1979 Iowa Basketball: A Surprise Big Ten Title Run

The University of Iowa has been playing basketball in the Big Ten since 1909 and for the most part, have been successful. The Hawkeyes are consistently in the running for the NCAA Tournament. One thing they haven’t done much of is win the conference championship. 1970 was the last time the program won the Big Ten basketball crown outright. And the last time they even shared a piece of the title? That was the 1979 Iowa basketball team.


Lute Olson came to Iowa City with the program on hard times and having slipped from relevance after the conference title run of ’70. After a rough first year, Olson got things turned around and won 37 games over the next two years. Getting into the NCAA Tournament was much tougher then and the Hawkeyes didn’t qualify either year. When Iowa slipped back under .500 in 1978, it looked like Olson was backsliding.

But there was a good core of talent and it was led by guard Ronnie Lester. He average 19ppg and his five assists were among the best in a conference whose point guard class was led by Michigan State’s Magic Johnson. The Iowa frontcourt was led by Bill Mayfield, who averaged 13 points/8 rebounds. Kevin Boyle, a 6’6” freshman stepped right into the lineup and averaged 12/7. Steve Krafcisn manned the center spot and the 6’10” sophomore provided help on the boards.

There was still nothing to suggest a special season in December. Iowa lost twice in their first seven games and neither loss—to Drake or Colorado State—was against a good opponent. Then the Hawkeyes wen to San Diego for a holiday tournament that would close the calendar year. Iowa won that tournament, including an 87-84 double-overtime win over a Penn team that was headed for the Final Four.

Conference play opened and Iowa went on the road to knock off Northwestern. That was no surprise, but what happened two days later in Ann Arbor was. Michigan was ranked #13 in the country and the Hawkeyes delivered an 85-79 road win. The Wolverines would not meet expectations and Iowa took their place among the conference contenders.

Iowa came home for tough games against Ohio State and Indiana. The Buckeyes had a prolific scorer with Kelvin Ransey and a tough forward in Herb Williams. They beat the Hawkeyes 72-67. Indiana was led by Mike Woodson and Butch Carter, were fresh off a Sweet 16 run in 1978 and only three years removed from an undefeated national championship run. Iowa blitzed the Hoosiers 90-61.

Another tough opponent was around the corner with a road trip to Purdue. Boilermaker center Joe Barry Carroll was one of the best players in the conference, but Iowa won a tough defensive game, 56-46. From West Lafayette, Iowa journeyed up to East Lansing. Magic Johnson, forward Gregory Kelser and the rest of the defending conference champion Michigan State Spartans were waiting.

Sparty was ranked sixth in the nation, but the Hawks gave them all they could handle, taking the game into overtime. Michigan State finally pulled away in the extra session to win 83-72.

But the competitive loss against the conference’s best team, along with the wins over Indiana and Michigan, had made it apparent that this Iowa team could compete. And they tore through their next three games. There was a six-point win at lowly Wisconsin surrounded by two wins over archrival Minnesota. The Gophers had Kevin McHale in the low post. It didn’t stop Iowa from winning the two games by a combined margin of 43 points.

Michigan State made their return trip to Iowa City on February 8 and again barely escaped, this time edging Iowa 60-57. But there’s one thing the Spartans weren’t in this regular season and that was consistent. Iowa was and they reeled off three straight wins—comfortable victories over Wisconsin and Illinois sandwiched a clutch 75-72 home win over Purdue.

Against all odds, Iowa led the Big Ten race with four games to play. They were 11-3, with Michigan State and Purdue each giving chase at 10-4.

But difficult road games were up next, with the return trips to Indiana and Ohio State. The Hawkeyes fell 64-62 on a Thursday night in Bloomington. Meanwhile, the Spartans were knocking off the Boilermakers in a survival fight. Iowa and Michigan State were tied for the league lead and Purdue still a game back.

Iowa needed to win in Columbus and they got an impressive 83-68 win. Their rivals held serve. The Hawkeyes were coming home for the final two games of the year.

The first game against Michigan had been a signal to the rest of the conference. But the Wolverines got their revenge with a 61-53 win on the final Thursday of the season. Michigan State won at Minnesota and took the lead. Purdue beat Indiana, keeping the Boilermakers alive and ensuring the Hoosiers would settle for the NIT.

On the final day of the season, Iowa blew out Northwestern 95-64. It was a significant win for nailing down NCAA Tournament position, but its importance became magnified when word arrived that Sparty had fallen 83-81 in a shocking loss at Wisconsin. Purdue beat Ohio State in West Lafayette. The race had ended in a three-way tie.

The difficulty of making the NCAAs in the late 1970s is underscored by the fact that Purdue, even with a piece of the title, was relegated to the NIT. The Boilermakers, along with Ohio State and Indiana, made the semis of that tournament and the Hoosiers won it.

But the Hawkeyes’ overall resume was strong enough. They not only got into the Dance, they got a strong seed, at #4 in the Mideast (the forerunner of today’s South Region). Michigan State was also in the Mideast, seeded #2 and Notre Dame was the regional favorite.

The NCAA Tournament was only 40 teams in 1979, so the top six seeds in a regional went automatically into the Round of 32. Iowa was sent to Bloomington where they would play MAC champ Toledo.

In a well-played game where both teams shot the ball efficiently, Lester knocked down 23 points and Mayfield scored 19. But Boyle had a rough afternoon, shooting 2-for-9 from the floor. Neither team shot their free throws well, but Toledo was getting significantly more opportunities. The Rockets were 28/41 from the line, while Iowa was 14/27.

That’s a big gap to overcome, but the game was still tied 72-72 in the closing seconds. Iowa applied full-court pressure and appeared to have Toledo trapped. But the ball somehow escaped the trap and in the broken chaos, the Rockets’ Stan Joplin got a clean look from the top of the key. He buried it at the buzzer and Iowa’s season was over.

Disappointing though the ending was, the 1979 Iowa basketball team was still a pleasant surprise and they gave the program something that has not been achieved sense—at least a share of the Big Ten’s regular season title. And a year later, they found March success, with a surprise run to the Final Four.