An Inventory of the Iowa Basketball Program

As Iowa begins its search to find its next basketball coach, Jon Miller stumbled upon an article from 1999, before Steve Alford had coached a game at Iowa. It was written by a national writer whose perspective on the Iowa program is as sobering now as it should have been then. Jon shares some of that with you, talks about the current coaching search and more in this eight-page feature item..

Take a trip down memory lane with me for a few minutes, won't you?

I was at my parents house over the weekend, and my folks have come to a breaking point as it relates to keeping some of my old junk in boxes in their basement. Many of you know what I am talking about.

My father dug something out of one of those boxes. It was the September 1999 issue of The Basketball Times>, a monthly magazine my family and I used to subscribe to before the days of the Internet. In fact, 1999 was probably the last year we received the periodical, as that was the time I began publishing online at Superhawkeye.com, the mega-Hawkeye website that spawned HawkeyeNation.com versions one, two and three and a few other sites, some that are still around and some that are defunct.

The cover story was of Steve Alford and the Iowa men's basketball program. It was written before Alford had coached a game, but after he had been hired at Iowa.

The cover featured Alford in a suit, arms crossed looking much younger than he even looks today; the man is nearly ageless.

The headline of the story caught my eye on Saturday, causing me to read it again and in some ways, for the first time. It read, ‘Can Anyone Make Iowa Smile?'

Let me share the first part of the story with you, then we will get on to several things related to the Iowa basketball program, its history and the current search for a new head coach.

Let's go back in time to the September 1999 issue of The Basketball Times

Iowa is the place, of course, where America comes to take the political temperatures every four years, traditional consensus think apparently being that if these reasonable minded sons and daughters of the soil like or dislike a Presidential candidate, then the rest of the union ought to give Iowa's opinion heed. And that is indeed a curious thing.

There's an earthiness about the place that, for political purposes anyhow, seems to breed a sense of trust and confidence in the insightful nature of Iowans. Surely, though, if all the pundits and political essayists were to look at this supposedly inherent element of sound Midwestern logic as it relates to basketball at the state's mother university it is possible their faith in Iowa's collective wisdom might be shaken. Unlike other places along the college basketball trail, you see, it is difficult these days to find a stop where what's real and what's imagined stand further apart.

Since basketball became a part of the extra curriculum activities at the University of Iowa in 1901 the game has been popular here, most of the time wildly so. It may well have been the state of Indiana that gave the world a romantic notion of small towns and big high school games on cold Friday nights but the story isn't much different in Iowa. Understandably this interest has translated, and even elevated itself, with the college game both at Iowa and Iowa State.

Both schools draw large and adoring crowds to their modern, attractive arenas. There is a passion for game nights at both places that is generations deep. It is an accepted and wholly embraced way of life. But very quickly you come to understand the vast difference in the expectations of those who live in Ames and cheer for the Cyclones and those who live down the road in Iowa City and cheer for the Hawkeyes. In 1981, Iowa State reached across the Midwest and hired Michigan coach Johnny Orr, luring him with what was then the biggest coaching contract in the history of the game. This happened not be cause the people at Iowa State wanted to win a national championship but because they just wanted to be better. And that's what Orr gave them over his 14 years, eight winning teams including six that made it to the NCAA tournament. But every game night when Orr walked onto the court with the pep band playing the theme from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show the Hilton Coliseum rocked. He was the biggest star ever to hit that town.

"Whew, coach," he once said. "The thing about this place is that people are so good and so understanding and you just want to have some success for them so darn badly. That's what makes it tough. You just want to give them something back because they are the best."

At Iowa the story has been quite different. You look at the comparative worksheets and the Hawkeyes have had much more success. If you consider college basketball's modern era is anything that's happened in the last half century then everything really leans heavily in Iowa's favor. Since 1950 the Hawkeyes have appeared in the NCAA Tournament 19 times and on three occasions made it to the Final Four. During that time there have been just 10 losing seasons and during 17 cold winters Iowa won 20 or more games, including the last six. Stretching back to the earliest days here there has never been a decade in which the Hawkeyes have lost more games than they won. In short this is a program that may not have produced epic success in the manner of say, North Carolina, Kentucky or Kansas, but it surely has been a consistent winner.

And yet it never seems to be enough. While Orr was, and still is, the most beloved figure in Ames, no former Iowa coach can say that it ended very well for him. This is especially true for the last five men who have occupied the position starting with Ralph Miller, continue through Dick Schultz, Lute Olson, George Raveling and most graphically with recently ousted Tom Davis.

Miller, who has been elected to the Hall of Fame and Olson, who will be, shared with Raveling the head-scratching distinction of having considerable success here then departing for a lesser job. From 1965 through 1970 Miller never had a losing record and his final team, led by sharp shooting John Johnson, won all 14 Big Ten games. However, after a second round loss in the NCAA Tournament to Notre Dame, Miller accepted an offer to coach at Oregon State, a place that hadn't enjoyed a winning season in four years and because of its remote location couldn't be considered a better job than the one he had at Iowa. But Miller was true to his own belief that a competent coach could survive as long as he wanted by simply moving every eight years. Such was the pressure at Iowa he subtracted three years from that equation.

After Miller came Dick Schultz and a dreary four-year period that produced just one winning season. He moved on and Lute Olson was hired away after just one year at Long Beach State where he had replaced Jerry Tarkanian. He would stay at Iowa eight years and compile a record of 168-90. The 1980 Hawkeyes rolled to the Final Four and were it not for an injury to All American Ronnie Lester, Iowa would have, in the eyes of many, been a big favorite to win the national championship. Instead, it lost twice and finished fourth.

That year was the second of five straight 20+ win seasons under Olson. In 1981 the Hawkeyes lost in the first round to Wichita State, then a year later fell in the second game to Idaho. In 1983, Iowa won two tournament games before losing in the third round to Villanova.

By then, the late-season swoons and NCAA stumbles to lesser reputed teams had become the stuff of legend. A coach who'd experienced so much success found himself embattled at home and nationally where Sports Illustrated was referring to his team as the "Iowa Windsuckers". Given the chance to take over a program at Arizona that was coming off four consecutive losing years, including a 4-24 1983, Olson quickly accepted in the spring of 1983.

Publicly, the silver-haired coach talked about the opportunity to move into a warmer climate, but privately he chafed at the visibility given the Iowa coach and the unrealistic expectations heaped on him. It wasn't a happy parting of the ways.

Again, the italicized words were from the September of 1999 issue of The Basketball Times I don't think you can find it online because I tried and failed to locate it. I typed it straight out of the magazine. To inquire about their publication (current issues, I doubt they have any back issues going back to 1999), goto CLICK HERE

It was the first few paragraphs of an in depth look at the Iowa basketball program as Steve Alford prepared to coach his first season at Iowa. It was written by Larry Donald, the only two-term president of the USBWA (1986-1988) and one time editor of Basketball Times and other hoop tomes.

Much of the article centered on perhaps a misguided sense of elitism that the author felt came from Iowa basketball fans throughout the better part of the last 30 years, circa 1999. Donald wondered aloud several times throughout the piece if Iowa fans didn't have some false sense of reality when it came to their hoops history, although he certainly tipped his pen to their level of loyalty and fanaticism, as well as acknowledging that Iowa hoops has a solid history.

In my opinion, he was clearly a member of the national media that couldn't believe how and why Iowa had gotten rid of Dr. Tom Davis in 1999.

The article also contained quotes from Steve Alford from 1999, as well as quotes from Bob Bowlsby. Let me share some of those with you from this same article, before I go into the nuts and bolts of what I want to talk about. I think you will find them to be interesting, no matter when you began watching Iowa hoops:

"I wanted somewhere where there was already a passion, a place where I didn't have to create it." Steve Alford, September 1999

"I've told people there will be no quick fix. I want to be a top program every year not just one in every six years. That is my dream and my goal." Steve Alford, September 1999

"We aspire to play at the top of the college basketball world. What does that mean? It means Final Fours and Big Ten championships. Steve's task is to take a good tradition and make it better. That's a tall order. former Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowslby, from 1999

Let's go back to the first quote from Alford, regarding passion. Of course, I can't let this one just slide by without placing some of Alford's comments from Friday's introduction as New Mexico's head coach side by side to his 1999 comments. Here is something Alford said from Friday, March 23rd 2007:

"New Mexico has great passion for basketball; the administration and the fans are very much committed to the success of the program."

And, ""New Mexico is a state that understands basketball and has fans that I think -- which I didn't think could ever happen -- match the passion that I have for basketball."

OK, back to what I really want to write about….

I remember back to the late Tom Davis years, when a significant and vocal portion of the Iowa fan base was ready for a change, when what Dr. Tom was putting on the court was no longer acceptable. I was one of those people, and I will not deny it. I was 26 years old when Iowa got pounded by Georgia in the N.I.T., the final tipping point in Davis' and Bob Bowlsby's relationship.

There was a lot of ‘next level' talk that came from the fans, but that talk emanated from Bowlsby, as you can see evidenced in his quote from above that was in the BT (Basketball Times).

When Alford got to Iowa, he parroted that talk. To those of us who were in that portion of the fanbase that wanted a change, that wanted to see Iowa go to that next level, a level they had been at when we were kids, this was music to our ears.

As we all know, it didn't happen.

The author of the article that I have sampled brought up opinions and thoughts that I began to talk about as I grew older and as the Alford era moved onward.

I began to really examine Iowa's basketball history in the context of championships, in the context of what it had accomplished.

What Lute Olson did at Iowa was bordering on greatness. The Final Four, the 1979 Big Ten championship and the three-straight second place finishes that ensued.

Doing that all the while in a state, as Donald pointed out in his 1999 article and as you have read me write for years, in a state that doesn't produce enough high-major talent on an annual basis with which to rely on.

Kansas isn't a big population state either, but they invented the game. Literally. Iowa doesn't have that lineage.

Here is another excerpt from the BT article on recruiting:

It is also worth considering those items (Dr. Tom's NCAA success, 20-win seasons at Iowa) in the context of where Iowa stands in terms of recruiting advantages vs. its Big Ten Rivals. Although there is an over-powering interest in high school basketball here, the fact is that Iowa has been terribly unproductive in terms of sending along talented players. The only native Iowan to become a first-team All American was Raef LaFrentz who broke a lot of hearts when he elected to play for Kansas. Because Iowa is forced to go on the road to do most of its recruiting, Iowa has been largely disadvantaged. Ask those who know about such thing and it is likely that this program would rank no higher than seventh or eighth in the Big Ten in terms of recruiting potential.

Even in these days of unruffled anticipation about the Alford era at Iowa there are reasonable and even sobering questions to be asked. Among them are these: How will it be so different under Steve Alford? What is it that he has that will give Iowa what it seems so desperately to carve and where will he succeed that Miller, Olson, Raveling and Davis have failed? Has his starry life blinded everyone here to the reality that this is still Iowa, a state that just does not regularly produce big-time talent as is the case in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana or Ohio? And where is there a money-back guarantee that the new coach can even match the numbers and post-season success of those who've sat on the sidelines before him? Earth to Iowa, things haven't really been so bad.

And as the Alford era wore on, and Iowa was left out of numerous NCAA tournaments, and as I got older and began to appreciate things at face value, Donald's last line hit home with me without my having remembered reading it the first time around; earth to Iowa (and that very much included me), things weren't really so bad.

Now, the Dr. Tom years certainly don't look so bad, when you consider all of the NCAA tournaments that Iowa was a part of. Iowa's average Big Ten finish in the last 10 years of the Dr. Tom era was about 5.25-place. In Alford's eight years, Iowa's average finish was just about 6th.

That also illustrates something that I don't need to tell you, because you know this; Big Ten basketball in the 1990's was better, sometimes much better, than it has been during the past eight years, on the whole. Where 5th and 6th place in the Big Ten in the 1990's got you an NCAA invite most of the time, 5th and 6th place in this decade hasn't been good enough, because the league has been down much of the time from where it was in the previous decade. That makes that roughly 6th place average worse than it even is, because this was a golden opportunity to actually take that step to the next level, something that Wisconsin and Bo Ryan have absolutely done. It's not that Ryan is the world's greatest coach, though he is a good one, or that Wisconsin has the world's greatest players. It's just that they have played consistent and disciplined basketball as the rest of the league has gone the other way, for the most part.

I want to go back to a few final words from that 1999 BT article before turning my attention to the future of Iowa basketball:

What program, he (Bob Bowlsby) is asked, is Iowa to parallel in the grand scheme, and there is a pause. "I guess you would say Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and maybe now Stanford," he says, hastening to add, "we do have high expectations and there is nothing wrong with that." For his part, Alford seems both agreeable with that assessment and fearless in mouthing publicly his goal of making Iowa "the Duke of the Midwest," a stunningly bold statement that, one way or another, is worth remembering.

The early days have been easy ones. The reception here has been overwhelming with standing ovations at every speaking engagement and a camera crew or two in town every time he plays in one of those I-Club golf outings. The media have taken a number to have audience and his unfailing polite manner has charmed every corner. But as Alford surely understands, there is something of a dark side to Iowa where its basketball coaches are concerned.

He says now that he wants to spend the rest of his coaching career here and hopes every ambition that he has can be fulfilled under the adoring roof of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

And maybe that will be so.

Then again maybe history hasn't been lying to us all these years, either.

Man, that article almost gives you the chills with regards to how prescient it was, does it not?

So where does that leave us as Gary Barta looks to hire Iowa's next basketball coach?

The next coach will inherit a program much different than the one Steve Alford inherited. Alford took over a program that was coming off of an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, though it lost the overwhelming percentage of its scoring and rebounding from that 1998-1999 team. Of course, Alford also had that lame duck recruiting class to overcome.

Iowa's next coach won't have the frequent NCAA trips as a part of his history; nine of Davis' 13 years on Iowa's bench saw trips to the Big Dance, where just three of Alford's eight teams reached the same destination.

Iowa's next coach may have a potential ‘lame duck' class on his hands as well. Jaryd Cole isn't a lock to come to Iowa, Dairese Gary has yet to qualify academically and we don't know about Jake Kelly, an Indiana high school product who Alford signed in the fall.

The new coach will also have a lot of recruiting work to do this summer, as the Class of 2008 can sign letters of intent in November. Highly regarded center Beas Hamga, an Iowa verbal commitment in that class, is likely gone. His legal guardian, Mark Adams, is tight with Alford and his agent. He is the coach of an Indiana AAU team, and his son, Drew, was a walk on to the Iowa program under Alford just this past year. 2008 verbal commitment Matt Gatens of Iowa City High was probably going to be a Hawkeye no matter who the coach was going to be, so that probably won't be a hard sale.

Some fans all but counted Deandre Liggins and Emanuel Negedu in Iowa's Class of 2008 a few months ago, but those players haven't mentioned Iowa favorably for some time…

And there is a very real chance that Iowa's next coach won't have Tyler Smith on his team.

But these sort of things happen when you change coaches.

The next coach at Iowa will likely have the best honeymoon period since Lute Olson took over for Dick Schultz back in the mid-1970's. In fact, it will be easier than that, since Schultz took over for Ralph Miller and his great teams, and Olson was just five years removed from Miller's vaunted team that went 14-0 and averaged over 100 points per game in Big Ten play. Iowa's next coach, no matter who he is, will have a lot of years between his hiring and any sort of Iowa basketball greatness.

What I have come to grips with is that Iowa's basketball program was probably not as great as I thought it was once upon a time, though it was still pretty darn good at times and knocked on the door of being great.

I have realized that I was a part of that ‘next level' cult, perhaps even one of its leaders back in the late 1990's. I don't feel so good about that now, because I was way off base at that time. Or at least that's how I see it now, as I remember those days more and more fondly as time goes by.

It's why I watch Bruce Pearl's Tennessee teams with such admiration and joy.

I already see a storm brewing amongst the Iowa fans base.

When a Dana Altman, a seasoned coach who has won seven Missouri Valley Conference championships, is panned by an alarmingly significant portion of the message board posters, which concerns me. Or maybe my mind is inflating their number since I shake my head at some message board posts that I read that say they would be very disappointed if Altman were hired, and how is he any different than Alford?

For starters, Gary Barta isn't going to say things like Iowa basketball aspires to be the Duke of the Midwest, and be on par with programs like North Carolina and Duke, the way his predecessor did and the way many of us were only too eager to lap up.

Next, Dana Altman wouldn't be coming to the Big Ten at the age of 34 and having spent just four years as a Division I head coach. He has coached in the Big 8 (Kansas State, now in the Big 12) and was its Coach of the Year in 1993, in addition to his well documented success at Creighton. Plus he was an assistant coach for several years.

Kevin Stallings, the coach at Vanderbilt, isn't met with much excitement, though he is another seasoned veteran who has done well in stops at Illinois State and Vandy, in addition to being mentored by Gene Keady and Roy Williams.

Bruce Pearl, Tom Crean and Billy Gillispie are the coaches whose names are getting everyone excited. My email inbox has been flooded already with alleged coaching citings in Iowa City, or rumors around the nation. A few people have emailed me about Rick Majerus having interest in the Iowa job, how Tom Crean and Bruce Pearl have also expressed some level of interest.

So far, the only reports that I have been able to confirm to the point where I will at least entertain them as having legs are those linking Dana Altman with some interest to the job. But if it's going to be Altman, or any of these guys who are in good standing at their schools, the process is going to have to move quickly.

The Iowa basketball program, as it stands right now, isn't on par with all of its Big Ten brethren. It's in the Big Ten, and its fans are rabid and will support it as strongly as 95% of the schools in the nation. Those are good things. A practice facility is in the works, along with upgrades to Carver-Hawkeye, again, good things.

But the recruiting base isn't a gold mine; good players can come from Iowa, but so sporadically that the assistant coaching staff is almost as important as the head coach.

My advice, as this search unfolds, is to try and keep at least one foot on the ground and based in reality.

Reading that 1999 Basketball Times article certainly gave me a new perspective to look through, one that I should have had through all these years.

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