IOWA CITY — Former Iowa and Arizona Coach Lute Olson has plenty of stories to tell from decades in college basketball.
The man who led the Hawkeyes to the 1980 Final Four was back in Iowa City and at the building he helped open in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch Iowa beat No. 25 Iowa State, 78-64. There with former player Ronnie Lester, Olson shared some stories before the game.
One he shared, which turned out on that night to be a bit of foreshadowing, was one about recruiting against the Cyclones.
“I’ll tell a story I probably shouldn’t. Mark Gannon, his team always came here for camps and Mark came in and apologized. He said, ‘Coach, I’d rather be at this camp than at ISU’s.’ He came back after the camp there and said, ‘If you ever want to recruit a player, send them to Ames and they’ll come to Iowa,’” Olson said. “I say that kidding, because Iowa State is a really good university and I think this state has three great universities. Coach (Ben) Jacobson has done a great job (at UNI), too. I think basketball in the state of Iowa is in good shape.”
Joking aside, Olson was back in Iowa City for no apparent reason other than to have a mini-reunion with Lester and to watch the Hawkeyes play. He said he was at Kinnick Stadium last season to watch Iowa beat Pitt on a last-second field goal.
It’s been 33 years since Olson left Iowa for Arizona, where he spent the next 25 as head coach — winning the 1997 national championship. Despite that, Olson and Lester received heroes’ welcomes before the game against the Cyclones.
That’s what you get when you represent the last Final Four team in school history.
The 1980 team dealt with a lot, including two injuries to Lester, and served as a Cinderella story of sorts for that year’s NCAA Tournament in recovering from several setbacks. As well as they were playing, members of that team — and their coach — still believe they would’ve won the national championship if Lester hadn’t reinjured his knee early in the national semifinal.
“We would’ve won it that year if he had been healthy,” Olson said.
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“You always talk about it when you run into guys, what a special year that was. We went through a lot of adversity that year with a lot of injuries,” Lester said. “The positive aspect of it was, my teammates played without me and pulled together. When I came back, we were able to pick up right where we left off.”
Lester was a cornerstone recruit for Iowa, both for Olson and the program in general.
His coming to Iowa served as the spark for what would become a perennial NCAA Tournament-bound program. Before Lester came to campus, the Hawkeyes had one NCAA Tournament appearance (1970 Sweet 16) between their 1956 Final Four trip and their return to the tournament in 1979.
Olson was lauded for the point guards he had at Arizona, but what Lester did for Iowa makes where he stands in Olson’s eyes pretty clear. He repeated as much Thursday night.
“At Arizona we were known as Point Guard U. But this guy is the best point guard I’ve ever had the honor to coach,” Olson said. “And we had some great ones at Arizona, too. Point guards are like quarterbacks in football. You’ve got to have a great one if you’re going to be successful as a team. Ronnie was a great one.”
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