The greatest of the greatest Hawkeyes; my Mount Rushmore for Iowa athletics in multiple sports

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Megan Gustafson helps cut down the net at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after clinching a spot in the Sweet 16.

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Megan Gustafson’s dominance was the inspiration for this column.

As she continued to win one prestigious award after another this past season, it caused me to wonder where Gustafson’s greatness as a women’s basketball player ranks in the history of Iowa athletics.

I started comparing her many accomplishments to some of the greatest Iowa student-athletes of all time and soon realized that you could make a strong case for Gustafson being ranked among the top four greatest Hawkeyes of all time for both men and women.

And with that, I started the daunting task of trying to pick my Mount Rushmore for Iowa athletics.

A list that started with over 100 candidates, both men and women, was eventually trimmed to just four, and yes, Gustafson made the final cut.

I then decided to expand the project by compiling a Mount Rushmore for football, men’s basketball, wrestling, baseball and women’s athletics overall.

There is no right or wrong with a project like this because it’s all subjective and based on personal biases and feelings.

The lists are also based solely on what each student-athlete accomplished in college. That’s why Marshal Yanda didn’t make the Mount Rushmore for football because he only played for two seasons at Iowa and made second-team All-Big Ten in 2006.

Yanda is arguably the greatest NFL offensive lineman to have played for Iowa, but that had no effect on the rankings.

This was a fun project, but was also frustrating at times because there were so many worthy candidates from which to choose, but so few spots.

Here are my choices starting with Iowa’s overall Mount Rushmore.

Overall

Nile Kinnick, football: Any list that ranks the greatest Hawkeye student-athletes of all time has to start with this legendary hero.

Kinnick is in a category all by himself for how he lived, for how he performed on the playing field and for how he died while serving his country during World War II. He is also the only player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy as he achieved that milestone in 1939 after havind led the legendary Ironmen to a 6-1-1 record.

Megan Gustafson, women’s basketball: She just capped the greatest individual season for any Iowa basketball player, man or woman, and is now arguably the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program.

And that is saying a lot, considering Iowa’s rich tradition in women’s basketball.

Ronnie Lester, men’s basketball: It is no coincidence that Iowa’s last Big Ten regular-season title (1979) and Final Four appearance (1980) came with this human blur from Chicago leading the way.

Lester was one of the most explosive and dynamic college point guards in the country before a knee injury derailed his senior season. He led Iowa’s resurgence under Lute Olson.

Tom Brands, wrestling: A wrestler has to be on Iowa’s Mount Rushmore because they have set a standard at Iowa that none of the other programs have come close to matching. You could make a strong case for more wrestlers being on the overall Mount Rushmore because their dominance is unmatched.

I ultimately picked Brands over Ed Banach because Brands only lost one match during his final two seasons at Iowa.

Football

Nile Kinnick: He played for three seasons at Iowa from 1937-39, but it was his incredible 1939 season that truly defined Kinnick’s greatness and made him a legend.

In 1939, Iowa finished the year ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll with a 6-1-1 record. Kinnick threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes and ran for 374 yards. He was involved in 16 of the 19 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) that Iowa scored and was involved in 107 of the 130 points that Iowa scored that year.

He also played 402 of a possible 420 minutes that season. All told, Kinnick set 14 school records, six of which still stand over 65 years later.

Calvin Jones: The two-way lineman from Steubenville, Ohio was the first two-time consensus All-American at Iowa and the winner of the Outland Trophy in 1955. He also made first-team All-Big three times, was named to 22 All-America teams during his career and his No. 62 is one of two retired numbers at Iowa, along with Kinnick’s No. 24.

Alex Karras: He won the Outland Trophy as a senior in 1957 and also earned consensus All-America honors that season, making 10 All-America teams overall.

A native of Gary, Ind., Karras was the first two-time All-America selection in program history by the Associated Press. He was also a member of the inaugural class of the Iowa Lettermen’s Club Hall of Fame and helped Iowa win the 1957 Rose Bowl.

Chuck Long: The Wheaton, Ill., native led the resurgence under Hayden Fry in the early 1980s and became the first Big Ten quarterback to have 10,000 career passing yards.

Long also led Iowa to the Big Ten title in 1985 and finished runner-up to Bo Jackson for the 1985 Heisman Trophy in the closest vote ever for the award.

Lester Belding, Duke Slater, Aubrey Devine, Gordon Locke, Randy Duncan, Ronnie Harmon and Bob Sanders were also given serious consideration.

Men’s Basketball

Ronnie Lester: The Chicago native is widely regarded as the greatest point guard in program history and the greatest player overall regardless of position.

Lester is ranked seventh on Iowa’s all-time scoring list with 1,675 points and had 480 career assists despite only playing in 99 games. There is no confirmed statistical data on Lester’s career steals, but he also excelled in that area.

Combine Lester’s individual success with what Iowa accomplished as a team with him running the point and he clearly stands above everyone else.

Sam Williams: My only reluctance with putting him on the Mount Rushmore for men’s basketball is that he played for just two seasons at Iowa from 1966-68.

But he was just too good to leave off the list.

Williams averaged 22.6 points per game as a junior and 25.3 points as a senior. He also averaged 10.2 rebounds per game over his two seasons at Iowa and won the Chicago Tribune Trophy as the Big Ten’s Most Valuable player in 1968.

John Johnson: Much like Williams, his only blemish is that he played just two seasons at Iowa after transferring from junior college.

But his two seasons were spectacular to say the least as Johnson was the driving force behind Ralph Miller’s legendary Six Pack team that finished undefeated in the Big Ten at 14-0 in 1970.

A native of Milwaukee, Wis., the 6-7 Johnson led the Big Ten in scoring as a senior in 1970 with a 27.9 per-game average. That still ranks as the highest single-season scoring average in program history.

Murray Wier: He led the NCAA in scoring as a senior in 1948 with a 21.0 per game and became the first officially recognized Major College division scoring leader in the process. Wier set a then-Big Ten record of 272 points in conference play, was a first team all-conference selection and was also dubbed the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player. He capped his career off by being named a consensus first-team All-American in 1948.

Wier edge out Fred Brown, Charles Darling, Roy Marble and Herb Wilkinson for the final spot.

Wrestling

Tom Brands: Iowa’s current head coach won three national titles and three Big Ten titles and only lost three times during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. The Sheldon native was also named the Outstanding Wrestler at the 1992 NCAA Championships and finished with a 158-7 career record.

Ed Banach: The New York native won three national titles and finished second as a junior in 1982. He also was the sixth wrestler in Big Ten history to win four conference titles, and he set a school record for most career pins with 73.

Barry Davis: The Cedar Rapids native won three NCAA titles in 1982, 1983 and 1985 and was the seventh wrestler in Big Ten history to win four conference titles. Davis was also named the Big Ten Athlete of the Year and the Outstanding Wrestler in the NCAA Championships in 1985.

Lincoln McIlravy: The last spot came down to McIlravy, Jim Zalesky and Joe Williams, and you could make a strong case for all three of them because they all won three national titles and were named the Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA Championships as seniors.

I picked McIlravy because the South Dakota native finished second in the one season in which he didn’t win a national title, while Zalesky and Williams finished fifth and seventh, respectively. McIlravy also finished with a 96-3 career record and ranks second in program history in career winning percentage at .970.

Baseball

Tim Costo: He was a first-team All-America selection in 1990 and twice made first-team All-Big Ten. He is also ranked third all-time in program history in career home runs (41), and was the eighth overall pick in the 1990 draft by the Cincinnati Reds. That is the highest pick for an Iowa baseball player.

Mike Boddicker: The Norway, Iowa native earned first-team all-Big Ten honors in 1978 and led the NCAA with 11.5 strikeouts a game - prompting the Baltimore Orioles to draft him in the sixth round. He also made third-team All-Big Ten as a freshman third baseman, but decided after his sophomore year to focus solely on pitching.

Jim Sundberg: The Galesburg, Ill., native is widely regarded as the greatest defensive catcher in program history and one of the Big Ten’s best ever.

Sundberg earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors while at Iowa. He also led the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten championship in 1972 and to their lone College World Series appearance that same season.

Sundberg was drafted three times while at Iowa and signed with the Texas Rangers as their No. 1 pick in the January draft of 1973.

Jake Adams: This could be considered a reach since Adams only played for one season at Iowa. But his dominance at the plate is probably something we’ll never see again.

Adams started all 61 games at first base in 2017 and led the Big Ten with 29 home runs, with 72 RBI and with a .747 slugging percentage. He also hit .335 and had a .417 on-base average, which is incredible for a power hitter.

His 29 home runs broke the Iowa single-season record that had stood since 1986 and the Big Ten record that had dated back to 1992. The South Dakota native hit safely in 46-of-61 games and reached base safely in 52-of-61 contests. He also had 27 multi-hit games, including eight three-hit games.

Some others player who were considered include John Knapp, Cal Eldred, Chris Hatcher and Fred Mims. 

Women

Megan Gustafson, women’s basketball: She capped her incredible career this past season by becoming the first Big Ten player to be named the Naismith Player of the Year. She was also named the National Player of the Year by the Associated Press and by ESPNW.

A native of tiny Port Wing, Wis., Gustafson led the nation in scoring and in field-goal percentage this past season, and she holds Iowa records for points in a career (2,804), points in a season (1,002), points in a game (48), rebounds in a career (1,459), rebounds in a season (481), career double-doubles (88) and season double-doubles (33).

Michelle Edwards, women’s basketball: She helped to lift the Iowa women’s basketball program to national prominence during the early years under C. Vivian Stringer in the 1980s.

A native of Boston, Mass., Edwards led Iowa in scoring as a sophomore, junior and senior, while compiling 1,821 career points. She has the sixth highest scoring total among all Iowa players, and her 235 steals is fourth best. She had 431 career assists, which is the third best in school history.

Kristy Gleason, field hockey: She was a four-time first-team All-American in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1993, and she ended her career as the NCAA's second all-time leading scorer with 132 points. She was also named the Big Ten's Suzy Favor Athlete of the Year in 1994.

Liz Tchou, field hockey: She concluded her Hawkeye playing career in 1987 as a National Field Hockey Coaches Association first team All-American and as the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. She was also a two-time Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient, a nominee for the Honda-Broderick Sports Award, and a four-time first team all-conference and three-time all-region honoree.

The New Jersey native also guided the Hawkeyes to the NCAA title in 1986 and to their third Final Four as a senior. In her four years, Tchou helped Iowa to four NCAA tournament appearances, two Big Ten regular season titles and two Big Ten runner-up finishes. The squad went 72-18-7 during her time as a Hawkeye.

Debbie Bilbao, softball: She was a four-time All-America selection, including a first-team choice in 1997. She twice made first-team All-Big Ten and was the conference player of the year as a senior in 1997. She also led Iowa to three NCAA World Series appearances, to a conference title in 1997 and holds the school record for career wins (99).