A half century has passed since Sam Williams dominated the Big Ten

Sam Williams drives to the basket against Ohio State. Photo courtesy of the Iowa Sports Information Department

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - One of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the Iowa men’s basketball program happened 50 years ago this winter.

“Super” Sam Williams lived up to his nickname during the 1967-68 season by performing at a level that very few Iowa basketball players have reached.

The Detroit native averaged 25.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game while leading Iowa to a share of the 1967-68 Big Ten title. During one stretch in that season, the 6-foot-3 Williams scored at least 25 points in eight consecutive games despite being the focus of opposing defenses.

He won the Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball Award in 1968 as the conference's most valuable player. Only two other Hawkeyes – Murray Wier in 1948 and Charles Darling in 1952 – won the award while it was presented from 1948 to 2007.

I’m not old enough to remember when Williams played for Iowa, so I rely on the opinion from others, including former Hawkeye Mike Gatens, to help paint a picture.

“He was a great jump shooter, he was strong, he was powerful, he could handle the ball, I mean he was great," Gatens said of Williams, who scored 1,176 points during his two-year Hawkeye career.

Gatens was in seventh and eighth during the two seasons in which Williams played for Iowa from 1966 to 1968 under Ralph Miller. The Hawkeyes finished 10-4 in the Big Ten in Williams’ MVP season, but just 5-9 the next season without him.

Williams is now 73 years old and lives in his hometown of Detroit, according to Gatens.

Assuming Williams could meet the demand with traveling, it sure would be nice for the Iowa Athletic Department to honor him during a game, although, time is running out on this season with just three home games remaining.

Iowa also could recognize Williams during halftime of a game with a video tribute or by making an announcement during a game. Just something to say thanks and that we're still thinking about you all these years later.

Gatens has a hard time believing that it's been 50 years since Williams thrilled Hawkeye fans at the old UI Fieldhouse, and that Iowa hasn't had a Big Ten MVP since Williams.

"Yeah, it's surprising we haven't had one in one in fifty years," Gatens said. 

Williams is a connection to Iowa’s past and a key piece of Hawkeye history. He played during a glorious time and for a legendary head coach.

Iowa needs to embrace and celebrate its past, especially when the present leaves much to be desired.

Williams was the first of three junior college recruits to achieve stardom at Iowa during a five-year stretch from 1966 to 1971.

Forward John Johnson came to Iowa a year after Williams had used up his eligibility, and guard Fred Brown came two years later from Burlington Junior College, which is the same school Williams had attended from 1964-66.

Johnson and Brown were part of Miller's legendary Six Pack that finished undefeated in the Big Ten (14-0) and averaged more than 100 points per game during the 1969-70 season.

That was also the last time Iowa won the Big Ten title outright.

Johnson (27.9), Brown (27.6) and Williams (25.3) have the first, second and fourth highest single-season per-game scoring averages in program history. They only played a total of six seasons in the program combined, but still scored 3,439 points and won two Big Ten titles.

I'd be curious to know how many of the current Iowa players have even heard of Sam Williams. College kids are so consumed with the present that they sometimes don't appreciate the past.

That's why it has to be presented to them.

I'm told that Iowa plans to do something internally to honor the 50-year anniversary of Williams' historic season. So at least the current players will learn about his greatness.

It would be better to honor Williams publicly, but something is better than nothing.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has shown a willingness to embrace history because he knows it's the right thing to do and because it helps to build morale and chemistry. McCaffery has formed a special bond with former Iowa guard Kenny Arnold, who has battled health-related issues since the mid-1980s, and with the parents of former Hawkeye Chris Street, who was killed in a car accident midway through his junior season in 1993.

Sam Williams represents a special time in the history of the Iowa basketball program. He deserves to be recognized and the current Iowa players deserve to know about his rich legacy.

John Johnson died in 2016 at the age of 68. His death was a sad reminder that time is running out for some of the greatest Hawkeye icons.

Ralph Miller died in 2001 at the age of 82. He only had three losing seasons in 38 years as a college head coach.

That was partly due to his coaching acumen, but also to having talented players like Sam Williams.