The Surprise Team

Jan. 14, 2005

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Editor’s Note: Coach Steve Alford’s Iowa Hawkeyes will entertain Minnesota Saturday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and, as part of the annual Iowa Basketball Lettermen’s Day activities, the UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics will celebrate the silver anniversary of the 1980 Iowa Hawkeyes who advanced to the Final Four. The following was written by Marc Hansen and first appeared in April 4, 2000 editions of the Des Moines Register.

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Twenty years ago, before shot clocks and three-point field goals and Selection Sundays and diaper dandies and $6 billion TV contracts, the Iowa basketball team was here at the Final Four.

Right here in the heart of Hoosier hysteria. There was no RCA Dome. The game was played at 6-year-old Market Square Arena.

There was no Conseco Fieldhouse. No revitalized downtown, no NCAA headquarters.

The Circle City was truly India-no-place, the racetrack in the cornfield.It was a different time, a more innocent time when the Hawkeyes met Louisville to see who would play for the national championship. The Final Four had yet to become a rotating Mardi Gras. It was big, it was business, but it was still mostly basketball.

And the Hawkeyes were the surprise team. What were they doing in the Final Four with Louisville and UCLA? They were barely a Final Four team in their own conference. How did this Big Ten conference team with the 10-8 league record end up two victories from the title?

“We were a little like Wisconsin this year,” Says Steve Krafcisin, now the head coach at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. “Wisconsin didn’t have a superstar like we did in Ronnie, but nobody thought we’d get there, nobody knew who we were.”

They knew Ronnie Lester, who’d injured a knee earlier in the year. But after Lester, the Hawkeyes were just one of 48 teams hoping to make the season last a little longer.

“We were 8-8 going into the last weekend at home. We had Michigan and Illinois left and I remember Coach (Lute) Olson saying we had to win the next two games to have a chance to make the tournament.”
1980 Hawkeye Steve Krafcisin

No. 7 Indiana, the league champ, and No. 10 Ohio State, the runner-up, were the marquee Big Ten teams that season. But Indiana lost to Joe Barry Carroll and Purdue in one regional semifinal, and Ohio State lost to UCLA in another and suddenly, the Big Ten found itself being represented by the Hawkeyes and the Boilermakers.

“We were 8-8 going into the last weekend at home,” Krafcisin says. “We had Michigan and Illinois left and I remember Coach (Lute) Olson saying we had to win the next two games to have a chance to make the tournament.”

They won those two games and refused to stop winning until they reached Indianapolis. They started with an 86-72 victory over Virginia Commonwealth, went through North Carolina State, 77-64, whipped Syracuse, 88-77, and won a trip to the Final Four on Steve Waite’s last-second shot against Georgetown, 81-80.

“VCU wasn’t a big upset,” Krafcisin says. “But when we beat N.C. State at Greensboro and Georgetown in Philadelphia and nobody could believe it. It was such a great ride. We’d finally adjusted to not having Ronnie during the season. Then we adjusted to playing with him.”

Lester, now a scout with the Lakers, had missed much of the conference season with a bad knee, only to return in time to give the Hawkeyes a huge lift toward the end of the season.

“We touched everybody’s heart that year,” Krafcisin says. “Everybody stopped and listened to the games. Everybody remembers where they were when Waiter made his shot. It still seems magical. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

If you want to know why the Hawkeyes get more TV time than Judge Judy during the long Iowa winters, start with this team and work your way to Indianapolis. If you want to know why the late Chris Street used to watch the Hawkeye games in his Hawkeye jammies as a kid, bookmark this Final Four.

Ask any Iowa fan over the age of 30. The Hawkeyes would have won it all if it hadn’t been for Lester’s knee. There he was, trading buckets with Darrell Griffith when the lights went out on the dream.

“We were finally in a place where we all felt we could make this run,” Krafcisin, who along with Waite, was one of the Hawkeyes Twin Towers. “Ronnie was going toe to toe with Griffith, then he goes down. It was hard to believe. It was like you gotta be kidding me. We thought, well, we did it once, we can deal with this. We still hung in there.”

So many memories. Krafcisin remembers the police escort to the Sheraton hotel in Indianapolis. He can still hear the sirens and see the lights. He can still hear the buzz in the hotel lobby as he and his teammates shouldered their way through the bumblebees there to greet them.

In all the tears shed over Lester’s injured knee, Krafcisin believes at least one point is often overlooked.

“We still played well together,” he says. “Kenny Arnold was as unsung as anyone on that team. He really picked up the scoring and ball handling. He did a great job and was underappreciated for what he meant to us. Most people know him now as the kid who got the brain tumor, but he was a heck of a player.”

Last Krafcisin heard, Arnold was back in Chicago, the tumor behind him. Lester was still a scout for the Lakers. Brookins, the great shooter, is back in Cleveland. Mark Gannon is in Okoboji.

Bobby Hansen is the Hawkeye radio analyst when he isn’t working for the Chicago Bulls. Waite, the honor roll student, has a big job at Pioneer in Johnston. Kevin Boyle works in Reinbeck.

Lute is still going to Final Fours at Arizona. The last time the championship game came to Indianapolis, Olson’s Wildcats walked away with it.

Jim Rosborough is still his trusty assistant. Tony McAndrews, another member of the ’80 staff, is the coach at Nova Southeastern in Davie, Fla.

Players got married and kids were born. Some are even old enough to understand what happened in the spring of 1980.

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