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Hansen: Iowa made a mistake letting Davis walk

[ 14 ] February 4, 2012 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We were spoiled. That’s the only way to put it.

The fans were spoiled. The media were spoiled. The university was spoiled.

And if you’re the type who still gets a warm feeling whenever somebody mentions Lute Olson or Ralph Miller, that probably means you, too.

Back in 1999, a lot of people who live and die with Iowa basketball thought the Hawkeyes could do better than Tom Davis as their coach. Whether they were in the minority or not, the Davis supporters were right and the rest of us were wrong.

You know what they say about hindsight, but it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Rather than let Davis walk 13 years ago, Iowa should have extended his contract.

With all the 1987 Hawkeyes in for the weekend, this isn’t the time to talk about why a change in direction looked like a pretty good idea back then. There were reasons that seemed valid but no need to revisit them now.

Let’s just say we learned the hard way. Guiding the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament year after year is nowhere near as easy as Davis made it look.

He’s been gone now for as long as he coached the Hawkeyes, but almost all the players from the 1986-87 team came back this weekend to reunite, tell old stories and watch Fran McCaffery’s team beat Penn State 77-64.

George Raveling wasn’t part of that group, but he deserves a seat at the head table. Before leaving Iowa to coach at Southern California, Raveling recruited many of the key players who started the season with 18 straight victories, rose to the top of the polls, won 30 games and came within a game of the Final Four.

Davis, however, was the guy who lifted them to the top of the rankings. That first year turned out to be his best in Iowa City, which isn’t the way you’d draw it up, but nobody complained at the time.

Across those 13 years, Davis’ teams qualified for nine NCAA Tournaments, advancing past the first round each time. What Iowa fans would give for those numbers today.

Al McGuire, the late Marquette coach who became a popular TV analyst, was working the ’87 Michigan-Iowa game at Carver-Hawkeye. After the Hawkeyes won, McGuire warned Davis not to overdo it.

Be careful how many games you win that first year, Dr. Tom. People will come to expect it. Not 30 victories necessarily, but beware.

But if Davis’ finest moment at Iowa was his first season, second in the pecking order might be that final run, the last waltz, in 1999. Gary Dolphin, then as now, was doing the radio play-by-play with Bobby Hansen.

“The most impressive thing about that year,” Dolphin says, “was Tom going about his business like none of that other stuff existed, like he was going to be the coach at Iowa till the day he retired. Here’s a lame-duck coach and he’s got a bunch of blue-collar guys believing they can win it all. Nobody saw that coming.

“You can’t tell me the guys playing for him didn’t have an extra giddy-up in their step. Tom walked away like John Wayne heading into the sunset. I’ll never forget Jess Settles telling me after they lost to UConn in the Sweet 16, if they’d had Sam Okey, who broke his arm early in the season, they would have won it all.”

Didn’t matter whether it was true or not if they believed it. Steve Alford had some good seasons as Davis’ successor. Yet his teams won only one NCAA Tournament game. When Alford left, the roof caved in on Todd Lickliter, leaving Fran McCaffery to do a total rehab.

“I’m not blaming Bob Bowlsby or anyone else,” Dolphin says, referring to the athletic director then. “Everyone in the country wanted Steve. He was the coaching darling that year. But it was surreal. Before every tipoff Bobby and I wanted to go shake Tom’s hand and extend our sympathies.”

It was a season-long funeral procession with a bittersweet finish. As Davis advanced in the NCAA Tournament, so did Alford at Southwest Missouri State. Both ended up two victories from the Final Four. Only one walked away with a job.

Bruce Pearl was a member of Davis’ staff in ’87. He was the Tennessee basketball coach when the school fired Phillip Fulmer, who’d taken the Volunteers to the national title. Pearl was horrified by that decision, too.

He believes there’s a lesson to be learned here.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he says.

And not just in basketball.

Register sports columnist Marc Hansen can be reached at (515) 284-8534 or mahansen@dmreg.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/marcdmr.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Marc Hansen: Marc Hansen is a sports columnist for The Des Moines Register. View author profile.

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