This season marks the 40-year anniversary of a special, but rare milestone for the Iowa men’s basketball team
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – This men’s basketball season marks the 40th year for one of the most inconceivable streaks in the history of the Iowa Athletic Department, but nobody is celebrating.
In fact, nobody even talks about it anymore because it’s a sore subject.
It is frustrating and sad, and for some infuriating, that Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten regular-season title in men’s basketball since the 1978-79 season under head coach Lute Olson.
Fran McCaffery is in his ninth season as the Iowa head coach, which is a pretty long stint by today’s standards, but is less than one-fourth of Iowa’s streak.
The 59-year old McCaffery was in his second year of college when Iowa last won a Big Ten regular-season title in men's basketball.
He is also the sixth head coach that Iowa has had during the streak, the others being Olson, George Raveling, Tom Davis, Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter.
McCaffery thinks of little else besides Iowa’s next opponent, which is Illinois on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
So he probably wasn’t thrilled when I asked him about the streak on Friday with a key conference game just two days away.
But he addressed it.
“It's not something you really talk about because that would mean you're kind of looking down the road,” McCaffery said. “We've got a lot of games coming up, and right now we're focused on Illinois, and that's it.
“There's so much that goes into a game plan for a game in this league, any other game, any game on the schedule, but in particular in this league, especially when you're playing teams that we all know each other. You've got to be locked in about that and you can't be thinking about what if we do — you just can't go there.”
McCaffery’s answer made sense and was predictable because nobody adheres to the one-game-at-a-time approach more than he does.
But I went there one more time and asked McCaffery if he was surprised by how long it has been since Iowa last won a regular-season title, and if the streak is a testimony to how hard it is to win a Big Ten regular-season title.
“We came close a couple years ago, something we thought of kind of coming down the stretch that last weekend,” McCaffery said. “If we had beaten Indiana, we had a real shot. Pete (Jok) had the shot at the buzzer, and then we beat Michigan on the road. That would have been great.
“But we're obviously trying to win a Big Ten championship, and we thought we'd like to advance in the NCAA Tournament, as well, and I think as much as we all want to win a Big Ten championship, I think the NCAA Tournament is something that a lot of people focus on maybe a little bit more.”
McCaffery was referring to Iowa’s back-to-back third-place finishes at 12-6 from 2014 to 2016. Both of those teams were in striking distance, but faded down the stretch.
Third-place, so far, is the high point under McCaffery.
His current team is riding a four-game winning streak and is 4-3 in the Big Ten after starting 0-3 in conference play.
So a Big Ten regular-season title still is within reach, but it’s also too far off to think about with 13 conference games remaining.
Iowa has come close to winning a regular-season title a few times during the streak, but just couldn’t get the job done.
Iowa finished second in conference play under Steve Alford in 2005-06, and second under Tom Davis in the 1996-97 season.
Olson also led Iowa to three consecutive second place finishes in conference play from 1980 to 1983.
So it’s not that Iowa has been festering at the bottom of the conference standings for the past 40 years, but rmore a case in which Iowa has just failed to close the deal when in a position to do so.
There is nothing easy about winning a Big Ten regular-season title in any sport, and men’s basketball is hardly the only program at Iowa that is struggling in that regard.
The storied Iowa wrestling team hasn’t won a Big Ten title since the 2009-10 season, which by its high standards is an eternity, while the Iowa football team has only won two Big Ten titles in 20 seasons under Kirk Ferentz after having won three under Hayden Fry in the previous 20 years.
But that’s five more regular-season titles than men’s basketball has won in the same amount of time.
The streak in men’s basketball has lasted for so long that it almost seems likes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It rarely even comes up in discussion anymore because fans apparently are so used to Iowa not being a factor in the regular-season race.
The question now with Iowa year in and year out centers more on will it have enough success to make the NCAA Tournament than will it contend for the regular-season title.
It has pretty much been that way since Olson left after the 1982-83 season to become the head head coach at Arizona where he won 11 Pac-10 regular-season titles.
Iowa finished seventh, fifth and sixth in the Big Ten during three seasons under Raveling from 1983-86, while Iowa finished fifth or lower in the Big Ten in six of Tom Davis’ 13 seasons as head coach from 1986 to 1999.
Iowa’s best finish under Davis was second-place behind Minnesota in the 1996-97 season. The Gophers have since been stripped of the title for rules violations, but instead of giving the title to Iowa, it remains vacant by rule.
Iowa's 2005-06 squad in addition to finishing in second place in the Big Ten regular-season race also won the conference tournament that season. But that is easy to forget or to minimize because that team also suffered a stunning upset against Northwestern State in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed.
And that’s all people seem to remember from that season.
Iowa also won the conference tournament under Alford in 2001, but that team only finished 7-9 in the Big Ten and then lost in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament.
Winning the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal, but there is also something to be said for winning the Big Ten regular-season title, which often gets overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the Big Dance and the Big Ten Tournament.
A strong case could be made that winning a regular-season conference title is more impressive and more difficult than winning four or five games in the conference tournament. To have persevered through a conference grind speaks volumes about a team’s talent, chemistry and resilience because it take all three to achieve that milestone.
McCaffery feels that winning a regular-season title is more demanding than winning a conference tournament because he says it’s more reflective of a team’s body of work.
And yet, the winner of the conference tournament gets the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and that is mostly due to money.
“I don't know how much interest there would be in a conference tournament if a bid wasn't on the line there,” McCaffery said. “I think that's what kind of makes it exciting for the players, for the fans and for TV.
Indiana has won the most Big Ten regular-season titles with 10 during Iowa’s current drought, followed Michigan State with nine, Purdue with eight, Ohio State with seven, Illinois with six, Wisconsin with four and Minnesota with one.
Iowa shared the title in 1978-79 season with Purdue and Michigan State, which would go on to win the NCAA title that season with Earvin “Magic” Johnson leading the way.
And it took Michigan State being upset by Northwestern in the regular-season finale for Iowa to grab a share of the title.
Iowa was led that season by star junior point guard Ronnie Lester.
The Hawkeyes would go on to make the NCAA Final Four a year later, but the 1979-80 team only finished fourth in the Big Ten, largely due to Lester being injured for much of the season.
Nearly a half century has passed since Iowa last won the Big Ten regular-season title outright in the 1969-70 season under Ralph Miller. That team was led by the legendary six-pack and finished undefeated in conference play at 14-0 while averaging more than 100 points per game.
For Iowa now to have gone nearly four decades without winning even a share of the Big Ten regular-season title is depressing and befuddling.
It almost defies explanation, besides saying Iowa has been unlucky at times and not good enough at times to prevent such a streak from growing to epic proportions.
And 40 years should qualify as epic.
The Rockford Files still was airing in prime time and Michael Jordan was a sophomore in high school the last time Iowa won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title in men’s basketball.
Hayden Fry also hadn’t coached in a game for the Iowa football team yet and Dan Gable was in just his third season as the Iowa wrestling coach.
Forty years is a long time for any streak to endure in sports.
It’s so long that you almost take it for granted.