

    Ralston Turner AP

    Delaware State’s Amere May scored more points than anyone in college basketball has this season.

  20. Already lacking front court depth, Siena loses starting forward to ankle injury

    Dec 17, 2014, 8:19 PM EST

    Lavon Long,Karachi Edo Lavon Long,Karachi Edo

    With Lavon Long and Brett Bisping now sidelined, the Saints are without their two best rebounders.