IOWA CITY, Iowa – After having the privilege of interviewing former Iowa point guard Ronnie Lester for 30 minutes on Monday, I couldn’t help but play the what-if game.
What if Lester had stayed healthy throughout the 1979-80 season, or at least for the entire game against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament semifinals?
The Hawkeyes were 15-1 with Lester in the lineup and 8-9 without him during the historic Final Four season. He scored Iowa’s first 10 points in the semi-final game against Louisville, but after eight minutes of play re-injured his knee and left the game and didn’t return.
In Lester’s absence, Louisville defeated Iowa 80-72 and then went on to win the 1980 national title.
Lester never would be the same again. He played seven seasons in the NBA, which is a testimony to his talent and determination because his knee never fully healed.
I still say 36 years later that Iowa would’ve not only defeated Louisville if Lester had stayed healthy, but would’ve won the national title behind its soft-spoken blur from Chicago.
Louisville defeated UCLA 59-54 in the title game, while the Lester-less Hawkeyes lost to Purdue 75-58 in the consolation game.
It was a sad ending to an incredible season and to a legendary career.
Another popular what-if involved former Iowa football coach Forest Evashevski. What if he had stayed in coaching instead of resigning after just nine seasons to become Iowa’s Director of Athletics?
Evashevski had built Iowa into an elite program when he stepped down after the 1960 season. The Hawkeyes combined for a 37-8-2 record during Evashevski’s last five seasons as head coach from 1956-60, winning two Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowls.
Iowa was on the verge of becoming what Nebraska came to be in the 1960s.
The Cornhuskers were struggling when Evashevski made his career move, combining for a 16-34 record during the same five-year stretch from 1956-60.
But then Nebraska hired Bob Devaney and that changed the course of history in a hurry. Nebraska finished 47-8 in Devaney’s first five seasons as head coach from 1962-66, while Iowa finished just 13-31-2 during that same stretch under Jerry Burns and Ray Nagel.
Nebraska stayed ranked among the elite for over the next three decades, while Iowa suffered through nearly two decades without even having a winning season from 1962-80.
To say that Evashevski was a better coach than administrator would be an understatement. His time as athletic director was tainted by controversy, hard feelings and the rapid decline of the football program.
Evashevski wanted to be both head football coach and athletic director, but he wasn’t allowed to be.
He seemed to resent Ray Nagel, who coached the Iowa football team for five tumultuous seasons from 1966-70. Stories of a power struggle between Evashevski and Nagel circulated as the football program continued to spiral downward.
It wasn’t until Hayden Fry took over in 1979 that the bleeding finally stopped in football. Fry led Iowa to the Rose Bowl in his third season and the program has been respectable since then.
Here are some more what-ifs to ponder:
What if Hayden Fry had turned down Bump Elliott’s offer to coach the Iowa football team?
Elliott’s job as athletic director was on the line when he hired Fry to do what Bob Commings, Frank Lauterbur, Ray Nagel and Jerry Burns has failed to do over the previous two decades.
Fry proved to be the savior for the football program and for Elliott.
It’s awful to even think about life without Fry because the chances are it would have been more misery.
What if Lute Olson had turned down the Arizona job in 1983 and stayed as the Iowa men’s basketball coach?
Would Olson have built Iowa into the same national power that Arizona became under his watch? Or was Arizona a sleeping giant, helped by its warm climate and by the recent end of UCLA’s dynasty?
I think Iowa would have continued to make the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis under Olson. But with the Arizona job, Olson was in the right place at the right time.
He was hired two years before local star Sean Elliott graduated from high school in Tucson, Ariz. The 6-foot-8 Elliott would go on to become arguably the greatest player in school history, earning consensus All-America honors as a junior and senior under Olson.
What if Howard Jones had stayed as the Iowa football coach?
We’re going way back with this one, but it’s worth asking because Iowa was rolling when Jones resigned after the 1923 season to take the same job at Duke.
Jones only coached at Duke for one season in 1924 before being hired as the head coach at the University of Southern California.
In 16 seasons at USC, Jones coached seven Pacific Coast Conference championship teams and four more national champions, and won each of the five Rose Bowls in which his Trojans played.
Jones died from a heart attack on July 27, 1941.
Iowa twice finished undefeated under Jones in 1921 and 1922 and had a winning record in seven of his eight seasons as head coach.
It’s a well-known fact that Jones’s wife was not fond of Iowa City, especially the bitterly cold winters, and he demanded a new contract, which would allow him to coach and live in Iowa City only during football season. A conflict between Jones and the chairman of the Athletics Board at Iowa contributed to the tension, and Jones eventually resigned as head coach and athletic director at Iowa.
What if Chris Street hadn’t been killed in automobile accident?
His future as a basketball player looked so incredibly bright when tragedy struck on Jan. 19, 1993. The 6-8 Street was in the midst of a breakout junior season when his car collided with a snow plow on the outskirts of Iowa City.
Street was killed instantly, leaving us to wonder how high his ceiling was as a basketball player. He seemed poised to make the NBA as a power forward who could shoot, rebound and run the floor like a guard.
But it wasn’t just his physical attributes that made Street special. He had a zest for life that carried to the basketball floor, where his motor never stopped.
Iowa would go on to finish the 1992-93 season with a 23-9 record without Street. The Hawkeyes couldn’t quite get over the hump against Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, losing 84-78 in Nashville, Tenn.
Iowa struggled during the 1993-94 season, finishing just 11-16 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten, in what would have been Street’s senior season. His loss as a player and as a team leader was too much to overcome in such a short time.
What if Willie Fleming had remained in school?
The speedster from Detroit only needed one season to become a Hawkeye legend as a running back. Fleming was a key contributor for Iowa’s 1958 Rose Bowl team, but that was the extent of his college career. He quit the team after just one season, leaving behind a short list of breathtaking runs.
What if Gale Sayers had attended Iowa instead of Kansas?
Imagine how fun it would’ve been to watch Sayers elude defenders in an Iowa uniform. A native of Omaha, Neb., Sayers actually wanted to attend Iowa, but changed his mind after Iowa head coach Jerry Burns did not have time to meet with Sayers during his one campus visit.
Sayers picked Kansas and would go on to be called the “Kansas Comet” before becoming a star with the Chicago Bears.
What if Iowa had hired Bob Stoops instead of Kirk Ferentz in 1998?
This question doesn’t get asked as much as it used to, but still you wonder.
It’s reasonable to think that Stoops also would’ve succeeded in rebuilding his college alma mater. But would he have stayed at Iowa for as long as Ferentz, who is entering his 18th season as the Iowa head coach?
Stoops is also entering his 18th season as the Oklahoma head coach, so maybe he would’ve stayed in Iowa City.
But it’s easier from a recruiting standpoint to stay the course at Oklahoma than at Iowa.
What if Kirk Ferentz had stuck with Jake Rudock over C.J. Beathard?
That would’ve impacted two programs because Rudock almost certainly would’ve stayed at Iowa instead of transferring to Michigan, while Beathard probably would have transferred to a different school.
Everybody seems to have benefited from Ferentz’s decision to switch quarterbacks, including Rudock. He led Michigan to a 10-3 record and was selected by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Sometimes, making a change is the best option.
What if quarterback Ricky Stanzi would have stayed healthy in 2009?
Iowa was 9-0 when Stanzi injured his ankle against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes lost that game 17-10 and were defeated by Ohio State 27-24 the next week in Columbus with the Big Ten title on the line.
Stanzi returned to lead Iowa to a 24-14 victory over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, capping an 11-2 season.
The 2009 season ranks among the best in program history, but it might have been better with a healthy Stanzi leading the way from start to finish.
What if Dan Gable hadn’t been hired to coach the Iowa wrestling team in 1976?
That’s scary to even consider because it’s reasonable to think that Gable’s alma mater, Iowa State, would’ve eventually hired him as head wrestling coach. And it’s reasonable to think that Gable would have built Iowa State into a dynasty.
What if Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey had fumbled on the first play from scrimmage in the Rose Bowl against Iowa instead of scoring a touchdown?
It probably would have only delayed the inevitable, considering Stanford rolled to a 45-16 victory.
But still, you never know.