Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa basketball's "Fabulous Few" Final Four 40-year anniversary

Iowa's 1980 men's basketball team made long-term memories for Iowa

Iowa basketball player Bob Hansen works his way through the crowd at the Iowa Field House at a pep rally on March 16, 19
Iowa basketball player Bob Hansen works his way through the crowd at the Iowa Field House at a pep rally on March 16, 1980, the day the Hawkeyes beat Georgetown in Philadelphia to earn a berth in the Final Four. (The Gazette).

Forty years ago Sunday, Iowa played in the men’s basketball Final Four.

That ended disappointingly, with the Hawkeyes falling to Louisville in the semifinals in Indianapolis on March 22, 1980, and again to Purdue in the third-place game two days later. If you’re an Iowa fan of about 8 years old or older, though, the memories of that March when the Hawkeyes tore off four straight wins in the NCAA tournament surely remain among your favorites.

The team had the state eating out of the palm of its hands.

“Our games were on the Hawkeye television network in Iowa,” said Bob Hansen, a freshman guard on that 1980 team from Des Moines. “It was kind of must-see TV.

“It was a great time to be in school at Iowa. The whole campus fell in love with the Hawkeye team.”

That connection had been made the season before when Iowa, with junior point guard Ronnie Lester running things, shared the Big Ten championship with Michigan State and Purdue and got into the NCAA tourney for the first time in nine years. That is the Hawkeyes’ last regular-season league title.

The following year, Iowa got off to a 10-0 start and was ranked 10th in the nation in early January. But Lester suffered a knee injury in Game 8, at Dayton, and didn’t play again until the next-to-last game of the regular season. The Hawkeyes were ordinary in his absence.

“What I remember the whole season was obstacles, injuries,” Hansen said. “Tony McAndrews (an assistant coach for Lute Olson) was in a plane crash on a recruiting trip in Kentucky and missed the rest of the season. He was lucky to be alive.

“Ronnie got hurt, (freshman) Mark Gannon (missed the second half of the season with a knee injury), Kenny Arnold (played most of the season with a broken left thumb). I broke a bone in my left hand, but I had to keep playing. I couldn’t dribble to my left. Everybody kind of did what they had to do.”

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Lester’s return helped Iowa win its last two games, and the Hawkeyes were 18-8 and an NCAA tourney invitee when the field had 48 teams and at-large spots were fewer.

“We were lucky to get in,” said Hansen.

It was unlucky for the rest of the East Regional teams.

Iowa beat Virginia Commonwealth, 86-72, then knocked off North Carolina State, 77-64, both in Greensboro, N.C. It was on to Philadelphia, where the Hawkeyes beat No. 1 East seed Syracuse, 88-74.

Olson basically used seven players. They were termed “The Fabulous Few.” Sophomores Arnold and Kevin Boyle played heavy minutes and played like seniors. Junior centers Steve Krafcisin and Steve Waite did defensive dirty work. Junior Vince Brookins got hot in the tourney, going 7-for-7 from the floor against North Carolina State.

Lester, the lone senior in the rotation, was more of a leader and facilitator than scorer in the tourney run, though his career average was 16.9 points. Hansen?

“I was just trying to fit in as an 18-year-old kid,” he said.

He did more than that. He was instrumental off the bench in the East final when Iowa played Georgetown, a team with a 15-game winning streak.

“You just didn’t want to let the guys down, be the guy that makes the dumb turnover or misses free throws or takes a bad shot,” Hansen said. “We played for each other.”

Georgetown led 42-32 at halftime and 46-32 early in the second half. Hansen came in, drew a couple of fouls and made four free throws, forced an over-and-back violation, and helped push the Hawkeyes back in the game. He scored eight points in 13 minutes.

“The freshman came up with the big plays,” said former Iowa State All-American Gary Thompson in his summation of the game as color commentator for NBC’s telecast of it.

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The pace and execution of both teams was crisp. Georgetown shot 60.0 percent from the floor. Iowa shot 60.8, and about 70 percent in the second half. The Hawkeyes made 19 of 20 free throws, the Hoyas 14 of 16.

The game was tied at 78 with 1:55 left, and Iowa had the ball. Olson decided to play for one shot. There was no shot clock then. He called time with 14 seconds left to set up the deciding play. Lester inbounded to Boyle in the backcourt. Boyle saw an open path, drove to the foul line, then dished to Waite on his left.

Iowa City native Waite didn’t hesitate, going hard to the basket on an up-and-under move. He scored and was fouled with five seconds left. There was no 3-point shot, so if Waite made his foul shot, victory was almost certain. Georgetown called a timeout. It didn’t faze Waite, a 62 percent free-thrower. He swished it.

The Hoyas scored with a second left. Iowa successfully inbounded the ball and was headed to the Final Four.

“It came on the heels of Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird,” Hansen said talking about the two superstars who played in the 1979 NCAA title game. “The spotlight on college basketball was shining pretty bright at that time.”

Immediately after the final second, Iowa’s NBC affiliates added a scrawl at the bottom of the telecast saying “Hawkeye fans are asked to stay away from the Cedar Rapids airport tonight to attend a 10 p.m. pep rally at the field house for both the wrestlers and the basketball team.”

The day before in Corvallis, Ore., Iowa won the NCAA wrestling championship with individual champs Randy Lewis and Ed Banach. After the wrestlers were feted, fans waited for the basketball team. And waited. The Hawkeyes finally arrived shortly before midnight. About 11,000 people were there.

Things went from starry at the start of the week to star-crossed at the end. Lester got off to a brilliant start in the first 12 minutes against Louisville, making all four of his field goal tries and both his free throws for 10 points. But then he reinjured his knee and was done for the game, and Darrell Griffith’s 34 points paced the eventual national-champion Cardinals to victory.

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“We would have won if he’d been healthy,” Olson said in Iowa City four years ago as he nodded toward Lester. “We say that, anyway. But that was a special group.”

Forty years ago Sunday, the Hawkeyes were in a Final Four. It wasn’t Iowa’s best team, it wasn’t the Big Ten’s best team that season. But once it jelled in March, it made itself unforgettable.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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