The lifelong memories created by Iowa women’s basketball

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CLEVELAND − The text messages lit up my cellphone Monday night after Iowa’s 94-87 victory against LSU in the most-watched game in women’s basketball history, with 12.3 million viewers on ESPN.

Excited friends, most of them native Iowans who have been Hawkeye sports fans for more than four decades, were asking something similar to this: Did we just experience the greatest win in Hawkeye history?

On the surface, to me, the premise felt like a bit of a stretch. Did we already forget that just last year the Iowa women stopped unbeaten South Carolina and its 42-game winning streak to reach the NCAA championship game? What about No. 1 Iowa’s 12-10 win over No. 2 Michigan football in 1985? The first home basketball game after Chris Street’s tragic 1993 death against Michigan’s Fab Five? And what about Steve Waite’s three-point play to send the Iowa men’s basketball team past Georgetown and into the 1980 Final Four?

More: Iowa wants more than a Final Four berth. The Hawkeyes’ words are convincing

But, as one friend noted: “It’s a conversation.”

So, one of the best parts of my job is hearing from people in my text-message group, which is free for Des Moines Register or Hawk Central subscribers. Almost everyone is a deeply devoted Hawkeyes fan, and most seem just fine keeping their distance from social media.  

So, I asked them to give me their thoughts on the matter (I don’t know their names, just their numbers), and I encouraged those who remember the 1980 Final Four well in particular to weigh in. And, wow, the responses were overwhelming.

They came in by the hundreds. Many brought tears to my eyes and began to shift my perspective.

Maybe they’ll impact yours, too.

(Note: Some responses are lightly edited to offer more accuracy, clarity and Register style.)

A team that has resonated with long-suffering Hawkeye fans

Hawkeye fans have plenty of past scar tissue. Even after that 1980 Georgetown win, Ronnie Lester’s knee injury at the Final Four doomed the Hawkeyes’ underdog shot at a national title. Tom Davis’ 1987 men’s team had a 16-point halftime lead in the Elite Eight against UNLV but infamously unraveled. Football’s 2015 Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State turned fourth-quarter euphoria into heartache.

So, to see superstar Caitlin Clark and coach Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes not only excel in the brightest moments last year but to meet enormous expectations this year has been a new and rewarding experience.

“No comparison. 1980 and last year were not as expected. This year, with all the expectations and pressure, was even more pleasing,” one 68-year-old said. “My wife has watched more basketball in the last couple of years with me than we have watched over the previous 40 total. That is saying something.”

More: Iowa women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark repeats as Naismith Trophy winner

One fan watched with great joy next to his 4- and 6-year-old sons Monday night, calling it surreal.  

“I was their age watching Iowa fall to UNLV (in 1987). It was the first time I cried and felt that emotional emptiness one suffers after meaningful losses,” he said. “But I imagined we would be back again the next year. Almost 40 years later, it made me so happy for my boys to see Iowa get over the hump and finish with the win. That’s what is so amazing about this team.”

Another fan who was 18 years old during the 1980 Final Four run explained why this Hawkeye women’s run has vaulted to No. 1.

“My reasoning is (that) the Hawkeyes have been a national story all year, and every game they have played, they have had a huge target on their back,” the fan said. “Even so, they have risen to the occasion time and time again. I don’t remember another sporting event where the Hawkeyes were at the top, or near the top of a sport, played a big game, and played up to, and possibly even exceeded expectations. And, I might add, did it with total class in a very charged, difficult environment.”

The sustained success for Iowa over the last two years – with a 64-11 record in that time – and beating the team that beat the Hawkeyes in last year’s national title game left no doubt for another fan.

“It was back-to-back Final Fours on the back of Caitlin Clark to cement it as Iowa’s biggest basketball win,” the fan said. “It avenged a loss in the national spotlight. I don’t think there’s anything to debate.”

More: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark wins second consecutive national player of the year award | Reactions

Another fan who was 23 years old during the 1980 Final Four still has the Register’s “Big Peach” sports sections from that time.

“But they were not able to find the magic and repeat the following year (or any year since),” the fan said. “To work your way through an entire season, conference tournament and March Madness two years in a row is just mind-blowing.

“Coach (Lisa) Bluder has demonstrated that you can attract and retain top talent at Iowa. She has painted a vision that the entire team has bought into. They are united in a way that rarely happens in sports. They have a real opportunity to win it all.”

The conversation goes from that win to this team

So many folks felt that this particular team getting this big win against LSU is what launched it into “best ever” status.

One father explained how it’s been refreshing to see Iowa reach a national stage like this and not be a total underdog.

“We have a seat at the table and can compete with anyone,” he said. “I know this won’t be a regular occurrence, so the experience from these last two years has been memory-making. This Iowa team has created family time, where we are all in the same place and enjoying the same thing for a few hours together.

“My wife (who is a diehard Cyclone fan) is as invested as any of us. I have two daughters who for the first time in their lives have a female athlete that is a true role model for them. This whole experience has been so cool for me as a dad. The Iowa team has connected all of us together.”

More: Iowa to host watch party at Carver Hawkeye-Arena for Final Four matchup vs. UConn

Another father who attended the wins vs. Colorado and LSU in Albany weighed in after the flight home.

“It was No. 1 for me: Beating LSU in that spot, with the enormous TV audience and in front of a crowd that Iowa women’s basketball built,” he said. “We met families from Queens, Manhattan and other parts of Long Island. The response we received from them was, ‘Hawks all the way!’ We were floored by the reach this program has.”

A woman who was 11 years old when attending the 1985 Iowa-Michigan game said she “probably blew a vocal cord” that day in Kinnick Stadium, but felt like the Hawkeye win over LSU served as a resounding moment in time. She gets compliments on her Clark No. 22 jersey while living in Portland, Oregon.

“This means so much more as a society,” she said. “It feels like it is a tipping point for women’s sports and our women’s basketball team is part of what is leading that charge. As a girl growing up with fewer options for organized sports … the growth in women’s sports and the attention paid to this team and the love so many people have for this crew and their sustained success is unparalleled.”

A 54-year-old man discovered joy in watching the Iowa women’s team during the era of 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year Kathleen Doyle and has “loved watching them ever since.”

“(Monday) night’s game was No. 1 for me,” he said. “This team is special, and the women are special. I also work security at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and these ladies are genuine, caring and very respectful on and off the court. (Monday) night’s game was a thing of beauty. A total team effort. They ran LSU off the court and put on a scoring clinic. I can’t read enough about them.”

A 37-year-old man relayed how this team has delivered memories for life.

“It’s No. 1. I have a 10-year-old daughter that isn’t a sports fan. Where was she (Monday) night?” he said “Right next to me on the couch with my other three kids and wife cheering for Kate, Gabbie, Caitlin, Syd and each other player by name! I’ll never forget the moments this team has allowed me to spend with my family that normally has the boys in one room and the girls in the other.”

More: How Caitlin Clark’s Elite Eight performance vs. LSU stacks up against her biggest games

One person who once held the thrilling 2009 Iowa football season (which resulted in an Orange Bowl win) in the highest spot now has a replacement.

“The coaches laid the groundwork over the past two decades to create a culture where fans feel truly a part of something big,” the fan said. “We get to see their personalities and their humanity. The continuity and veteran roster lets us really know and love the players, and their selfless embrace of each role. To see the sheer joy on their faces Monday night was like watching a friend have their dreams come true.”

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Lisa Bluder press conference after Iowa’s victory vs. LSU in Elite 8

Iowa women’s basketball head coach Lisa Bluder talks to the media after the Hawkeyes’ Elite win vs. LSU in the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

The hope for another bigger win (or two) to come

There were dozens of detailed responses, too, about why other wins in Iowa history ranked higher, and there’s no doubt to each person that certain wins have certain meanings. So, there is no right answer.

But another sentiment shared about Monday’s win over LSU for the women was because of what’s still possible for this team. Iowa (33-4) faces UConn (33-5) at 8:30 p.m. CT Friday from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The game will be televised on ESPN, with the winner facing either South Carolina or North Carolina State in Sunday’s NCAA championship game (2 p.m. CT, ABC).

One 54-year-old who grew up on an eastern Iowa farm has had his perspective changed by this Hawkeye women’s team.

More: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese help Iowa-LSU star powered rematch become most watched college game on ESPN

“Football has always been No. 1 in my mind. Things like the 1985 Iowa-Michigan game … I remember like it was yesterday,” the fan said. “That said, because of what was riding on (Monday) night, it has to rank No. 1 for me. Not only a chance to beat LSU, to go to the Final Four and play for a national championship. But I think (Monday) night showed that Iowa has a very legitimate chance to WIN a national championship.”

Another Hawkeye football-first fan has a new favorite game.

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Jan Jensen gets emotional after Iowa returns to the Final Four

The Iowa associate head coach reacts to the 94-87 win over LSU and the pressure that led up to this moment. Oh, and the game plan.

“These Hawkeye women have edged my ‘Tate-to-Holloway’ moment (from the 2005 Capital One Bowl miracle finish, also vs. LSU) down to second place,” the fan said. “So much holistic goodness with this team, staff, culture, goals and dedication. They have written an everlasting story. Tate-to-Holloway was an exciting moment. But (it’s) nowhere near the satisfaction and enjoyment brought via these women.”

One fan apologized for the lengthy reply, but in the end, I thought it was worthy to finish this column. He was a University of Iowa sophomore during the 1980 Final Four and attended a raucous welcome-home rally at the old Fieldhouse.

“The excitement was intense, but brief,” he said. “There were no expectations, so the state lost its mind until the opener against Louisville, where Ronnie reinjured his knee. Then, depression settled in.

More: How Lisa Bluder’s coaching prowess has helped push Iowa women’s basketball to new heights

“The excitement for this season began at last year’s championship final buzzer. It was contagious and epidemic, expanding across the whole country. Fifty-six THOUSAND people (officially 55,646) jammed Kinnick for a game that didn’t count. Caitlin and Co. sold out arenas across the country, and No. 22 has taken on its own special significance. We’ve had celebrities showing up in Carver like it was a Lakers game.

“This has been beyond any Iowa story I can remember. It’s a phenomenon, bigger than the first RAGBRAI, crazier than the 1981 Rose Bowl campaign. And it led up to Monday night’s rematch with LSU. What a game! What a feeling! What a great group of players and coaches to be able to support!

“I’m proud they represent our university, our community and our state. (Monday) night? Yeah, it’s No. 1.”

He then added, “To be eclipsed this weekend.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has served for 29 years with The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network. Chad is the 2023 INA Iowa Sports Columnist of the Year and NSMA Co-Sportswriter of the Year in Iowa. Join Chad’s text-message group (free for subscribers) at HawkCentral.com/HawkeyesTextsFollow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter

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