This month marks the 20-year anniversary of Iowa’s last trip to the Sweet 16, but that hardly is worth celebrating
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On March 18, 1999, the Iowa men’s basketball team had its miracle season end with a 78-68 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
The game was played in the high altitude of Denver, Colo., and with high energy.
Iowa coach Tom Davis looked emotionally exhaused when the game ended, and for good reason, after having the spotlight shine brightly on him for nearly two weeks.
Davis always tried to deflect the attention because he valued his privacy and because he felt more comfortable with his players in the spotlight.
But there was no avoiding the spotlight for Davis as the 1999 NCAA Tournament unfolded because he was working as a lame-duck head coach without a contract extension.
Connecticut would go on to win the national title that season, its first of three under head coach Jim Calhoun, while Iowa has gone on to win just three NCAA Tournament games since losing to the Huskies 20 years ago.
It almost seems that Iowa is paying a heavy price for showing Davis the door when he should’ve been shown respect, and part of that price is being irrelevant in postseason play over the past two decades.
The fact that Davis is the last head coach to lead Iowa to the NCAA Sweet 16, and that it happened 20 years ago, is an embarrassing storyline that won’t go away until it goes away.
Iowa has a chance to make the story go away as a No. 10 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but it won’t be easy with a talented Cincinnati squad standing in the way on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
And should Iowa get past the Bearcats on Friday, it is very likely that No. 2 seed Tennessee would be the next obstacle to clear on Sunday.
“I’m happy for our players and the hard work they’ve put in in the offseason, in the preseason and what they’ve accomplished,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on Sunday. “Tremendous body of work rewarded by the selection committee and we’re anxious to play on Friday."
Some fans would disagree with McCaffery saying that Iowa’s body of work is tremendous because they don’t consider a 10-10 conference record as being tremendous, especially with McCaffery in his ninth year on the job.
It looks tremendous compared to Iowa’s 4-14 record in conference play last season, but that is only because the bar was set so low.
The next step for McCaffery is to make the Sweet 16, something his two predecessors at Iowa failed to do.
Nobody ever said making the Sweet 16 was easy, nor should it be easy.
But it also shouldn’t be as hard as Iowa has made it look over the past two decades.
This prolonged stretch of postseason mediocrity is hardly what Bob Bowlsby envisioned when he decided to sever ties with Davis by not extending his contract before the 1998-99 season.
Bowlsby was the Iowa Athletic Director at the time, but he didn’t hire Davis and they were hardly friends.
Bowlsby was determined to take the men’s basketball program to another level and he felt that Davis stood in the way of that happening.
So Bowlsby refused to extend Davis’ contract with just one year remaining and that made Davis a lame duck coach and a sympathetic figure heading into the 1998-99 season.
The players rallied around Davis and did what no Iowa team has done since then by winning two games in the NCAA Tournament.
Two victories is all it takes to make the Sweet 16, and yet, Iowa has gone nearly two decades without accomplishing that.
Bowlsby did actually take Iowa to another level in men’s basketball, but that level was below the level that had been established under Davis, where winning at least one game in the NCAA Tournament was pretty routine.
Iowa made the NCAA Tournament in nine of Davis’ 13 seasons as head coach, and won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament in each of the nine appearances.
Bowlsby hired Steve Alford to lift the program to a higher level, and for a while, it looked as if that might happen.
Alford led Iowa to the Big Ten Tournament title in his second season in 2001, and to a victory over Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that same season.
However, that would be the last time that Iowa won an NCAA Tournament game in eight seasons under Alford.
The program also suffered from the Pierre Pierce sexual assault scandal that occurred under Alford’s watch.
Pierce was a talented guard for the Hawkeyes on the court, but he was troubled off the court where he twice was charged with assaulting a woman.
Alford defended Pierce publicly after the first incident, which involved a former UI female athlete, and that contributed to Alford’s demise.
Pierce was kicked off the team after the second incident, but by then, it was too late to repair the damage from a public relations standpoint.
So with the pressure and discontent both rising, Alford resigned after the 2006-07 season to take the New Mexico job, and then Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta hired Todd Lickliter to replace Alford.
The decision to hire Lickliter proved to be a three-year disaster and then McCaffery was hired to clean up the mess in 2010.
McCaffery has made Iowa respectable again by leading the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six seasons. You could say that McCaffery has lifted the program to a level that is similar to where Davis had it.
But Iowa has failed to advance to the Sweet 16 under McCaffery, and that’s a problem that continues to fester.
It doesn’t help that Iowa State has advanced to the Sweet 16 three times since 2000, because if the Cyclones can do it, then what is stopping Iowa from doing it?
That is a fair question to which there is no simple answer.
Even Northern Iowa has made the Sweet 16 more recently than Iowa in 2010.
Iowa’s 20-year drought has made Davis more popular over the years, and also serves as a painful reminder that change isn’t always the answer.
The fans who think that Iowa should move on from McCaffery certainly have a right to their opinion, but they’re just not being realistic under the circumstances.
But those same fans have a right to be frustrated and to expect more from a program that has mostly failed to deliver on the big stage since the loss to Connecticut in 1999.
Iowa has gone nearly 20 years without making the Sweet 16, and 40 years without having won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
Those kinds of droughts wear on the fans and cause some to overreact during tough times.
McCaffery shouldn’t be fired simply because he has led Iowa to the NCAA Tournaments in four of the past six seasons.
But it is fair to question or wonder after nine seasons if the program has peaked under McCaffery because there is little proof to suggest otherwise.
A trip to the Sweet 16 would be proof, but that seems like a longshot to happen this season with Iowa having lost five of its last six games.
McCaffery also didn't help his image, or his cause, by being suspended for two game this season for berating an official.
"We have to play the kind of defense that we have shown," McCaffery said. "At times, we haven't been as good, but much better than we were last (year).
"If you want to win this time of year, you've got to play defense."
It also helps to play well on offense and to be lucky at times.
Unfortunately, for Hawkeye fans, those three things haven't happened very much over the past two decades.