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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / 1980 Iowa Hawkeyes: A Legendary Team that had a Tragic ending.

1980 Iowa Hawkeyes: A Legendary Team that had a Tragic ending.

Publish Date: 04/01/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

The Iowa Hawkeyes have a rabid fan base that has filled Carver-Hawkeye Areba with a passion and intensity that rivals any of the so-called big-time programs in College Basketball. The Hawkeyes have had two teams that looked like possible National championship teams. You had Ralph Miller’s Hawkeyes in 1970 that went undefeated 14-0 in Big Ten conference play; they came up short in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, losing to the Jacksonville Dolphins 103-102.

Jacksonville boasted an effective offensive machine, led by 7-2 Artis Gilmore and 7-foot Pembrook Burrows III. The Dolphins were loaded and back then only 25 teams filled out the tournament bracket.

Then you had the team we will discuss today, the 1980 Iowa Hawkeyes were a team that seemed to have to overcome so many obstacles that even making the tournament should have been impossible. They were led by one of the greatest guards in College Basketball history, Ronnie Lester; Lester’s 1980 season was full of injuries, and those injuries relegated the Hawkeyes to a pedestrian 18-8 record. They were undefeated, though, when Lester started and finished a game.

The Hawkeyes’ journey to the Big Dance was difficult as Lester battled through injuries all season long that he could not shake. Adversity of a different kind came quickly when one morning, the Hawkeyes received news that one of their beloved assistant coaches, Tony McAndrews, was critically injured after his plane crashed returning from a recruiting trip; he had survived and would recover but the Hawkeyes lost the energy and passion of a beloved coach because of multiple fracture Coach McAndrews would not return to the team that season.

Injuries occurred to more than just Lester as the Hawkeyes would have to play with just six or seven healthy players in a game. The team was nicknamed  “The Fabulous Few.” The Hawkeyes were resilient enough to battle on and keep themselves in position for a possible NCAA Tournament berth. The Big Ten was a tough conference in 1980 as they had to deal with Joe Barry Carroll’s Purdue Boilermakers, Isiah Thomas’s Indiana Hoosiers, Kevin McHale’s Minnesota Golden Gophers and a stacked Ohio State Buckeye squad.

Radio man Bob Brooks gave Lute Olson biblical comparisons, noting his arrival into an airport as being like “Moses parting the Red Sea.” Olson went on to win National Coach of the Year honors from his peers; his majestic presence and ability to command people’s attention on and off the court served as our lynchpins. He would carry that aura later to the Arizona Wildcats where he would turn the Wildcats into a Final Four program also.

Imagine having as your fifth scoring option a 6-foot-10 post player who rarely dribbled and made only 60% of his free throw attempts making the play to advance your team to the Final Four? – Against heavily-favored Georgetown in the Elite Eight, Steve Waite made his magic by placing the ball on the floor and taking his man off-dribble to drive hard to the rim for the go-ahead basket  getting fouled himself and hitting a big free throw. Nobody had ever seen Steve make a play like that, and to do it on the biggest stage was impressive, to say the least. Steve displayed all the composure and willpower of an NBA All-Star, not missing one shot or free throw the entire game while scoring 15 points himself and leading this Hawkeyes team all the way into the Final Four! His final free throw secured the victory and secured their ticket to a chance to win it all!

At the end of the regular season Lester returned just in time to lead the Hawkeyes to two wins in their last two games of the season – just enough for a bid into the NCAA Tournament. As soon as Ronnie took to the floor again, relief spread throughout the state; his mystique took on new significance as his presence brought the team and fans even closer. Fans quickly understood his tremendous accomplishments for the University on and off the court; Ronnie made everyone on the team feel unstoppable in games played. He didn’t speak much, yet his example pushed his teammates hard not to disappoint him. His workmanlike humility resonated deeply with Iowa values. At the same time, his electrifying style kept everyone on their toes – simply put, he captured fans like few or any other Iowa player has before him or after him.

Video: 1980 NCAA Tournament Iowa vs Syracuse Sweet 16

1980 NCAA Tournament Iowa vs Syracuse Sweet 16

Even with Lester back the Hawkeyes were underdogs in every game of their NCAA Tournament run. The Hawkeyes breezed through their bracket until the aforementioned Elite Eight battle with Georgetown. After beating top seed Syracuse, The Philadelphia Enquirer ran a headline reading “Iowa Who?” The beauty of being an underdog team was that every win led to exponential fan support – After the Hawkeyes won their first two tournament games they were greeted by adoring fans at the airport, Iowa City loved these Hawkeyes!

When the team bus dropped the Hawkeyes off at the Fieldhouse after the Georgetown victory, it was nearly 12:30 a.m., and the streets were deserted. While normally, the players would get off the bus and head directly for the dorms, for whatever reason coaches made the players carry their bags to the Locker room and it made no sense to the players why they were being forced to do this, soon it would.

Passing through the training room door onto Fieldhouse court held great meaning for the team; few memories compare to standing in line and waiting for that door to swing open and hearing the student band strike up their fight song as the team ran through a tight gauntlet of fans into an inferno of noise made even louder by 1920s steel-and-brick gymnasiums . At 12:30 on that morning, with homework due in 8 hours, staring at that training door felt more like an unnecessary obstacle between the players and their pillow than anything else.

As soon as the door opened, 13,000 fans who had been as quiet as church mice burst forth in wild celebration, Imagine walking blind into one of the biggest surprise parties ever; the players were absolutely overwhelmed with love and admiration from strangers who showered down on them like waves; barely possible to move through the crowd, they made their way toward an impromptu stage; this was being shown live in the homes of every Iowan! You could see the players shaking their heads in amazement and the smiles of surprise on their faces. The Hawkeyes seemed destined to win it all!

Video: Final 10 minutes of Iowa v Georgetown 1980 + pep rally at Iowa Fieldhouse

Final 10 minutes of Iowa v Georgetown 1980 + pep rally at Iowa Fieldhouse

Ronnie Lester began the national semifinal against Louisville looking unstoppable; unfortunately, when Ronnie collapsed 12 minutes into the game, an emotional bubble burst across our state; today, that conversation always includes “What If?.” Louisville ultimately defeated UCLA 80-72; this tragic loss from Lester is as fresh and raw as though it happened yesterday but hopefully gives rise to lasting memories that come out of overcoming hardship, love and miracles together.

Ronnie Lester, in the eight minutes he played, scored 10 of the Hawkeye’s 12 points; he looked like a man amongst boys. Would Iowa have won if he played the entire game? That’s something will never know, and that’s a shame because this Iowa team deserved better than what happened to it. Magic Johnson said Ronnie Lester was the best player he faced in College and even though the Hawkeyes did not win they were a special team during a special time in Iowa Basketball.

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