Hlas: From Iowa's '79 champs, Peth still chases titles

Senior guard on Iowa's last Big Ten regular-season champion is winner at Wartburg

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UPDATE: Central beat Wartburg in Saturday night’s Iowa Conference championship game, 92-80.

Dick Peth doesn’t get lost in “Remember When?”

The Iowa men’s basketball team plays at Ohio State Sunday, needing a victory to have a decent chance to get some or all of the 2016 Big Ten regular-season championship. Peth was a captain of the last Hawkeyes club to hold that distinction. It was 37 years ago.

But Saturday night, Peth has other concerns than whether his alma mater’s team will say goodbye to Columbus with a victory. The Wartburg College team he coaches plays Central in Waverly for the Iowa Conference men’s basketball tournament title, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Division III national tourney.

“It just doesn’t change,” Peth said Friday afternoon, taking a break from breaking down game film. “It’s a passion, a drive to be successful.

“Whether it was 30-some years ago as a player or now, I still have the drive to succeed at a high level.”

Peth was a senior guard from Tomah, Wis., on the 1978-79 Iowa team that went 13-5 in the Big Ten. Led by coach Lute Olson and featuring a genuinely great junior in Ronnie Lester, it was a hard-nosed team that won over the hearts of Iowa students and fans well before it claimed a piece of the league-championship with Michigan State and Purdue.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity at the University of Iowa way back when with Coach Olson and his staff there during my tenure,” Peth said. “I learned an awful lot about basketball. I’m still trying to learn a little bit each and every year.”

Peth coached at then-Division II University of Denver for 12 years, then came to Wartburg 19 years ago. His career record is 522-325.

“We just got to a place our family loves,” he said. “People here are very genuine and sincere about everything they do.”

I sort of had to drag Peth down Memory Lane a bit to get him to talk about a special season 37 years ago, but he recalled it fondly.

“First and foremost,” he said, “we had great coaches. Secondly, we had guys willing to perform different roles on the team. I think our chemistry was outstanding.

“We were picked seventh or eighth in the Big Ten when there were 10 teams. We fought tooth and nail every single night. We never gave in. That’s the key to being successful.”

It was a different time. It was before cable television was much of a thing. Few Iowa games were televised. But the fans who filled the Iowa Field House that season — and they did fill that old barn — had a deep connection with that Hawkeyes club.

Other key players included a very good power forward in William Mayfield, the Big Ten’s Rookie of the Year in freshman forward Kevin Boyle, a savvy senior guard with a deadly jump shot in Tom Norman, and juniors Steve Krafcisin and Steve Waite sharing work in the post.

Lester was the quiet star, easily the Hawkeyes’ leader in scoring and assists. He was a second-team Associated Press All-American in 1979. He was healthy the whole season — unlike the following year when Lester-led Iowa caught fire in the NCAA tourney and reached the Final Four — and made the Hawkeyes something far more than ordinary.

However, the leadership and skills players like Peth exhibited cemented Iowa’s status as a champion.

Peth has paid it forward ever since. Here he is now, trying once again to be part of a championship club and reach an NCAA tournament.

It meant the world in Iowa City. It means the world to ballplayers and their coaches in places like Waverly and Pella.

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