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Behind the success: the Olson story

By on Jul. 17, 2015 in Women's Basketball

Behind the success: the Olson story

By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications

It’s a Tuesday evening in the middle of July and two brothers have reunited over a familiar round, orange and leather-coated object that has been prevalent in their lives since birth. Jarrod Olson, now 41, drives and whirls a pass back out top to Drew Olson, 35, who rises and fires a three. They narrowly miss out on the Olson-to-Olson scoring connection.

No matter, it’s simply one play in a series of pick-up games taking place inside Walz Arena on the Concordia University campus. It’s 2015 and the Olsons, as competitive as ever, still mix it up with players much younger. On this night the two brothers from Omaha pit themselves against foes mostly comprised of Bulldog men’s basketball coach Ben Limback’s budding squad – and they still hold their own.

Afterwards they join each other in the Walz athletic offices and answer questions regarding basketball, family and faith. Currently the head women’s basketball coach at California Baptist University, Jarrod jokes, “I stunk tonight.”

Again, no matter. Drew and Jarrod are doing what they love. It’s what they’ve always done. They used to play often as their mother Olinda Olson looked on from her wheelchair. Perhaps on this evening, Olinda is looking on proudly from a higher perch, somewhere in the Heavens.

Rich in success

In 1989, Rich Olson, the father of Drew and Jarrod, as well as daughter Kindra, won his first Nebraska girl’s high school state championship. It was only a start for a man that received induction into the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame in 2012. He won another state title in 1992. Then another in 1996 and another in 2005. He’s become well known for his many years coaching girl’s hoops at Millard South, Lincoln Northeast and Lincoln Lutheran, among many other schools – and he’s won everywhere he’s been. He even served a year as an assistant at Concordia on Drew’s staff.

He once left coaching briefly to work in a bank. He was a fish out of water. Like his two sons, he belongs in the gym.

“My dad was a sports guy,” says Rich. “He was a teacher and coach. We’ve always been around sports. I played basketball at Lincoln Northeast and then I played two years – I didn’t really play – I sat on the bench for two years at Nebraska. I knew then after my first year that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to coach. I’ve been coaching since 1971. Here I am a whole bunch of years later.”

Like father, like son, Jarrod and Drew have followed suit. Over the past nine years, the two have led their respective collegiate women’s basketball programs to a combined record of 409-164.

Clearly they were drilled hard by their father on the finer points of coaching and steered relentlessly toward a career in the profession. Wrong. Says Rich, “That was never ever a goal. It wasn’t anything we talked about. Their mom and I just tried to make life as simple as possible and tried to make every day count.”

Making every day count is what the Olson story is all about.

Defining a new normal

Behind these successful coaches, stood the rock of the family, Olinda, whom Rich married in 1970. Courageous and fervent in her faith, Olinda likely never imagined the type of impact she would have on the lives of countless others. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was 1982 and Jarrod, Kindra and Drew were ages 7, 5 and 2, respectively. Life would never be the same in the Olson household.

For a disease that struck gradually, ALS hit the Olson family like a train by the time Jarrod reached the age of 12. That’s when Olinda, needing a trachea installed to help her breathe, lost the ability to speak. The three siblings grew accustomed to helping their mom and having nurses in the home. They often made her meals, fed her or helped her to the bathroom. But now they couldn’t even communicate verbally with her.

Life rifled plenty of challenges at a family that took everything in stride. They constantly worked to redefine normal in the midst of a decidedly abnormal set of circumstances. Says Rich, “It wasn’t normal. That’s correct. When you take out a lot of the little things in life and try to focus on the really big things, it makes things seem more normal. I don’t really know how to put it other than that. It’s hard to say what’s normal and what isn’t.”

Other than watching her lose the ability to speak, Jarrod says that seeing his mother move into an assisted living facility proved to be the other big shock to the system. Drew had recently finished college (2003 Concordia graduate) when Olinda had to be transferred to a new home that could provide 24-hour care. Says Drew, “That was rough.”

There were certainly moments when Drew wondered ‘why.’ Explains Drew, “I definitely had times where I struggled with it in those adolescent years. I struggled with why. Why would mom get that disease? I think it wasn’t until after being at Concordia for college and then coming back here that it helped me strengthen my faith.”

Jarrod never asked why. He figured it was just one of those challenges that people sometimes face. Looking back, he marvels at the way his parents handled a situation that harbored the potential to tear the family apart. Rich and Olinda refused to let that happen.

Gym rats

Drew and Jarrod found their sanctuary on the hardwood. Though separated in age by more than five years, the two developed an intensely special bond that carries on today. Unsurprisingly, their brotherhood was defined, at least in part, by their love of basketball. The two boys played constantly at nearby Millard South High School, never missing a chance to hit up the open gym. They often played every day from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. and then again from 6 until 9 at night.

Though a big-time winner as a high school basketball coach, Rich never wanted to get pushy with his sons. Around Jarrod and Drew, Rich took off his coaching hat. He was simply dad. “Never, ever,” Rich responded when asked how much coaching he did of his two sons. “We just played. From the time that they were little, we always had a basketball hoop in the basement. We would just go play. That was fun. It wasn’t a matter of coaching or teaching them anything. This was fun. That was the whole deal. That was our time together.”

As a father, Rich learned his lesson. Once when Drew was playing as a seventh grader, Rich, sitting on the end of the bleachers, barked at an official and received a technical (Though disputed by Rich, Drew says his dad was tossed from the game). From that point on Rich brought a crossword puzzle to games and sat near the top of the bleachers. For the most part, he used a hands off approach when it came to basketball and his children.

That was fine for the Olson brothers, who played many youth games and for travel teams without their parents in attendance. The demands of Rich’s coaching, coupled with Olinda’s needs, sometimes prevented Rich and Olinda from seeing Jarrod and Drew play. Says Jarrod, “It’s weird because mom and dad just didn’t come to my games that much. When you grow up in a basketball family, everybody’s got a game. It was just different. I kind of enjoyed it actually.” Added Drew, “There were a lot of things that made us more mature earlier. I think that was one of them.”

Circumstances allowed Rich and Olinda to see more of their sons’ games in college. Jarrod chose to play at Doane College, where he would go on to total more than 2,000 career points. Just a few years later, after ultimately ending up at Concordia for his final three seasons, Drew starred for two national tournament teams under then head coach Grant Schmidt.

Rich, Olinda and Jarrod were all there the night a blizzard swirled and whited out Seward for the GPAC tournament championship game on March 1, 2003. Drew went for 22 points to help lead the Bulldogs to a 90-82 overtime victory over visiting Dordt in a packed PE Buidling gym on the Concordia University campus. Says Drew, “It was the greatest sports moment I’ve ever had. Jarrod, mom and dad were in the corner. It was a great game, but I’ll never forget that those three were there. That made it even more special.”

‘Just the way we did things’

For roughly a 10-year period, Rich slept on the floor beside Olinda in her hospital bed after she had the trachea installed. He would wake in the middle of the night and tend to her needs. The arrangement was uncomfortable to be sure, but it made sense from a financial standpoint. But this was more than money. This was about love and commitment.

Says Drew, “The sacrifices that dad made were pretty impressive. He slept beside her bed for I don’t know how many years. It wasn’t a normal marriage. I know they got frustrated at times, but that’s normal in most relationships. I don’t think he really ever complained a whole lot. He was a big fighter.”

Rich downplays the sacrifices he made, saying, “That was just the way we did things.” Just the way they did things meant finding a way to get Olinda to as many games as she could. She was present for many of the big moments in Rich’s coaching career. She went to nearly all state tournament games, and it didn’t matter if the snow was falling and the unforgiving Nebraska wind was whipping.

Her support meant so much to Rich and to his teams. Olinda could not speak, but she offered encouragement by writing notes on her specialized computer. She could not type with her hands, but advancements in technology brought about an eye-computer that used a sensor to type each letter that Olinda’s eyes focused upon. She spent long hours writing notes for players and also typing a cookbook to keep her mind sharp.

The notes were a significant boost for Rich’s players, who made a point to return the gesture. Says Rich, “One of our traditions when one of my teams made it to the state tournament, as the players were introduced, each one of them would run over to Olinda and give her a rose. I know that it was an emotional moment for her, the players and me. It was one of those gestures that meant a lot to all people involved.”

For all the struggles in hospital rooms, there were these heart-warming moments that brought a family closer together. There was basketball and there was caring for mom. It was ‘just the way we did things.’

Finding a home at Concordia

Drew left home to head to Hastings College for his freshman year after a stellar career at Millard South. As Drew admits, the decision to go to Hastings was a mistake. Even big brother recognized it immediately. Recalls Jarrod, “I was really upset because I knew Hastings would be a horrible fit for Drew. It was. It was horrible.”

Drew decided to leave after just one season with the Broncos. This time Jarrod was going to make sure his little brother found the right place. Jarrod took matters into his own hands by making some phone calls. “I had just got done playing and I knew these guys. I was like, ‘I’m Jarrod. My brother Drew is going to transfer.’ I remember it like it was yesterday talking to Grant (Schmidt). He was just so excited that we were calling him and thought Drew would be perfect for his team. Looking back on it, Concordia was the perfect fit for Drew before he even knew it. The school itself has had such a big influence on him.”

Drew blew past 1,000 points over his three seasons and was the engine that kept Schmidt’s Bulldog locomotive humming through the early 2000s. Coming to Concordia proved to be one of the best decisions of his life. He grew spiritually, helping him better come to terms with the struggles his mother dealt with. He also met his wife, M’Leigh, at Concordia and will go down as one of the top coaches in the history of the school.

Drew soaked up everything he could from Schmidt and assistant coach Marty Kohlwey, now Drew’s top assistant. He calls the two of them some of his major influences in coaching and in life.

At Concordia, Drew is at home.

Olinda: faithful ‘til the end

Olinda first noticed something wasn’t right when she began having trouble gripping a golf club or tennis racket. She saw several doctors until finally being diagnosed with ALS upon a visit to the Mayo Clinic in 1982. Incredibly, Olinda beat the odds and lived a fulfilling life until her death on Aug. 25, 2014. Her funeral, which took place at Christ Lutheran Church in Lincoln, featured a YouTube video that played on the screens inside the church.

How did she find strength despite an inability to speak or walk for so many years? The answer was Jesus, one of the main themes in Olinda’s spiritually powerful testimonial video. Says Rich, “For Olinda, it became her life. Her kids were second and then the rest of us came in at various stages, but Jesus was first.”

Olinda became even stronger in her faith after her diagnosis. While Kindra and Jarrod were at school and Drew set down for a nap, she would spend hours praying. Early after the onset of ALS, Olinda made a request of the Lord: that she could see each of her children graduate from high school. Considering many who are diagnosed with ALS live only three to five years with the disease, her wish appeared optimistic.

Filled with God’s spirit, Olinda lived 32 years with ALS. She trusted God, never wavering in her faith no matter how terribly Satan tested her, as she put it. She could not be broken. Says Drew, “She had incredible faith. She always stuck to it. To have that disease for that long it could be really easy to turn or get mad at God, but she never did. She always used it for good. That’s the lesson that I hope everybody sees from her. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life and how bad it is, God is wanting you to use the good to show His love. She always did that."

Olinda closed her testimonial video, created three years prior to her death, by saying, “I believe I’m in God’s will and that’s what living’s all about.”

Jarrod and Drew reach the pinnacle

At just 25 years of age, Drew took over a Concordia women’s basketball program that the likes of Micah Parker and Todd Voss built into an NAIA power. Now the winningest coach in the history of Bulldog women’s basketball, Drew admits he was still learning when hired in 2006. Says Drew, “It was really scary because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. It was my first head coaching job and I had never coached women before. I always feel bad about that first team because I screwed up so many times. I wish I could go back and be better for them.”

It didn’t take long for Olson to show he was right for the job. His second team won 26 games and reached the national quarterfinals. The Bulldogs were in good hands.

Meanwhile, Jarrod made his major breakthrough as a head coach far from home (mom would not have wanted him to remain in Nebraska on her account alone). A former women’s basketball assistant for NCAA Division I Creighton, he landed a head job at Florida Southern before settling in his current spot at Cal Baptist. An already established basketball junkie, Jarrod “started coaching because I couldn’t play anymore.”

In 2015, both Drew and Jarrod again took teams to the national tournament. Once there, neither could stop winning. In an incredibly unique circumstance, the brothers both coached in national championship games in an 11-day span – Drew at the NAIA level and Jarrod at the NCAA Division II level.

Recalling that thrilling stretch, Rich beamed with pride. “It was unbelievable. Drew’s team was awesome all year long. You just came to expect things going along the way, but things went better than anticipated. There they were in the national championship game. Every time we were driving home from Sioux City we were trying to pay attention to Jarrod’s games that were in Alaska and they were winning there. It was just phenomenal, unbelievable.”

Suddenly, the tone changed as Rich reminisced. He began to break down. One thing had been missing from that March madness. Rich continued, “Olinda is so responsible for how they conduct themselves and how successful they are. The lessons she taught them made their success possible. I’m grateful for what they’ve accomplished and we miss her not being a physical part of it.”

Added Drew, “I don’t think my mom was looking down. I think she was enjoying Heaven and praising God. She would definitely be proud of us, but she was proud regardless of us being in national championships or not.”

It’s been less than a year since Olinda’s passing, her memory still vivid. As said by Drew, she’s “enjoying Heaven” while her husband, Drew and Jarrod are each revving up for another basketball season. They play and coach on, because it’s what they do. It’s what Olinda would want them to do.