IOWA CITY, Ia. – Tom Davis was on the run. Literally.
Davis left Stanford to become the new men’s basketball coach at Iowa in the spring of 1986, and airports became his second home as he commuted from the West Coast to the Midwest and back. In one of those airports, city long forgotten, Davis crossed paths with an old friend, Jim Valvano.
Valvano, now the coach at North Carolina State, had knocked Iowa out in the first round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament, 66-64. George Raveling resigned as Hawkeye coach after that game to take the job at Southern California.
“Jim said to me, ‘That (Iowa) team, those guys fit your style,’ ” Davis recalled. “He was so enthusiastic. I said, ‘I hope you’re right, Jim.’ He had seen them and scouted them and coached against them. He had a pretty good idea.”
Valvano was right. The 1986-87 Hawkeyes, celebrating their 25th reunion Feb. 4 when Iowa meets Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, won a school-record 30 games. The Hawkeyes started the season 18-0, the longest winning streak in school history. And they became the first – and only – Iowa team to reach No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
In this three-part series, we’ll look at Iowa’s run to No. 1, one of the brightest spots in a 30-5 season that ended one game shy of the Final Four.
Davis inherited a sixth-place Big Ten team that had won 20 games in 1985-86 and lost just one senior, Andre Banks.
The new coach brought a new style of fast-breaking, pressure defense basketball – a blend of Ralph Miller, John Wooden, Branch McCracken and Jack Ramsay – that was perfect for the cast of athletes he inherited. Raveling also left behind an overseas trip to China and South Korea in August of 1986 that gave Davis 10 days of practice and nine games to see if the pieces fit his system.
“It took me about 5 minutes to figure it out,” said Gary Close, who had come with Davis from Stanford as an assistant coach and is now on the staff at Wisconsin. “Obviously, there was some terrific talent.”
This was an eclectic group, 16 players representing 10 states.
“It was a hodge-podge of different locals, different personalities,” Close said. “But I’ll tell you what. They were competitive. We had some competitive kids as far as getting after it. If you didn’t bring it to a game, or a practice, you were exposed.”
Davis said it was a very coachable group.
“When you come in as a new coach, with a new system, sometimes they fight you,” Davis said. “Obviously it helped because it was an up-tempo, fast-breaking style, which is what they all think they want to play. They weren’t all sure we should press. So that took a little convincing that pressure defense should be a key to what we were doing. But they were just so willing. The coachability is the one thing I would remember the most about that group.”
Davis and his staff used the 10 days of practice, and the nine games, to learn about each player – which buttons to push, how to motivate, how to challenge.
“It gave us a chance to see who would respond to modes of motivation,” Davis said. “You’ve got to get them to play harder, work harder, run harder. And it helps them to get to know you. We had very few problems motivating them to practice.”
Raveling had been like a second father to Roy Marble, who contemplated leaving Iowa after his freshman season when his coach left.
“My dad told me, “You’re not going anywhere,’” Marble said.
B.J. Armstrong was also ready to leave, his dad told Davis in a phone conversation, because the previous coaching staff had left him the impression that he wasn’t a Big Ten-caliber point guard.
“I said, “Geez, will you give me a chance with him?’ Davis asked B.J.’s dad,Ben Armstrong.
Brad Lohaus, a fifth-year senior, considered not playing. Another senior, Kevin Gamble, was also having second thoughts. Davis was also concerned with some grade issues.
“Bill Jones said, “Don’t worry about it , coach,’ ” Davis recalled. “ ‘We know what we’re doing. We’ve got it under control.’”
Who knows what would have happened had Armstrong, Marble, Gamble or Lohaus left? A question that never had to be answered.
“Coaching changes happen all the time,” said Michael Morgan, a reserve on that team who now works in the university’s development office. “A new coach comes in and people can buy in or lose out. We had about five guys who were going to transfer. But coach Davis had a unique way of conveying a positive feel about the game, and how he thought we could all make a big impact, and how his style really fit our group.”
The trip to China, Marble said, gave him a chance to get back in shape.
“I couldn’t even get over the rim,” said Marble, Iowa’s career scoring leader. “I had tendinitis. I got fat waiting to see who was going to take the job. When Coach Davis took the job he said, ‘Well, here’s a guy they were comparing to Michael Jordan.’ And I couldn’t even dunk at the time.”
Marble said the practices and China trip allowed him to get in shape.
“I got off the Snickers, and the McDonalds,” Marble said. “Then I started to play the way he wanted me to play. The trip gave us a chance to find out about Coach Davis. And we all just bought into the system.”
The 1986-87 Iowa team was one of the last to have 15 scholarship players. Teams are now allowed 13. Fourteen players made the overseas trip. Les Jepsen, a freshman center, made the trip but wasn’t allowed to play because he had been redshirted the year before.
Jones led the team in scoring overseas, averaging 18.3 points. Jeff Moe, Marble, Armstrong and Gerry Wright also averaged double figures.
And then the tinkering began. Davis moved Lohaus from center to forward, and Wright from forward to center. He made Al Lorenzen strictly a power forward.
“At the back of the pressure you wanted a center with some quickness and agility, and Gerry Wright fit that perfectly,” Davis said. “He was an NBA player playing that position at the back of pressure defense. He might have been as quick a player as I had.”
Kevin Gamble had been used sparingly during the previous season, starting just once and averaging 8 minutes and 2.6 points a game.
“The one thing we found out on that trip is what a great player Kevin Gamble was,” Close said. “He had hardly played the year before. By the end of the year, he might have been our best player.”
Practices were intense and competitive as the team prepared for a Nov. 16 exhibition game against the Soviet National Team, televised nationally by ESPN, and the Great Alaska Shootout to start the season Nov. 28-30.
Iowa lost to the Soviets, 95-93, before a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd.
“We lost, but it was a heck of a game,” Davis said. “That Russian team was very good.”
The Hawkeyes headed to the Great Alaska Shootout ranked 10th in the AP’s preseason poll. Davis called the lofty ranking “a joke.” Armstrong, Gamble, Lohaus and Ed Horton had averaged a combined 12.8 points the season before.
Privately, Davis liked the direction his team was headed as they left for Alaska.
“There was no question we had good talent,” Davis said. “ We thought we were going to be pretty good.”
Iowa wasn’t at full speed heading to Alaska. Wright broke a hand and missed the first 11 games of the season. And Michael Reaves, penciled in as the starting point guard before the season started, had a knee injury and couldn’t play. Armstrong became the starter and never lost the job over the next three seasons.
“That made B.J.’s transition easier,” Davis said. “He was more important to the team, because without Michael the door was open to him.”
Iowa drew Division II Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout. The Seawolves had defeated Missouri the season before, and had already played five games before the meeting with Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were down, 57-54 with 17 minutes remaining, but Iowa went on a 12-4 run and never trailed again in winning, 91-81.
The Hawkeyes faced a familiar foe – Valvano’s No. 17 North Carolina State team – in the semifinals. Iowa led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but was down by 14 with less than 5 minutes to play.
Armstrong, who finished with 26 points, made two free throws with :01 remaining to force overtime. Lohaus made one of two free throws with :03 to play that was the decisive point in a 90-89 victory.
Iowa faced Northeastern and Reggie Lewis in the finals. The Huskies, who upset defending national champion and second-ranked Louisville in the first round, got 27 points from Lewis. But Iowa shot 69.8 percent from the field, including 29 points from tournament most valuable player Marble, to win going away, 103-80.
The Hawkeyes returned to Iowa City 3-0.
“You never know until you get tested,” Davis said. “I just remember that the team responded to the challenge. Now we had to see if we could get better.”
Game story from Nov. 29, 1986 (Alaska-Anchorage)
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball