How big was Iowa Hawkeyes basketball in Iowa when Lute Olson — who died Thursday at 85 — was the coach?
“I would get calls all the time in the spring and summer from people asking when Iowa’s going to be on TV that winter,” said Mac McCausland, a former Hawkeye basketball player and a longtime television analyst of the sport, including many years doing Iowa games. “Churches, fundraisers — they did not want to schedule something against it.
“People would find a TV in a high school while a play was going on in the gymnasium. A father had a daughter who was in a lead role. He found a TV in the principal’s office. He and the principal watched the Iowa game together instead of the play.”
Hawkeye games, which not long before had typically been held before less-than-capacity crowds in person at the Iowa Field House with no television audience, became a tough ticket and had a statewide TV network carrying the games. It was a ratings smash, as they say.
Thursday nights in January and February were Big Ten nights, and most Iowans spent those evenings watching the same big show that they’d be talking to each other about the next morning.
“Lute woke up the state,” McCausland said.
Before there were the Tigerhawk and the Swarm and Hayden Fry’s football team doing big things in the 1980s at Iowa, there was Lute! Lute! Lute!
Things started to really take off in Olson’s fifth season at the school, 1978-79. His team tied for the Big Ten championship with Purdue and Michigan State, which featured a magical talent named Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
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The following season, Iowa barely won its way into an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and then wouldn’t go away. The Hawkeyes were simply great in four East Regional wins, the last one an 81-80 victory over Georgetown for a Final Four berth. It has remained the most-memorable Iowa game of all-time in the minds of many Hawkeye fans.
The Hawkeyes cut the nets in Philadelphia late that Sunday afternoon. They finished the day by getting cheered by a throng of fans at Cedar Rapids’ airport late that night, and by about 12,000 of them at the Field House around midnight.
While Hawkeye football was still in the middle of a long drought when it came to winning seasons, a virtual unknown basketball coach came to Iowa City from California in 1974 and made it rain.
After four straight losing seasons, coach Dick Schultz resigned and Iowa Athletics Director Bump Elliott hired Olson, who had all of one year as a major-college coach. That was at Long Beach State after Jerry Tarkanian had left there for UNLV. Who was this guy?
A heck of a basketball coach was the answer, as Iowa learned soon enough. His second Iowa club went 19-10. His third, with a freshman guard named Ronnie Lester pulled out of Chicago, was 20-7 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten.
“Ronnie Lester was probably — no, he was the best guard in the country,” Johnson said in 1985. “He could do it all.”
“Lute Olson and Ronnie Lester marched together,” said McCausland. “Lute wasn’t going to get out-coached or outrecruited. When Ronnie was a high school senior, Lute did not miss a Ronnie Lester game all year.”
Iowans connected with the ever-cool Olson, with the softspoken-but-brilliant Lester, and with the other players Olson assembled. He coached to his players’ strengths and was meticulous when it came to preparation. His teams played like teams.
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Hawkeye basketball was Camelot in Iowa for several years. But even the best things can have limited shelf lives. Olson and his wife, Bobbi, gradually tired of the intense focus on them in Iowa.
“It got to the point Lute was the most-recognizable person in the state,” McCausland said. “I think that was without question for five, six, seven years. Everybody tried to see him, get his autograph. He had no privacy. If somebody was over at his house, people wanted to know about it. This was an introverted person, but it was like he was in New York City or Hollywood. He wasn’t just a basketball coach. He was put on a pedestal.”
After the 1982-83 season, Arizona took Olson from Iowa, and Iowa took it hard. An even bigger factor for his departure than the fishbowl lifestyle was his and Bobbi’s desire to return to warmer winter weather. Tucson was their final destination.
Olson soon had Arizona dominating the Pacific-10 Conference for much of a quarter-century. He took the Wildcats to four Final Fours, and won the 1997 national championship.
Olson’s time at Iowa has been remembered with ever-growing fondness and respect over the 37 years since his departure. That Big Ten regular-season title? Iowa men’s basketball hasn’t had one since. That Final Four appearance? The Hawkeyes haven’t gotten a sniff of one in the 21st century.
It would have been sad had the Olson era at Iowa not been fully appreciated while it was happening. But it was. Hawkeye basketball was something people across the state identified with and loved.
It was a golden time, guided by a silver-haired head of state.
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