Wine: Football School? Yes. Basketball, Too!

April 5, 2007

Editor’s Note: The following was written by George Wine, the University of Iowa’s retired sports information director. Wine is a contributing editor to hawkeyesports.com, the official world wide web site of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

IOWA CITY — The introductory press conference for Todd Lickliter was barely underway when a reporter asked him this question: “Is Iowa a football school?”

The Hawkeyes’ new men’s basketball coach paused, smiled faintly and answered, “Are Florida and Ohio State football schools? If so, I’ll take it.”

Give Lickliter an A+ for both brevity and emphasis. Florida and Ohio State played for the national football championship in January. In April they met again, this time for the national basketball championship.

Point taken, coach. A football school can also be a basketball school.

But is Iowa really a football school? Absolutely. In the past 26 years the Hawkeyes have won five Big Ten championships and played in 20 bowl games. Meanwhile the University has supported football by building an indoor practice facility, new outdoor practice fields, a football complex that includes state-of-the-art weight and training facilities, and a multi-million dollar upgrade on Kinnick Stadium.

Given that, can Lickliter build a basketball program that competes for Big Ten titles, is an NCAA tournament regular, captures the imagination of the state, gets national attention and fills Carver-Hawkeye Arena with capacity crowds?

Again, the answer is absolutely. In the past 60 years Iowa had five coaches who accomplished what Lickliter wants to do.

But is Iowa really a football school? Absolutely. In the past 26 years the Hawkeyes have won five Big Ten championships and played in 20 bowl games. Meanwhile the University has supported football by building an indoor practice facility, new outdoor practice fields, a football complex that includes state-of-the-art weight and training facilities, and a multi-million dollar upgrade on Kinnick Stadium.

Given that, can Lickliter build a basketball program that competes for Big Ten titles, is an NCAA tournament regular, captures the imagination of the state, gets national attention and fills Carver-Hawkeye Arena with capacity crowds?

Again, the answer is absolutely. In the past 60 years Iowa had five coaches who accomplished what Lickliter wants to do. Let’s take a little stroll down memory lane.

Pops Harrison was Iowa’s coach when basketball became a spectator and income sport in the mid-1940s. Fans flocked to Iowa Fieldhouse to cheer for Murray Wier and Herb Wilkinson, the first Hawkeye all-Americans. The diminutive Wier is regarded as Iowa’s most exciting player of all time.

Harrison’s 1945 team won an outright Big Ten championship and finished 17-1 in all games. His 1944 and 1948 clubs both tied for second in the league. In his eight seasons coaching the Hawkeyes, Harrison was 98-42 (70%) in all games and 48-38 (55.8%) in the Big Ten.

Bucky O’Connor coached Iowa to the three most successful consecutive seasons in school history. It started in 1954 when, with four sophomores in the starting lineup, the Hawkeyes finished a surprising second in the Big Ten. They won outright conference championships in 1955 and 1956, advancing to the Final Four both years. The ’56 team was the national runner-up to a San Francisco club led by the legendary Bill Russell.

Iowa was ranked in the Top Ten nationally all three years. The two championship teams were ranked fifth and fourth. Carl Cain, Bill Logan, Bill Seaberg and Scharm Scheuerman started three consecutive years. Cain was the first black Hawkeye to earn All-America honors. A tragic automobile accident took O’Connor’s life at the height of his coaching career. In eight seasons his teams were 114-59 (65.9%) in all games and 71-41 (63.4%) in the Big Ten.

Ralph Miller became Iowa’s coach in 1964 when interest was on the wane and home crowds were embarrassingly small. But his up-tempo offense and full-court pressure defense got the fans fired up and filled the Fieldhouse. The Hawkeyes won a share of the Big Ten title in 1968, featuring crowd-pleasing Sam Williams.

The 1970 team is perhaps Iowa’s best ever. It had a perfect (14-0) Big Ten record and set scoring standards that still stand, including an astonishing 102.9 points per-game average. John Johnson and Fred Brown went on to successful NBA careers. In six seasons Miller’s teams were 95-51 (65.1%) in all games, 54-30 (64.3%) in the Big Ten.

Lute Olson pumped new life into a declining Iowa program when he arrived in 1974. His teams had great success on the court, but his nine-year tenure is most notable for two things: (1) Iowa basketball went from almost no TV coverage to every game being televised, and (2) Carver-Hawkeye Arena became the new home for the Hawkeyes.

Olson’s last five seasons were filled with drama. The 1979 team, featuring all-America Ronnie Lester, earned a share of the Big Ten crown. The 1980 team was crippled by injuries, but managed to limp into the NCAA tournament and make it all the way to the Final Four. Olson’s last three Iowa teams all made a run at the conference title but came up short and finished in second place. Olson produced 12 players who were taken in NBA drafts. In nine seasons his teams were 168-90 (65.1%) overall, 92-70 (56.8%) in the Big Ten.

Tom Davis made his biggest splash at Iowa in his first year. The 1987 Hawkeyes won a school record 30 games, were ranked No. 1 at midseason, and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. That team finished third in the Big Ten, as did his clubs of 1988, 1993 and 1999. The 1997 team tied for second.

In 13 seasons at Iowa, Davis had 10 teams finish in the Big Ten’s first division and nine received NCAA tournament berths, where they never lost a first-round game. He had 13 players drafted by the NBA and won more games than any coach in Iowa history. His overall record is 269-140 (65.8%) and 125-105 (54.3%) in the Big Ten.

Those five coaches enjoyed great success at Iowa. Two (Olson and Davis) are still living and seem to have an affection for the Hawkeyes and fond memories of their days in Iowa City. They would probably be happy to give our new man, Todd Lickliter, some valuable tips on how to once again make Iowa a basketball school.

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