Moments of Madness: Dr. Tom's final run at Iowa

Des Moines Register
Tom Davis and former Iowa star Jess Settles in this Register illustration.

Editor's note: This story by former Register sports reporter Andrew Logue originally ran in March 2016. 

The cold realities of his job were not lost on Tom Davis.

“It can be a cruel profession at any level,” the former Iowa men's basketball coach says now. “So you kind of know that going in.”

Still, Davis felt blindsided when he learned in 1998 that athletic director Bob Bowlsby wanted to make a coaching change.

Davis easily had the most wins in school history after the 1997-98 season. The program had recorded four straight 20-win seasons, and recent recruiting classes were solid. But fan apathy had taken root, several high-profile in-state recruits went to other schools and his most recent team was ousted in the first round of the 1998 National Invitation Tournament.

At the time, Davis had a year remaining on his contract. But after he and Bowlsby met that April, it was decided he would continue through the 1998-99 season and then step down.

"Bob and I discussed all the possibilities," Davis said at the news conference announcing the end of his 13-year run at Iowa. "I don't feel I was being forced out. This was just something we arrived at."

Years later, he would say he got the hint.

“You serve at the athletic director’s mercy,” Davis says. “If they want you gone, they can get you gone.”

The news shook the program. Past disappointments hounded older players. The underclassmen faced an uncertain future. But they rallied around Davis, a man who set the tone with what he left unspoken.

What followed was a bittersweet run to the NCAA Tournament, with a finish the program hasn't topped in the up-and-down seasons since.

“That’s how Dr. Tom was,” said Dean Oliver, who was a sophomore guard that season. “He was just a class act. I’m sure he had some feelings about (being let go), but he wasn’t going to have sour grapes over it.

“And we wanted to follow that.”

Former UI coach Tom Davis celebrates his 500 career win in 1997.

Change is coming

In late March 1998, former Register columnist Marc Hansen penned this to sum up the drama:

Yes, Bowlsby has talked with Tom Davis about next season. Yes, he will talk again with Tom Davis about next season.

Will Tom Davis be back?

"I have no further comment," Bowlsby says.

End of conversation.

Though he won't come out and say it, Bowlsby sounds like an A.D. who wouldn't mind hiring a new basketball coach.

And I can't exactly say I fault him.

Even after the surprising second-place finish of 1997, a sort of malaise has settled in over the program. The fans are hostile. The players aren't getting along all that well.

Attendance is down. The crowd for the NIT game against Georgia was embarrassing. But no more embarrassing than the game.

Less than a week later, word that Davis was on his way out began to leak. Davis said he first learned about it in a report in a Quad Cities newspaper. Bowlsby disputed that claim.

“He didn’t find out about it through the media. He and I had several conversations about it," Bowlsby said. "I got to the point where I felt like we weren’t getting better. ... I didn’t make the decision capriciously. I did it after a lot of thought and a lot of conversation and a lot of soul-searching.”

Either way, a change was being made. The question was when.

Bowlsby offered Davis a chance to retire immediately. But he wanted one more shot at  leading the players he recruited to Iowa City. It was announced on April 2, 1998, that the next season was the last for Davis at Iowa.

Former Iowa basketball coach Tom Davis, left,  announces that he'll resign after next season. At right is former UI athletic director Bob Bowlsby.

Publicly, Bowlsby defended the coach.

"Since the end of the (1997-98) season, some of the media and fans have pretty well teed off on Tom," Bowlsby said during a 1998 news conference. "In all frankness, I think the treatment he received has been disgraceful.

"And I think it has been mean-spirited, and altogether unwarranted."

Joey Range's head was spinning.

A highly touted guard from Galesburg, Ill., Range signed with the Hawkeyes over others because of his relationship with Davis.

“One of the worst things in the world, honestly,” Range said of the news.

Davis’ ability to navigate a team through turmoil would be tested in the coming months.

More stories in our "Moments of Madness" series:

Failing to meet expectations

Jess Settles shouldered much of the blame for Iowa’s recent spotty performances, even if that blame was misplaced.

Settles, an injury-worn forward who was a star early in his Hawkeye career, was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He hoped to ease the sting of missing the NCAAs three of the past five years in his final go-round.

“I felt responsible for it,” Settles said. “Partially, because I knew that had I not been injured for three years (Davis) would still be the coach.

“So I always carried that. That’s not necessarily true, but when I was young, I felt it.”

In Davis’ first two seasons, 1986-87 and 1987-88, Iowa advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight and the Sweet 16. Both rosters were full of players assembled by previous coach George Raveling.

The Hawkeyes were reloading again in the mid-1990s before being derailed by health issues and tragedy. Settles arrived in 1993, the summer after player Chris Street's death in a car accident, and was part of a promising freshman class that included Chris Kingsbury. Their first season ended with a record of 11-16. The next ended in the third round of the NIT.

In 1996 and 1997, they lost in the second round of the NCAAs. Settles, who averaged more than 15 points and six rebounds as a freshman and sophomore, missed the entire 1997-98 campaign with an ailing back.

Iowa finished 20-11 in 1998 (9-7 in the Big Ten) and was bounced in the first round of the NIT by Georgia.

“There's no way we’d ever let that happen," Settles said. "We were just too competitive.

“Then when I got hurt, everything was tougher.”

Blessing in disguise

Range’s high school coach told him to choose a college program with stability and a coach with longevity.

“And then we turned around and walked into this situation,” Range said with a chuckle.

The 6-foot-5 Range, a top-35 prospect nationally by several analysts, earned all-state honors from the Chicago Tribune and was the most valuable player in Illinois' vaunted Western Big 6 conference his junior and senior seasons.

He joined a Hawkeye roster that included former Iowa prep stars such as Oliver and overachievers such as Kent McCausland.

“It might have been one of the best groups of talent that we had, as far as depth goes,” Davis said. “We had some good, solid play coming off the bench, in addition to the guys who started or played in the top seven or eight.”

In reality, Range was one of the last players Davis would ever bother recruiting at Iowa. With no need to recruit for the future, Davis and his staff devoted even more time toward player development.

"The coaches were like, ‘We’re not recruiting, so you guys can come in and we’ll work out with you at night,’ ’’ McCausland said. “That hurt the program going forward, but that wasn’t their goal or objective.

“They were just trying to have the best season they possibly could.”

All the chips were in.

Growing confidence

Even with Davis’ reassuring demeanor, a cloud hovered over the Hawkeyes.

“There was an evolution of feelings through that season,” McCausland said. “At the beginning, I think it was just confusion.

“What direction are we going in?”

While Settles and McCausland wanted another chance at March Madness, Oliver and Range were left to deal with rumors about Davis’ successor.

Still, they all pushed on.

“Dean was a sophomore at the time,” McCausland said. “He made it pretty clear to the team and the coaching staff that the young guys were just all about that season.

“(Oliver) was wise beyond his years,” Settles said. “I think at the end of the day, guys just want to play. And when the ball is tipped, it doesn’t matter what the side stories are. Those young guys did a really good job of deferring to us, the older guys. They did a great job of honoring us honoring coach Davis.”

A loss to Creighton gave Iowa a 6-1 record entering a marquee matchup at Kansas.

“Going into it, we were just excited to play in historic Phog Allen (Fieldhouse),” McCausland said. “That’s just a neat atmosphere to go to.”

Range arrived late. He stayed back at school to take a test and then flew out on a private plane.

“It was one of the scariest flights I’ve been on,” Range said. “It was a real bumpy flight. It was just a gloomy day … and it was one of the smaller planes I’ve ever been on. We got there and were relieved.”

The 10th-ranked Jayhawks owned a 62-game home winning streak and held a 59-41 lead with less than 13 minutes remaining. They made just two baskets during a 7-minute stretch as Iowa rallied.

McCausland hit two 3-pointers in the final 1:40, including a shot to give the Hawkeyes a 77-76 lead.

“He did have that confidence you have to have as a shooter," Oliver said said of his backcourt mate, who finished with 15 points. “You know when that shot was going up, it always felt like it was going in.”

Range followed with a steal and jumper. It was an upset for the ages at Iowa.

“For crying out loud, this is the greatest win in the history of the Hawkeyes,” McCausland told reporters after the 85-81 victory.

“That kind of gave us our swag,” Oliver said. “Knowing we could beat not only one of the best teams in the country, but in their building.”

The Hawkeyes ended December with an 11-1 record and were No. 21 in the Associated Press poll.

“There are those cornerstone type of wins throughout a season that change the mentality of the team, and I think that was one for us,” McCausland said. “There was just the pure elation of winning that game in the fashion that we won.”

Izzo's reality check

The Hawkeyes would play three teams that advanced to the 1999 Final Four: UConn, Ohio State and Michigan State.

It would be the first of what is now seven Final Fours for Spartans coach Tom Izzo.

“Michigan State was no fun to play,” Oliver said. “They could just really embarrass you and beat you by 20, 30 points, because of the way they got out and ran.”

The Spartans beat Iowa 80-65 on Jan. 21 and 95-81 on Feb. 6. Mateen Cleaves, one of the most celebrated Big Ten point guards ever, was the catalyst in both instances.

“We wanted to find Cleaves as quickly as possible and not let him catch the ball,” McCausland said. “Both games, we couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t stop them from running, breaking, getting up and down.

“I remember thinking, ‘These guys are a step above us.’ ’’

In this Jan. 21, 1999 game, Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, left, pressures Iowa's Dean Oliver. Iowa lost to the Spartans 80-65.

Once in the halfcourt, Oliver was usually matched against Cleaves, who stood 6-foot-2 and was a bull of a man at 200 pounds.

“Mateen was tough for me, because you couldn’t just focus on him,” Oliver said. “He just knew what to do to make his team win.

“He was so fast and had that size. You couldn’t let him get going downhill.”

Michigan State went 15-1 against Big Ten opponents, giving Izzo his second conference title in four years since replacing his legendary mentor, Jud Heathcote.

“You could see he was going to be good,” Davis said, “right from the start.”

Soaking it in

The Hawkeyes spent most of the winter ranked among the top 25, peaking at No. 12.

They added another highlight to their resume with a 71-68 win over Ohio State on Jan. 12, 1999. McCausland, a former redshirt, made sure his younger teammates appreciated the significance of the moment.

“I remember putting my arm around Joey Range, walking down the hallway,” McCausland said.

“This is what it’s all about,” McCausland told him. “You’re not going to get a lot of chances to play these types of games. So just enjoy it. Have fun with it.”

That message continues to resonate.

“The chemistry was there,” Range said. “I respected the upperclassmen. Kent was always the one, ‘Hey, Joey, you’re doing great.’ ’’

“He put his arm around me and was like, ‘Enjoy this.’ ’’

Iowa stumbled in mid-January, losing five of seven games, including twice to Michigan State. A 74-60 loss to Wisconsin in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament left the Hawkeyes with an 18-9 record.

But the best was yet to come.

March redemption

Selection Sunday was a celebration.

Davis kept things low-key, but 20th-ranked Iowa was a shoo-in for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. It owned four wins against top-25 teams, including two in the top 10, and had played one of the toughest schedules in the nation. This time around, players gathered in the locker room and food was brought in on Selection Sunday.

“The previous couple years, coach Davis did not watch with the team,” McCausland said. “The fact he put us together and we were going to watch as a team made me feel like we must be seeded pretty well.

“Coach Davis is a pretty smart guy.”

Iowa's Dean Oliver, left and Kent McCausland harrass UAB's Damon Cobb in the 1999 NCAA Tournament.

His hunch was right. The Hawkeyes were seeded fifth in the West Region and rolled past Alabama-Birmingham 77-64 in the first round at Denver.

Up next was a showdown with fourth-seeded Arkansas.

The Razorbacks were one of the “it” teams of the 1990s, reaching three Final Fours in the decade and winning a national championship in 1994. Their relentless full-court press was dubbed “Forty Minutes of Hell.”

Coach Nolan Richardson's high-octane approach, many thought, was even more dangerous in the Mile High City.

“With the elevation," Oliver explained, "guys get tired a little quicker, if you’re not used to it.”

Davis took a bold approach against Richardson's squad.

Like Arkansas, Iowa employed a frenetic style of play and often used 11 players to keep the pressure on. “The idea was that the pressure makes people lose their minds,” Settles said. “It makes you do things you’re not comfortable doing. No one had a good press break at the time.”

“For every team we played against," Oliver said, "it was ‘foul them out, wear them out.’ ’’

Thing was, Arkansas was the best in the country at this. ESPN would later even make a "SEC Storied" documentary about it.

But during film sessions in preparation for Iowa's second-round bout, Davis told his staff the Hawkeyes would not change their approach. The track meet was on.

“We’re going through everything and they say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to slow down. We’re going to run with these guys,’’’ McCausland said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m the guy you want out there on the floor all the time if you’re just going to be running with these guys.’ ’’

The game, which took place in McNichols Arena, featured 25 steals, 43 turnovers and a decisive final run by the Hawkeyes.

“It was two teams that obviously thrived on pressure,” Settles said. “Both teams knew in that game that somebody would probably be up 15 points at one time, and it might swing back to being down 15 points.

“It was really that chaotic.”

Arkansas owned a 41-34 advantage at halftime. McCausland, ever Mr. Clutch for that Iowa team, hit three 3-pointers in a row during a 16-0 run that gave the Hawkeyes the lead.

“My legs had gotten to the point where even getting out and sitting down for a couple minutes didn’t help recoup,” he said. “They were just very rubbery, tired and heavy.”

A 3-pointer from Ryan Luehrsman later put the Hawkeyes up 69-66 with 5:26 to go. Settles dunked to give Iowa a 5-point lead with 4 ½ minutes left, and the Hawkeyes pulled away for an 82-72 win.

Iowa made 7 of its 11 3-pointers in the second half, ending its string of six straight losses in the second round.

“I remember late in the game coming down and my whole thought was, ‘Get Kent the ball,’’’ Settles said of McCausland, who ended with 17 points. “He just thrived on big games like that.”

And this was the biggest game to date.

“I’ve never been more excited after a win than I was after the Arkansas game,” McCausland said. “because you’re moving on to the next location.”

Next up: The Sweet 16 and the best team in the country.

Connecting with the past

The more they reminisced, the more it added significance to the present.

Iowa was heading to Phoenix, prepping for a Sweet 16 showdown with top-seed Connecticut.

In order to put his players in the proper frame of mind, Davis was name-dropping former Hawkeye greats of the 1980s: Roy Marble ...  B.J. Armstrong ... Kevin Gamble. That was the rarefied air these Hawkeyes were in.

“You could tell he was getting excited about this game and being in the Sweet 16 again,” McCausland said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I am to some kid back home what those guys were to me.’

“It just got me really pumped up.”

A Winfield product, Settles experienced a similar connection.

“Especially for those of us who’ve grown up in Iowa, we were cheering for the Hawkeyes long before we wore the uniform,” he said.

“It was a different time back then, when everybody stayed in school. You had veteran teams and we got to know them as kids growing up, watched them develop. So there was no doubt at that moment when we were slipping on that uniform we were trying to make history.”

As the meeting with UConn approached, Range saw a mix of emotions from Davis. He still could coach. This year had proved that.

“You could see the bitterness, because he still wanted to coach,” Range said. “He still deserved to be our coach. But you could see the joy on his face to know, ‘These guys went out there, worked their tail off and this is where we are.’’’

But no matter where this NCAA Tournament run ended, his time as the Hawkeye coach stopped there.

“I didn’t have any second thoughts," Bowlsby said of the decision to move on from Davis. "But I wanted to do everything I could to support the kids and make sure that they had the opportunity to compete at the highest possible level."

End of an era

The vibe was different at America West Arena in Phoenix.

“Each game you can feel how many more people are in the arena,” Oliver said, “how much more excitement there is, how much more media attention.

“So it really felt like something when we were playing against UConn.”

Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin, left, prepares to drive on Iowa's Dean Oliver, right, at the NCAA West Regionals in Phoenix on Thursday, March 18, 1999. Connecticut won 78-68 and advances to the regional finals Saturday against Gonzaga. Iowa's Joey Range is behind El-Amin.

The Huskies were a powerhouse, led by household names Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin. For 10 weeks of the season, Jim Calhoun's group was the top-ranked team in the country and entered the tournament with a No. 3 AP ranking and a 16-2 mark in the now-defunct Big East. Those would be the only two losses they had all season.

Iowa had no answer for Hamilton, a future NBA all-star, and El-Amin, a 5-10, 200-pound bowling ball.

“We came in really confident,” Oliver said. “I remember a play where we’re trying to trap El-Amin and he’s just bouncing through us like a pinball machine. He’s the ball bouncing through.

“Second half, Hamilton took over the game. It was one of those deals where, ‘How do you guard them?’’’

McCausland gave it his best effort on Hamilton.

“He looked so skinny when he was out there,” McCausland said of Hamilton. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to leave it all on the floor.’ Then when you get out there, he had this way of getting open and using his body, changing direction and speed.

“You’re just kind of, ‘Wow.’’’

Even so, it was close.

The Hawkeyes and UConn were tied 44-all with 15:29 left. The Huskies trudged ahead 59-55 with 6:15 remaining and then salted it away with free throws for a 78-68 triumph. Hamilton and El-Amin combined for 45 points and nine assists.

UConn went on to beat Ohio State 64-58 in the national semifinals and toppled No. 1 Duke 77-74 for the championship.

"Very few of us have the aplomb and the dignity with which he conducts himself," Calhoun told the Hartford (Conn.) Courant about Davis before the game. "He's been a role model for all of us. Whether (his ouster) is fair or unfair, that's not my judgment. My judgment is that he has succeeded in a lame-duck situation, and as he succeeds, many people have talked about a lot of different things. What Tom has done so wonderfully is talk about his team and the game."

Former Iowa Coach Tom Davis and his wife, Shari, walk down Carver-Hawkeye Arena tunnel toward basketball floor prior to game vs. Ohio State in 1999.

-Caption: Iowa Coach Tom Davis, right, and his wife Shari make their familiar walk through Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
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The Sweet 16 loss brought a close to Davis’ tenure at Iowa.

“He never had anything bad to say about the university or athletic director Bob Bowlsby,” McCausland said. “He just coached with class and tried to move forward, and set a great example for us as a team, that sometimes life isn’t fair.

“Sometimes you don’t get everything you want.”

Iowa has not advanced to the NCAA's second weekend since 1999. The example Davis set for his players continues to echo in their lives.

“He’s a teacher and a coach by nature,” McCausland said. “He’s always trying to set the best example for us. If you were a player for him and you paid attention to what he was teaching, it will serve you very well later in life, in anything that you do.”

Steve Alford, the former Indiana wunderkind, was hired as Davis’ replacement after his 22-win season at Southwest Missouri State.

What followed was a culture shock for Range, who spent time back in Galesburg before meeting his new coach.

“I walked in on the team meeting, sat down and Alford was like, ‘You go into the hallway. ... You’re not a part of this team until you’ve proven yourself to me,” Range recalled. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Alford’s father, Sam, came out to the hallway and eased tensions, Range recalled. But Range says he knew, “Alford wasn’t for me.”

Steve Alford, who succeeded Tom Davis as the University of Iowa's basketball coach, tells those at this March of 1999 announcement ceremony in Iowa City: "This is where I would like to call home for a long, long time." His wife, Tanya, listens at his side.
He left after the 2006-07 season to take the New Mexico job and recorded 152–106 at Iowa.

Alford announced in April that Range was banned from workouts, in order to concentrate on academics. Range eventually transferred to Hutchinson Community College and never played at the Division I level again. His brief career is now one of the greatest what-ifs among former Illinois high school stars.

“I basically went back (home) to raise my son,” Range said. His son, J.J., is now a freshman linebacker at William Penn in Oskaloosa. “It was a bigger picture for me than basketball.”

Oliver, now an assistant coach for Illinois State, wrapped up his career with the Hawkeyes in 2001 and spent parts of two seasons with the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Settles is now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. McCausland lives with his wife and two sons in Waterloo, working as an insurance and benefits broker. Bowlsby continued as the athletic director at Iowa until 2006, when he left for the same position at Stanford. He's now the Big 12 conference commissioner.

Davis finished his Iowa career with a 269–140 mark, which stands as the best in school history. The program's next two coaches, Alford and Todd Lickliter, went 190-164 in 11 seasons and made three NCAA Tournaments, never going further than the second round.

Davis re-emerged as the Drake coach in 2003, taking over a downtrodden program and leading the Bulldogs to a winning season (17-15) in 2006-07. He turned the team over to his son, Keno, the following year, and he led Drake to its first NCAA tourney berth since 1971.

But in the end, Tom Davis' final run with the Hawkeyes was his greatest validation.

“It was a pretty weird, unusual season,” he says.