Oct. 30, 2009
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — In the words of Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson, what didn’t do-in the 1979-80 University of Iowa men’s basketball team made it tougher. Olson, who coached the Hawkeyes to a record of 168-90 in nine seasons, returned to Iowa City on Friday where the school’s final Final Four team is being recognized.
All-American point guard Ronnie Lester played in just 17 games during the 1979-80 season because of a knee injury and assistant coach Tony McAndrews was seriously injured in a plane crash.
“The fact they had to go through some really difficult times during the course of that year,” recalled Olson at a press conference inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “It seemed like there were obstacles in our way all the way through.”
Iowa finished the season 23-10 — the most victories ever for an Olson-coached Hawkeye team — and despite finishing fourth in the Big Ten Conference with a 10-8 record, received a bid to the 48-team NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes qualified for “The Dance” a year earlier, only to be eliminated in the first round by Toledo, 74-72.
As the No. 5 seed in Greensboro, N.C., Iowa opened the 1980 tournament with an 86-72 win against Virginia Commonwealth and followed that with a 77-64 victory against North Carolina State. In the Sweet 16 round in Philadelphia, Pa., the Hawkeyes defeated Syracuse, 88-77, before facing Georgetown in the regional final.
To this day, Olson said he has not watched the final 20 minutes of that game.
“The second half against Georgetown has to be one of the most amazing ever in basketball,” Olson said. “We were down (42-32) at the half and they hit their opening shot and then we were down 14. In the second half, Georgetown hit well over 50 percent from the field. We shot somewhere in the 70s in the second half. We played almost perfect basketball from the standpoint of turnovers, free throws and field goals. To get down to that last shot and have it work the way it worked out…”
Then Olson inserted a little humor.
“Of course in the timeout I said I wanted Steve Waite to get the ball at the top of the key and drive it to the basket. That was the coach’s plan,” Olson joked. “It was either that or get it to Ronnie Lester. I can’t remember, it’s been a long time ago.”
It was Waite who made the game-winning shot as Iowa upset the Hoyas, 81-80, to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Waite was 4 for 4 from the field and 7 of 7 from the line in the game, scoring 15 points in 22 minutes. Vince Brookins led the Hawkeyes with 22 points.
“The second half against Georgetown has to be one of the most amazing ever in basketball. We were down (42-32) at the half and they hit their opening shot and then we were down 14. In the second half, Georgetown hit well over 50 percent from the field. We shot somewhere in the 70s in the second half. We played almost perfect basketball from the standpoint of turnovers, free throws and field goals. To get down to that last shot and have it work the way it worked out…”
Former UI head coach
“That would scare me to look at (the second half tape) because I know one turnover in there would have cost us the game,” Olson said. “That has to go down as one of the most unbelievable halves of basketball when you look at both teams as close to perfection as those two teams were. That was an outstanding Georgetown team.”
Lester re-injured his knee in the Final Four semifinals and Iowa lost to eventual champion Louisville, 80-72. The Hawkeyes dropped the consolation game, 75-58, to Purdue.
Olson spent more than 30 minutes in front of the media, talking about a variety of topics, including the old Field House, recruiting Lester, moving to Arizona and what he misses about coaching.
“One night on the postgame show I made the mistake of saying we should build a new facility and let me recruit to the new facility, and then play in the old Field House,” Olson said. “The Field House was a tough place for visiting teams to play. It was also very obvious that we needed a building like (Carver-Hawkeye Arena) to be able to keep up with the other teams in the conference and around the country if we were going to have a top-level basketball program.”
Lester was the most important recruit he signed during his tenure at Iowa, Olson said. Lester, whose No. 12 jersey is retired, is still fifth in UI history with 1,675 career points.
“I’ll never forget the day I went in to watch him play (in high school) and along comes an assistant from Kentucky,” Olson said. “He asks what I thought about this Lester guy. I said I really liked him and if he could just shoot the ball a little bit better I’d be even more excited about him. Thank goodness Ronnie missed a few shots in the first half and (the Kentucky coach) left at halftime.”
Following the 1982-83 season, Olson departed Iowa for the head job with the Arizona Wildcats. That year the Hawkeyes defeated Utah State and Missouri in the NCAA tournament before being eliminated by Villanova, 55-54. The year before Olson accepted the Arizona job, the Wildcats finished 3-23 overall, 1-17 in the Pac-Ten Conference.
“Most people felt at the time that I had lost it,” Olson said. “I was leaving basically a lifetime contract here and at the time in Arizona by state law you could only sign a one-year contract. At the time it wasn’t a very smart move, but there were people that when we left a top 5 program at Long Beach State that didn’t think it was very smart coming to Iowa, either. You do what you do and make the best of it and I was fortunate that everything turned out well.”
Olson said he misses the practices and the bond between players and coach.
“I miss the closeness you have in basketball in particular when you’re working with a 13 or 15-man squad,” Olson said. “There’s a bonding among the players in basketball that may be very unique among sports teams.”
Olson keeps track of the Iowa program and said that current head coach Todd Lickliter is a “quality coach and a quality man.”
“He’s working hard at building a program and that’s the thing that has to be looked at,” Olson said. “I’ve always wanted to be known as a coach who builds a program, not a coach who builds a team. I think some really good things are happening here. The important thing is that (coach Lickliter) ends up with the kind of players that are going to fit well into his system and develop the program over the long haul. I think that will happen.”
When he arrived in Iowa City in 1974, Olson said he knew he was accepting a “tough job.”
“This is a tough conference and it’s tough to win titles,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy to win championships when you start out with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana — those are great, great universities.”
Yet Olson was attracted here by the Hawkeye fans.
“It’s nice when you work in a place where what you do is important to the fans,” Olson said. “That was one of the things that drew me to Iowa.”