IOWA CITY, Iowa – Since 1956, Iowa has reached the Final Four once. Lute Olson coached that team.
Those 1979-80 Hawkeyes were fueled by senior point guard Ronnie Lester. The Chicago product re-injured his knee eight minutes into their semifinal game against eventual-champion Louisville and was lost for the rest of the tournament.
Olson said he’s been asked many times if Iowa would have won it all had his star stayed upright. He heard the inquiry again on Friday here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during a press conference he conducted while back in town for a reunion with his former players.
"My feeling was, yeah, we could have won because even with Ronnie out it went down to that last fade-away jump shot from the corner," the 80-year-old Olson said. "That (shot) will never leave my head. But that was a great team and a fun team to coach.
Olson exited Iowa City for Arizona after the ’82-83 season, taking a downtrodden program to national prominence. The North Dakota native guided the Wildcats to four Final Fours and the national championship in ’97. He was named the PAC-10 Coach of the Year seven times and the team reached thIe NCAA Tournament 23 years in a row.
Iowa finished 10th in the Big Ten in ’73-74, the season before Olson arrived from Long Beach State. Shortly after, he began working on Lester.
"He lived in an area that probably not a lot of people wanted to go in there and visit with he and his mom," Olson said.
Olson said that Ronnie had one of his friends watch the Iowa coaches’ car while they visited the Lester family.
"We visited in the afternoon and Ronnie’s mom had three deadbolts that she closed. I’m talking about 3:30 in the afternoon," Olson said.
Olson saw something in Lester that others didn’t.
"I just loved the way he played. He was a team guy from the word go. He was as quick as any guy that size that I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what the reason was that not a lot of other people looked at him but I’m glad nobody else looked at him because our program at the time might not have been able to draw a guy like that," Olson said.
Olson bumped into a Kentucky assistant when he was watching Lester one day. He thought quick.
"He asked me if I was looking at this Lester kid. I said, "yeah, if he could shoot, he’d be a really good prospect." That scared him off," Olson said.
Lester ended up being the 10th player chosen overall in the ’80 Draft. Portland then traded him to the Chicago Bulls. He finished up with the Lakers in ’86, his career never taking off due to injury.
The Hawkeyes reached the NCAA Tournament the next three seasons after Lester left, advancing to the Sweet 16 in ’83, Olson’s last campaign in Iowa City. He’s remained fond of the area and the people in it.
"The time here was really, really special," he said. "The Iowa fans are one of a kind in all sports. I enjoyed my stay here very much."