I’m not sure what it is – maybe it was my recent post about Steve Alford or the fact that Iowa’s run to the Final Four of the 2013 NIT Tournament has established Fran McCaffery as one of my favorite Iowa basketball coaches in recent memory – but I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the great coaches who have led Hawkeye basketball over the years. Rollie Williams, Pops Harrison, Sharm Scheuerman, George Raveling, and – yes – Steve Alford all had highlight moments at Iowa, but really, five coaches stand out to me as the best of the best of Hawkeye basketball coaching.
Great Hawkeye Basketball Coaches
Here’s a quick look back at five men that set the foundation on which Fran McCaffery is rebuilding Iowa basketball.
Sam Barry – 1923-1929
Sam Barry was the first truly great Hawkeye basketball coach. Barry began his college coaching career in 1918 by leading the football team at Knox College in Illinois. Howard Jones, then Iowa’s legendary football coach and athletic director, got his first glimpse of Barry’s talents in 1921, when Barry led his Knox football team to Iowa City against the Hawkeyes in the 1921 season opener.
Knox was obliterated, 52-14, in what amounted to an exhibition game for what would later become maybe the greatest football team in Hawkeye history. Yet Barry showed great sportsmanship throughout the game; in particular, he complimented Iowa great Duke Slater after the contest, calling him “the cleanest player they had been up against.” Jones admired Barry’s talent and, as athletic director, hired Barry away from Knox following that academic year. Sam Barry served as Jones’ assistant football coach for two seasons at Iowa – including an assistant coaching stint for Iowa’s undefeated Big Ten champion 1922 football team – and stayed on to be an assistant for Coach Burt Ingwersen after Jones left Iowa in 1923.
But Barry really made his mark in Iowa City coaching basketball. Jones handed Barry the reins to Iowa’s basketball program, and Barry had an immediate impact. In his first season as Iowa’s head coach, he led the Hawks to an 11-1 conference record and their first Big Ten title in school history. Three years later, the Hawkeyes followed that up with a school-record nine home wins and used that 9-0 home record to notch the school’s second Big Ten basketball title.
Sam Barry was well on his way to legendary status when Howard Jones threw a wrench in the budding Hawkeye dynasty. Jones lured Barry to USC in 1929, where he again became Jones’ assistant football coach. Barry took over the USC basketball program – leading them to the Final Four in 1940 – and also served as USC’s baseball coach, guiding the Trojans to victory in the 1948 College World Series. He remains one of only three men to serve as a head coach in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and baseball’s College World Series.
Bucky O’Connor – 1950, 1952-1958
Bucky O’Connor came to Iowa City in 1948 as the Hawkeyes’ golf coach and freshman basketball coach. O’Connor served as the interim coach of the Hawkeye basketball team in 1950, when Coach Pops Harrison was sidelined with a kidney operation.
Two years later, Iowa athletic director Paul Brechler tapped O’Connor to take over the program on a permanent basis. O’Connor had an immediate impact, guiding the Hawks to a 19-3 record in his first season in 1952 and a second-place finish in the Big Ten. His greatest coaching moment, however, would come a few years later. A team of five classmates he recruited – dubbed the Fabulous Five – took the conference by storm as juniors in 1955, claiming the Big Ten title and making the school’s first Final Four appearance.
Things got even better a year later, when Iowa claimed their second straight conference title – the only consecutive conference titles in Iowa men’s basketball history – and making the Final Four for the second year in a row. In 1956, the Hawkeyes even advanced to the NCAA men’s national championship game before falling to the University of San Francisco; it’s Iowa’s only appearance in the NCAA championship game in school history.
O’Connor coached at Iowa for two more years and was putting together a very impressive coaching resume when tragedy struck. He was in Waterloo to attend a banquet arranged in his honor when two hens wandered onto the road in front of his car. O’Connor swerved to avoid them, lost control of the car, and was hit by a 16-ton truck hauling concrete. Bucky O’Connor died instantly at the age of 44 in one of the darkest moments in Hawkeye sports history.
Ralph Miller – 1965-1970
Ralph Miller, a chain-smoking genius of a coach, got his start in college coaching at what is now known as Wichita State University. Miller coached for 13 seasons at Wichita, taking them to the Elite Eight in 1964, before being hired away to take over the Iowa basketball program by athletic director Forest Evashevski.
Miller’s pressure defense turned up the heat on Iowa’s opponents, but his offensive coaching is what really stood out. Miller hated dribbling and insisted that his players advance the ball through quick passes as much as possible. When it worked, it was virtually unstoppable. In his fourth season at Iowa, Miller led the Hawks to a share of the 1968 Big Ten championship.
His greatest achievement at Iowa came in 1970, when he guided the Hawkeyes to an undefeated 14-0 season in the Big Ten. Miller’s Six-Pack team, relying mainly on just six players, averaged a whopping 102.9 points per game, a conference record that hasn’t been touched since. Iowa’s upset loss in the NCAA Tournament to Jacksonville still stings Hawkeye fans who believe that the 1970 Hawkeyes were the best team in school history…and the best team in the nation that season.
What Evy gaveth, Evy taketh away. Although his hiring of Miller was brilliant, the rancor in Iowa’s athletic department between Evashevski and football coach Ray Nagel is usually cited as one major reason why Ralph Miller packed his bags after that marvelous 1970 season and fled for the West Coast. Miller was hired by Oregon State, where he coached 19 years and won four Pac-10 championships along with two National Coach of the Year awards. Oregon State named the floor of their basketball arena and the street outside of the arena after him, as a testament to his long and successful coaching career.
Lute Olson – 1975-1983
Lute, Lute, Lute! Lute Olson coached one season at Long Beach State in 1974, winning the Big West Conference title with an undefeated league record. That, a decade of high school coaching, and four years coaching at Long Beach City College were enough to convince Iowa athletic director Bump Elliott that Olson could turn Hawkeye basketball around in 1975.
It took a few years, but Lute Olson eventually did just that. He led the Hawks to a Big Ten championship in 1979, the school’s eighth and most recent conference hoops title. That 1979 team also made the NCAA Tournament, the first of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the Hawks under Olson. The 1980 squad was Lute’s best at Iowa; led by Ronnie Lester – maybe the greatest player in Iowa basketball history – Iowa advanced to the Final Four for the third time in school history.
Olson nearly snagged a second Big Ten championship in 1982. Iowa needed a win over Purdue in their final conference game to clinch a share of the title, but with seconds remaining, Jim Bain whistled Kevin Boyle for a conversial foul, and Purdue hit two free throws to escape with a 66-65 victory. Lute Olson led the Hawks back to the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in 1983, capping his run of five straight NCAA appearances.
But just as Iowa basketball was really rolling again, Olson – like his predecessors Sam Barry and Ralph Miller – bolted for the West Coast and the Pac-10. Lute Olson left Iowa to take the head coaching job at Arizona and built the Wildcats into a powerhouse, coaching there for 24 seasons. During his time in Tucson, Olson guided the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including 11 Sweet Sixteens, four Final Fours, and the 1997 NCAA championship.
Dr. Tom Davis – 1987-1999
When Dr. Tom Davis arrived in Iowa City for the 1987 season, he was already a college basketball coaching veteran; Davis had spent 15 years as a college head coach at Lafayette, Boston College, and Stanford. His greatest successes came at Boston College, where he led the Eagles to a Big East championship and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1981 and followed that up with an Elite Eight berth in 1982.
Davis coached Hawkeye basketball for 13 seasons (one shy of Rollie Williams’ record of 14), and during that time he took Iowa to nine NCAA Tournaments. His best team was his first – the 1987 Hawkeyes compiled a 30-5 record and advanced to the Elite Eight before being upset in heartbreaking fashion by UNLV in the regional championship game.
A year later, Tom Davis guided the 1988 Hawks to the Sweet Sixteen. He would lead Iowa to six more NCAA Tournaments over the next decade while coaching seven more twenty win teams. In a remarkable achievement, Iowa won all six NCAA Tournament first round games during the decade from 1989-1998, giving Davis a 10-0 record in NCAA Tournament first round games going back to his time at Boston College.
Sadly, Davis’ inability to win a Big Ten championship or make the Sweet Sixteen over the ten-year span from 1989-1998 made many Hawkeye fans restless. In a controversial move that has been proven to be incredibly foolish in retrospect, athletic director Bob Bowlsby announced that Davis would be allowed to coach his final season at Iowa in 1999 before being released. Davis made his final year count, going out a winner in the NCAA Tournament’s first round for the 11th time and, ironically, delivering the Hawkeye basketball program one of the things fans had coveted for a decade – an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Hawkeye basketball program has only won one NCAA Tournament game in the 14 years since, a drought that has been taxing, draining, and extremely disappointing for Iowa fans everywhere. It’s similar to the drought that Hawkeye football endured in the 1960s and 1970s before reclaiming their proud tradition. With Coach Fran McCaffery working hard, we can all hope that he will one day join this list of coaches who gave Hawkeye basketball fans something to cheer.