Remembering Iowa's 1980 Final Four team
Thirty-five years ago, the Iowa Hawkeyes limped into the NCAA men's basketball tournament on the back and one good leg of our all-America point guard, Ronnie Lester. Before ESPN, or even the term "March Madness," became mainstream, we were a Cinderella in a season that played out like a Greek tragedy. If you asked any one of my teammates today, they would remember three things that set us apart in 1980: adversity, adoration and miracles.
We eked into the Big Dance, undefeated when Lester was healthy enough to finish a game but barely able to break .500 when he wasn't. The adversity we faced was cruel. One morning we woke to the horrifying news that our beloved top assistant coach, Tony McAndrews, was in critical condition with multiple fractures and head injuries after the small plane returning him from a recruiting trip crashed. Authorities said it was a miracle he survived. Coach McAndrews would recover but he would not return to the bench that season and his passionate intensity was a significant loss.
Injuries were so consistent and varied that our rotation was often just six men and we became known as the "Fabulous Few." Legendary Des Moines Register sportswriter Maury White wrote: "It's a team that has found its year and it's a happening that has transpired in spite of a continuing series of misfortunes that have had coach Lute Olson checking his ancestry for a possible relationship with Job…"
Radio man Bob Brooks also described coach Olson in biblical terms, saying that when Lute walked through an airport it was like "Moses parting the Red Sea." Coach Olson would go on to be voted national coach of the year by his peers; his regal presence and the natural ability to command people's attention on and off the court were the glue that held us together.
Imagine your fifth scoring option is a 6-foot-10 post player who rarely dribbled and who made only 60 percent of his free throws. And yet with the score tied and the final seconds ticking away against heavily-favored Georgetown, it was this very guy — Steve Waite — who put the ball on the floor and took his man off the dribble, driving hard to the rim, scoring the go-ahead basket and getting fouled. We were equally ecstatic and astonished. It was the first time I'd ever seen Steve make this move — not in games, not in practices, not even playing pickup in the off-season. Yet in the most critical moment of all of our collegiate lives, he exhibited the will and composure of an NBA All-Star. In fact, he was perfect the entire game, not missing a shot or a free throw en route to 15 points. His final free throw clinched the win and our ticket to the Final Four.
Lester returned in time to lead us to victories in the final two games of the season. It was just enough to earn us a bid to the NCAA Tournament. With Ronnie suited up, a collective sigh of relief was felt across the state. And with the tourney berth, his mystique took on new meaning. Ronnie looked all of 16 off the court, but he was a man among boys on it. He was a guy who had overachieved since stepping foot in Iowa City and no one understood that better than the fans. The team felt invincible with him in the game. He said very little, but his example pushed us hard for fear of disappointing him. His workmanlike humility resonated deeply with Iowa values while his electrifying style kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Simply put, he captivated fans in a way few if any other Iowa player has.
Though we were underdogs in all but the first game, we ran through the tournament with relative ease until the East Region final. After beating top-seeded Syracuse, The Philadelphia Enquirer ran a headline reading, "Iowa Who?" The fun of being a Cinderella is that with each win we experienced an exponential explosion in fan support. The elation and innocent joy on the faces I passed in the crowded airport welcoming us home after the first two wins reminded me of 10-year-olds waking to the best Christmas morning ever. The deeper we went into the tournament, the less our fans seemed like spectators and the more they felt like partners in an initiation.
By the time the team bus dropped us at the Fieldhouse many hours after the Georgetown win, it was nearly 12:30 a.m. and the streets were deserted. Normally, we'd get off the bus and head directly to the dorms. For some reason, the coaches insisted we carry our bags to the locker room. Guys grumbled as we trudged into the dark building, through the ticket office and up the back stairs. As we made an about-face to head toward the dorms, they said, "You have to exit through the training room." It didn't make any sense but we were too tired to argue.
The training room door opened onto the Fieldhouse court and passage through that threshold had special significance for me. Few memories stand out more than the pride and exhilaration I felt standing in line anticipating that door swinging open, the student band striking up the fight song and the team running through the tight gauntlet of fans into an awaiting inferno amplified by the 1920s-era steel-and-brick gymnasium. But at 12:30 in the morning, with class and unfinished homework due in eight hours, staring at the training door felt like an unnecessary obstacle between my head and my pillow.
When the door opened one last miracle unleashed: 13,000 fans henceforth as quiet as church mice, erupted into delirium. Many of them had been waiting for hours after honoring the newly-crowned national champion wrestling team. The noise was deafening. Imagine walking blind into the biggest surprise party ever. We were in shock. Love and adoration showered us like waves in a torrential downpour. Barely possible to move through the crowd, we made our way to the impromptu stage like zombies, stunned and dumbfounded. The whole spectacle was televised live across the state. To this day, none of us can adequately describe how we felt. Guys shake their heads with reverence; the profundity of the experience just doesn't translate into words.
Ronnie Lester scored 10 of our first 12 points against Louisville in the national semifinal, looking unstoppable and every bit the guy Magic Johnson described as the toughest he ever faced in the Big Ten. When Ronnie crumpled to the court 12 minutes into the game, an emotional bubble burst across the state and to this day the wistful refrain of "What if?" accompanies any 1980 Final Four conversation. Louisville won 80-72 and went on to beat UCLA in the final. Losing Lester under those circumstances feels as raw and painful as if it happened yesterday … and yet, thankfully, even Greek tragedies provide a stage for grand memories that only a combination of adversity, adoration and miracles can inspire.
About the author
Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. Today he is an Executive Vice President of Corporate Sales and Payer Relations for iRhythm Technologies, Inc., a health care services provider focused on diagnosing and managing cardiac arrhythmias. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Iowa's 1980 NCAA Tournament run
First Round: Iowa 86, Virginia Commonwealth 72
Second Round: Iowa 77, North Carolina State 64
Sweet 16: Iowa 88, Syracuse 77
Elite Eight: Iowa 81, Georgetown 80
Final Four: Louisville 80, Iowa 72
National Third-Place Game: Purdue 75, Iowa 58