Josh Pastner remembers mentor Lute Olson

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner (right) confers on the bench with coaching legend Lute Olson (left) during Pastner's time as an Arizona assistant coach.

Credit: Courtesy Josh Pastner

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Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner (right) confers on the bench with coaching legend Lute Olson (left) during Pastner's time as an Arizona assistant coach.

Credit: Courtesy Josh Pastner

Credit: Courtesy Josh Pastner

One of Josh Pastner’s favorite stories about Lute Olson happened when he was a senior playing at Arizona for Olson, the legendary coach who died Thursday night at the age of 85.

The Georgia Tech coach was a walk-on, and his role in games was solely when they were out of reach, invariably in favor of the Wildcats. On Jan. 29, 2000, No. 5 Arizona played at LSU. Pastner recalls teammates being rattled by Mike the Tiger and a sold-out crowd at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“We got our butts kicked by LSU,” Pastner said. “They kicked our rear end left and right.”

Toward the end of the 86-60 defeat, which to that point was the worst of Olson’s career at Arizona, Pastner prepared to go in the game to relieve his teammates. However, Olson never waved him in. The next day, as the team boarded a plane to fly back to Arizona, Pastner got his explanation when he filed past Olson’s seat.

“And he stopped me, and he said, ‘Josh, I want to apologize for not putting you in, but I wanted you to be able to leave as an undefeated player, so you can tell your kids and grandkids that you were undefeated as a player here at Arizona,’” Pastner recalled this week in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Indeed, to that point, Arizona had won every game that he had appeared in, and it would remain that way, 42 wins against no losses. Twenty years later, Olson’s awareness and mindfulness of Pastner’s distinction are qualities that Pastner found telling.

“That sums it up right there,” Pastner said. “For him to even think about that and that thought process is unbelievable.”

Pastner gushed with praise for Olson, a singular figure in his life. Pastner first played four seasons for Olson, then worked his way up the bench to become an assistant coach for six years (one season for Olson’s successor, Kevin O’Neill) before moving on to Memphis. As a player and then staff member, he was with Olson for 11 seasons.

“I just think he’s, first of all, one of the greatest human beings ever,” Pastner said. “I’m forever indebted to him and so grateful and so appreciative that words can’t describe my feelings towards him. He’s one of the greatest coaches to ever coach, and he’s one of the vastly underrated coaches.”

At Arizona, Olson transformed a team that had been to three NCAA tournaments in school history and had five consecutive losing seasons at the time of his hire (1983) into a national powerhouse. After an 11-17 record in his first season, the Wildcats reached the NCAA tournament in his final 23 seasons. Under Olson, they reached the Final Four four times, won a national championship (1997, Pastner’s freshman season), won 20 games or more in 20 consecutive seasons and won 11 Pac-10 championships. Olson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

It is largely overlooked that he had built up Iowa prior to his arrival at Arizona. The Hawkeyes had likewise been to three NCAA tournaments in school history, but reached the tournament in the final five of his nine seasons (1974-83), including a Final Four appearance.

Pastner learned plenty in 11 seasons, observing his work ethic and skill as a floor coach and recruiter, but also his character.

“He was so kindhearted,” Pastner said. “He was very, very loyal. He cared for people. He demanded excellence. I mean, he was tough on guys when you played for him, but every guy, when they left, they would come back and they loved the guy.”

Pastner said he has kept every practice plan from each practice that he took part in with Olson, first as a player and then as a staff member. The latter plans are filed in a binder in his office, and he occasionally refers to them still.

“His teams were always so prepared and so good because, I truly believe, he was one of the best practice coaches to ever coach and maybe the best,” Pastner said. “I don’t say that lightly.”

Olson’s health had declined since he suffered a stroke in 2019. With the end near, Pastner said he had spoken with Olson periodically this summer, including one last call in recent days.

“I’ve been able to speak to him recently, to be able to make sure he knew how I felt, which was a really tough call for me,” Pastner said. “But I wanted to make sure he knew how I felt, which I’ve always told him. I’ve never been shy to tell him how much I love him and appreciate him so much. I just wanted to say that one more final time to him.”

Going into his fifth season at Tech, Pastner will carry on without his professional mentor, with memories, practice plans and a career to remember him by.

“He gave me an opportunity to come to Arizona as a student-athlete,” Pastner said. “I was part of a team that won a national championship. That’s almost impossible to do. He allowed me to stay and work my way up from an undergraduate assistant coach to a video coordinator to a full assistant. He opened doors. I wouldn’t be the head coach at Georgia Tech if he didn’t open those doors for me.”

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