Classy History: The 1978-79 Hawkeyes - Iowa's Last Big Ten Championship

By ClassyHawkeye on December 28, 2020 at 2:39 pm
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© David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
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Ridiculously crushing defeats aside, the 2020-21 Hawkeyes look like the program's best chance to win a Big Ten regular season basketball championship since at least the mid-2000s.

Sure, a few of [REDACTED]'s teams were able to win the Big Ten Tournament crown in 2001 and 2006, but none were able to win even a share of the regular season title. Dr. Tom Davis led arguably the greatest team in school history to the 1987 Elite Eight, but those Hawkeyes weren't able to finish first in the Big Ten. And Iowa's 1979-80 team may have reached the 1980 Final Four, but they finished fourth in the Big Ten. 

Last Big Ten   Regular Season Title By School
School Year
MARYLAND 2020
MICH. ST 2020
WISCONSIN 2020
PURDUE 2019
INDIANA 2016
MICHIGAN 2014
OHIO ST 2012
ILLINOIS 2005
MINNESOTA 1982
IOWA 1979
N'WESTERN 1933
PENN ST (SINCE '91) None
NEBRASKA (SINCE '11) None
RUTGERS (SINCE '14) None

No, to find the program's last Big Ten regular season championship team one must go back 42 long years. Lute Olson's 1978-79 Hawkeyes are the last team in program history to do it, capturing a share of the league crown with Michigan State and Purdue.

Perhaps no streak of futility hangs over Elliott Drive more than the program's conference title drought, especially since most of Iowa's conference brethren have captured at least one regular season crown in the over four-decades since. 

From 1980-2020, nine different Big Ten programs have won at least a share of the regular season title, including Maryland who has only been in the Big Ten since the fall of 2014. The Hawkeyes own the third-longest championship drought in the league, with only Northwestern (1933) maintaining a longer dry spell. Penn State, Nebrasketball, and Rutgers all have never won the conference title, but the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1991, while the Huskers and Scarlett Knights have only been in the conference since 2011 and 2014 respectively.

So, with this year's Iowa squad entering Big Ten play ranked #4 in the nation and favored to finish at or near the top of the conference, let's take a look back at the 78-79 Hawkeyes and their journey to the program's last Big Ten regular season championship to date.


The Champs are Here

Lute Olson's Iowa squad entered the fall of 1978 looking to bounce back from a rebuilding 12-15 (5-13 B1G) campaign the year prior. Through four seasons, Olson had been a minor disappointment in Iowa City as he had yet to finish higher than 4th in the Big Ten or take the Hawkeyes to an NCAA Tournament.

That all changed in year five.

Iowa was led by eventual First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American guard Ronnie Lester, who averaged 19.9 points, six assists and 2.5 rebounds per game in earning First Team conference honors as just a sophomore in 77-78. Fourth-year guard Dick Peth joined Lester in the back-court, while fellow senior Bill Mayfield, sophomore Steve Waite, and freshman Kevin Boyle rounded out the Hawkeyes' starting five.

The 1978-79 Hawkeyes
Player Class Position
Ronnie lester Junior Guard
Bill Mayfield Senior Forward
Kevin Boyle Freshman Forward
Tom norman Senior Guard
Dick peth Senior Guard
Steve Krafcisin Sophomore Center
Steve waite Sophomore Center
Vince Brookins Sophomore Forward
kenny arnold Freshman Guard
kirk speraw Senior Guard
mike henry Sophomore Forward
greg boyle Sophomore Guard
clay hargrave Senior Forward

As a junior, Lester continued his storied career in Iowa City in averaging 18.7 points, 5.3 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, while Mayfield and Boyle had breakout seasons in combining to average 24.8 points and 15 rebounds per contest. Boyle averaged 11.9 points and 6.6. rebounds in being named the 78-79 Big Ten Rookie of the Year. 

Still, even with a talented starting five, the Hawkeyes were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten as the season began.

From Unranked to Big Ten Champs

Unranked to start the season, Iowa followed a 2-2 start with seven-straight victories, highlighted by wins over Iowa State (67-66) and Drake (112-73). The Hawkeyes opened conference play 2-0 with a pair of road wins over Northwestern and #13 Michigan. After splitting its next four games (including an 83-72 OT loss at Michigan State), Iowa ripped off four straight victories from late January through early February, including a 58-52 win over #8 Illinois in Iowa City.

Magic Johnson's Spartans swept the newly-ranked #15 Hawkeyes with a 60-57 win at the Iowa Field House on February 8th, but Iowa responded with three straight wins in sweeping Wisconsin, #13 Purdue, and Illinois. The wins vaulted the Hawkeyes #12 in the country and first place in the Big Ten with four games left in the regular season.

A 64-62 loss at Indiana on Feb. 24 dropped Iowa to 18-6 (11-4) and dampened its conference title hopes entering a showdown with Big Ten leader #14 Ohio State in Columbus two days later. Thanks to Lester's 31 points on 13-19 shooting, Iowa ran away from the Buckeyes in an 83-68 victory, setting up a three-way tie atop the Big Ten (with Michigan State and Ohio State) entering the season's final two games.

With a chance to win an outright conference title, the #10 Hawkeyes returned home to Iowa City and laid an egg against a 14-11 Michigan squad, losing 61-53. Coupled with a Michigan State victory over Minnesota and the Hawkeyes found themselves one game behind the Spartans for the conference crown with only one game left against Northwestern.

1978-79 Final Big Ten Standings (Top 5)
School B1G Record Overall Record Postseason
Iowa 13-5 20-8 NCAA Tournament 2nd Round
Mich St. 13-5 26-6 Won NCAA Tournament
Purdue 13-5 27-8 NIT Runner-Up
Ohio St. 12-6 19-12 NIT 4th-Place
Indiana 10-8 22-12 Won NIT

But Iowa responded, turning a 42-33 halftime lead into a 95-64 blowout of the Wildcats thanks to five different Hawkeyes scoring in double-figures led by Lester's 19 points. That same day, Michigan State was upset 83-81 by league bottom-dweller Wisconsin and Ohio State fell 74-66 to Purdue. The results elevated Iowa to 13-5 in the conference and into a three-way tie for first place with the Spartans and Boilermakers, giving the Hawkeyes their first Big Ten regular season championship since 1970.

Iowa had turned in a special season and, as a result, the postseason accolades rolled in. In addition to Boyle being named Big Ten Rookie of the Year, Olson was given Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in leading the Hawkeyes to their unexpected first-place finish.

Iowa's "Big Three" of 78-79 (per game avg.)
Player Pts. Reb. Ast.
Ronnie Lester 18.7 2.3 5.3
Bill mayfield 12.9 8.4 1.4
kevin boyle 11.9 6.6 1.6

Lester's stellar junior season led to him being named first team All-Big Ten and second-team AP All American.

Lester, along with Mayfield and Boyle, helped Iowa boast the Big Ten's top offense, averaging 77.4 points per game all in driving the Hawkeyes absurd 7-2 record in road conference games—a feat even more impressive given the overall depth of the league in 78-79.

1978-79 was such a strong year for the Big Ten that both Iowa and eventual National Champion Michigan State were invited to the 40-team NCAA Tournament while fifth-place finisher Indiana won the 1979 NIT. Incredibly, co-Big Ten Champion Purdue did not qualify for the Big Dance and instead, along with Ohio State, settled for a bid to the NIT where they lost to the Hoosiers in the championship game. 


ROCKET VISION

At 20-7 and ranked 14th in the nation, Iowa was rewarded with a #4 seed and a bye to the second round of the NCAA Tournament's Mideast Regional where they would meet #5 Toledo in Bloomington, IN. At 22-8, the Rockets won the MAC title thanks to a veteran-laden squad led by Jim Swaney, Harvey Knuckles, and future NBA draft pick Dick Miller.

Lester’s game-high 23 points and six assists were not enough as the Hawkeyes saw their 41-29 halftime lead evaporate down the stretch, and Stan Joplin’s jumper from the top of the key as time expired sealed Toledo's 74-72 upset win. The Rockets outscored Iowa 45-31 in the second half thanks to four different Toledo starters scoring in double-figures, led by Miller’s incredible 18-point, 14-rebound (!!), and four assist performance.

Outside of Lester, Mayfield was the only other Hawkeye to score in double-figures, adding 19 points and five assists. Boyle, who averaged 11.9 points per game during the regular season, had a forgetful day in shooting just 2 for 9 from the field and committing three turnovers. Iowa was able to force 25 Toledo giveaways compared to only 12 of their own, but the Hawkeyes were out rebounded 33-27 and attempted fewer free throws (14-27) than the Rockets made (28-41).

The victory sent Toledo into the Mideast Regional Semis where they would fall to top-seeded Notre Dame 79-71. The loss, meanwhile, was a disappointing one-and-done ending for a Hawkeyes team that had a pair of future NBA players (Lester and Mayfield), had four wins over top-15 teams, and won a share of the Big Ten title. The 1978-79 Iowa team was a sign of things to come however, as one year later the Hawkeyes would reach the 1980 Final Four (the program's last to date) and the 1983 Sweet Sixteen before Olson departed for the head coaching job at Arizona.

The 1978-79 Hawkeyes kicked off arguably the strongest decade and a half stretch in program history which included five consecutive and thirteen out of sixteen NCAA Tournament appearances, spanning the end of the Olson years, through George Raveling's brief three-year tenure, and into Dr. Tom Davis' time as head coach. They also hold the distinction of being Iowa's last Big Ten regular season champions.

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