Fran McCaffery's first encounter with Iowa Hawkeye basketball came 40 years ago

Jon Darsee
Special to the Register
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery looks on during the first half of a game against Penn State on Jan. 4 in Philadelphia. Penn State won 89-86.

If you caught the Iowa men’s basketball game a few weeks ago from the Palestra, you know how closely coach Fran McCaffery’s identity is tied to Philadelphia’s storied basketball past.

He grew up on the north side, but learned the game playing on its inner-city courts and playgrounds. He later played home games at the Palestra for three seasons as a member of the University of Pennsylvania Quakers.

What you might not know is that McCaffery’s earliest exposure to the Hawkeyes also occurred in Philadelphia — 40 years ago during Iowa’s 1980 run to the NCAA Final Four.

McCaffery was already familiar with Iowa college basketball. His hometown friend, Lewis Lloyd, had just completed a spectacular first season at Drake University, averaging 30 points and 15 rebounds per game. Lloyd played prep ball at Overbrook, the same Philly high school where Wilt Chamberlain starred. Nicknamed Black Magic, Lloyd and McCaffery were teammates on a summer travel team on which Fran’s nifty ballhandling, defense and floor leadership earned him a bookend moniker, White Magic. They never lost a game together. 

Ronnie Lester carried Iowa to a Final Four appearance in 1980. Lester played 17 games that season and averaged a team-high 14.8 points per game.

When I asked McCaffery if he attended the 1980 East Regional Finals, he said, “Absolutely. We lost to Duke in the second round. My season was over, and I was home in Philly. There was no way I was going to miss out. The only problem was I didn’t have a ticket and the Spectrum was sold out.” 

Powerhouses Syracuse, Maryland and Georgetown had brought a lot of fans. The East Coast teams had major star power, national rankings and a basketball pedigree. Each had legitimate designs on the Final Four while Iowa was the team that garnered a local headline, “Iowa Who?”  

McCaffery’s brother Jack had a seat on press row for all three games. The brothers devised a plan to sneak in Fran through a service entrance while Jack engaged security guards — who may have turned a blind eye as Fran slipped past, twice.

The next challenge was to find a place to sit in the sold-out arena. As McCaffery put it, “The press row were not normal seats back then — it was makeshift, set up with folding chairs crammed together specifically to accommodate extra press for the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t well organized, which made all of the difference.” 

Members of Iowa's 1980 Final Four team are honored at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2005. In front, from left, are Ronnie Lester, Jon Darsee and Kenny Arnold, and in back, from left, are Mike Heller, Steve Waite and Vince Brookins.

Arriving early, the boys shifted the chairs and name tags just enough so that Fran McCaffery could squeeze in next to his brother. Thus, Iowa’s future coach gained a front-row seat to watch the Black and Gold play for the very first time.

“I’d heard of Ronnie Lester,” McCaffery said, “but I knew little about Iowa. Remember that ESPN only started in 1979. Maryland’s Albert King, Georgetown’s Sleepy Floyd, and Louis Orr from Syracuse got all of the press and deservedly so, each would become solid pros in the NBA. But it became obvious — even though he was injured, there was no doubt in my mind that Ronnie Lester was the best player in the tournament.” 

McCaffery continued: “It was clear from the start that Iowa was well coached, disciplined and followed their game plan. Coach (Lute) Olson managed the games very well. His team, of course because of Ronnie Lester, took excellent care of the ball. But everyone held up to the pressure. I remember Vince Brookins, the twin towers, Kevin Boyle, Bobby Hansen and Kenny Arnold. They did their jobs and withstood a hostile crowd. Through all of the pressure and opposition inside the Spectrum, Iowa never folded. They never lost their composure. They weathered every run and every obstacle in their path. It was impressive to watch.” 

Iowa beat Syracuse 88-77 in the round of 16. The regional final victory against Georgetown is stuff of Iowa legend winning 81-80 to cement Iowa’s third and most recent trip to the Final Four. 

Jon Darsee

The Hawkeyes came into the Palestra this January generating modest respect and little fanfare — similar to how the Hawkeyes arrived in Philadelphia 40 years ago. The ’79-80 team demonstrated the ability to win, though battered — just like this year’s team. And like coach Olson in 1980, McCaffery is forced to play a razor-slim rotation, leaving him with small margin for error. 

The imprint the 1980 Hawkeyes made on McCaffery 40 years ago was one of grit, resilience and selfless teamwork — characteristics today’s team seems to have in spades.

Jon Darsee, a regular Register contributor, was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He now serves as chief innovation officer at the UI.