What if is a question Iowa fans have been asking for decades about lots of different topics

Ralph Miller coaching from the Iowa bench. Photo courtesy of Hawkeyesports.com

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - What if?

That’s a question that gets asked countless times, with sports often the reason why.

Take Iowa Hawkeye athletics, for example.

Former Iowa men’s basketball assistant coach Lanny Van Eman was the guest on the Allhawkeyes radio show and podcast on Monday, and he talked for nearly one hour about coaching under Ralph Miller at Iowa in the 1960s.

One topic that came up near the end of the interview is why Miller left Iowa after just six seasons to coach at Oregon State.

Van Eman said there were two main reasons that caused Miller to leave, with one being that Miller’s wife had grown tired of the bone-chilling Iowa winters.

The other reason was the ongoing feud between then Iowa Athletic Director Forest Evashevski and head football coach Ray Nagel.

Miller, according to Van Eman, was frustrated with being in the middle of the feud and didn’t want to have to pick sides.

So Miller left Iowa after the 1969-70 season and would go on to turn Oregon State into a power.

But what if Miller had stayed longer at Iowa?

His last team at Iowa, which was known as the “Six Pack,” finished undefeated in the Big Ten at 14-0 and averaged over 100 points per game without the 3-point shot.

But it also had four senior starters and little depth with only six players having significant roles, which led to the nickname.

Iowa struggled mightily the next season, finishing just 9-15 overall and 4-10 in the conference under new head coach Dick Schultz.

And that was with Fred Brown averaging 27.6 points per game.

But what if Miller had stayed?

Would Iowa have avoided the decline that occurred under Schultz?

Only once in four seasons under Schultz did Iowa finish with a winning record, and that was 13-11 record during the 1972-73 campaign. But that team also finished just 6-8 in the Big Ten.

Miller’s situation is one of many what-if moments that Hawkeye fans still wonder about.

Here are some others.

What if Pembrook Burrows hadn’t tipped in the shot that ended Iowa’s magical season in 1970?

Van Eman said Monday that the better team didn’t win that day. Burrows’ tip right before time expired lifted Jacksonville to a stunning 104-103 victory over Iowa in the first round of the Mideast Regional, but then Jacksonville would go on to lose to UCLA 80-69 in the national title game, while Iowa crushed Notre Dame 121-106 in the Mideast Regional consolation game.

What if Nile Kinnick had lived beyond the age of 24?

Iowa's only Heisman Trophy winner was killed while serving his country in the Navy in 1943. Kinnick was on a routine training flight when his airplane developed an oil leak and crashed off the coast of Venezuela in the Gulf of Paria on June 2, 1943.

He was just 24 years old at the time.

Some believe that Kinnick was destined for greatness, perhaps in politics. 

What if star point guard Ronnie Lester hadn’t been injured twice during his senior season, including in the first half against Louisville in the 1980 national semifinal?

Lester only played 12 minutes in the first half of the national semifinal before reinjuring his knee. But he already had scored 10 points and made all four of his field-goal attempts and both of his free throw attempts.

Louisville would go on to prevail 80-72 on its way to winning the 1980 national title.

But what if Lester hadn’t been injured?

Hawkeye fans still ask that question to this day, and many are convinced that Iowa would have won the national title if Lester had stayed healthy.

What if Connie Hawkins had been allowed to play basketball for Iowa?

Judging from what Hawkins accomplished as a professional basketball player, and from his amazing athleticism, it’s reasonable to think that he would have been a force at Iowa, and a fan favorite.

What if Iowa had tried harder to recruit Gale Sayers?

He grew up in Omaha and was reportedly very interested in playing football for Iowa, but the interest apparently wasn’t mutual for some reason.

Sayers would go on to play for Kansas where he earned the nickname the “Kansas Comet” for his electrifying running style. He also played for the Chicago Bears and made the NFL Hall of Fame despite barely playing four seasons due to knee injuries.

What if Forest Evashevski had remained as the Iowa football coach instead of resigning at the age of just 42 to be the school’s athletic director?

Some Hawkeye fans believe that Iowa would’ve have had sustained success, much like Nebraska did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, if Evashevski had stayed as head coach.

But instead, he resigned in 1960 after just nine seasons to become Iowa’s Athletic Director, and that changed the course of history.

Iowa would go on to suffer through almost two decades of misery before Hayden Fry finally was hired to rebuild the football program shortly after the 1978 season.

Evashevski had built Iowa into a national power in the 1950s, winning two Rose Bowls and losing no more than one game in four seasons.

But he wasn’t nearly as effective as the athletic director and the football program suffered because of it.

What if star running back Willie Fleming had played more than just one season at Iowa?

The Detroit native was a key contributor for Iowa’s 1958 Rose Bowl champion team, and those who saw Fleming play say he was electrifying in open field and had blazing speed.

But he left Iowa after just one memorable season and then played in the Canadian Football League.

What if Lute Olson had stayed at Iowa instead of resigning after nine seasons to coach at Arizona where he built a national power?

Iowa played in the NCAA Tournament in each of Olson’s final five seasons as head coach, and advanced the Final Four in 1980.

Iowa also won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title in 1978-79, but hasn’t won a regular-season conference title since then.

The program was thriving when Olson suddenly resigned after the 1982-83 season.

Olson reportedly had grown tired of living in the Hawkeye fish bowl, while his wife reportedly had grown tired of the Iowa winters.

So when the Arizona job became available, Olson accepted what was considered a massive rebuilding job, and to say that he succeeded in the desert would be an understatement.

What if Chris Street hadn't been killed in an automobile accident in 1993?

The 6-foot-8 power forward from Indianola was on the verge of stardom when his car collided with a snow plow on Jan 19, 1993 on the outskirts of Iowa City. Street was midway through his junior season when he was killed and he appeared destined for a career in the NBA.

What if Jess Settles had stayed healthy while at Iowa?

His promising career as an Iowa basketball player was derailed by chronic back problems.

Settles, a 6-7 forward, was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1994, and he also made first-team All-Big Ten in 1996 and third team in 1994 and 1995.

But he also missed multiple games due to back problems, and often played in pain.

Settles was a very good player, but his back issues kept him from reaching his full potential.

What if Ricky Davis had played for more than just one season at Iowa?

The Davenport native led Iowa in scoring as a freshman during the 1997-98 season with a 15.0 per-game average before bolting to the NBA where he played 12 seasons for six different teams.

Davis, a 6-7 small forward, is one of the more athletic players to have attended Iowa. He thrilled fans with his high-rising dunks and with his ability to hang in the air.

The thrills just didn’t last for very long.

What if quarterback Ricky Stanzi hadn’t been injured against Northwestern in the 10th game of the 2009 season?

Iowa was 9-0 and facing the Wildcats at home when Stanzi suffered an foot injury in the first half that caused him to miss the final two regular-season games against Ohio State and Minnesota.

The Iowa offense sputtered without Stanley and Northwestern took advantage, winning 17-10 at Kinnick Stadium.

Backup James Vandenberg then performed admirably on the road at Ohio State the next week, but Iowa fell short, losing 27-24 in overtime.

Iowa defeated Minnesota 12-0 in the regular-season finale with Vandenberg playing quarterback.

Stanzi returned for the Orange Bowl where Iowa defeated Georgia Tech 24-14 to cap an 11-2 season.

But what if Stanzi had stayed healthy?

Some Hawkeye fans believe that Iowa would’ve run the table that season.

What if Iowa had hired Bob Stoops instead of Kirk Ferentz to replace Hayden Fry?

That question doesn’t get asked much anymore because Ferentz silenced his critics by rebuilding the Iowa program, and he is now adored by Hawkeye fans.

The rebuild took a while, considering Iowa lost 18 of its first 20 games under Ferentz, but the breakthrough came in 2001 when Iowa finished 7-5 and won the Alamo Bowl.

The 64-year old Ferentz is now the longest-tenured coach in school history, and the longest-tenured active college football coach. Ferentz is also Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach, and has led Iowa to six double-digit win seasons, and to two Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2004.

As for Stoops, a former Iowa defensive back, he took the Oklahoma job and won the national title in his second season in 2000. Stoops coached the Sooners for 18 seasons and compiled a 190-48 record.

What if Tom Davis hadn’t been forced to resign as the Iowa men’s basketball coach after the 1998-99 season?

Steve Alford probably never would’ve coached at Iowa and that would’ve spared fans a lot of controversy and embarrassment.

Alford certainly had some success at Iowa, winning two Big Ten Tournament titles, but his eight-year run was mired by the Pierre Pierce sexual assault scandals, by failed expectations and by Alford often blaming his players after losses.

Davis, on the other hand, would go on to rebuild the Drake program before retiring and being replaced by his son, Keno Davis, as head coach.

Editor's note: Here is the link to Monday's podcast featuring Lanny Van Eman.