The Iowa Hawkeye women are in a place Hawkeye fans have only dreamt about for the last thirty years. For fans who have largely been invested in men’s basketball and only casual or even non-existent for women’s games, that wait has been longer (welcome to the bandwagon - no hard feelings!). Now that it’s over, the feeling in Hawkeye Nation seems to be a bit more mixed than one might expect.
On the one hand, it has been an incredible run. Caitlin Clark is a transcendent talent who has grown the sport by leaps and bounds in a way that no other player has done for at least a generation. Hawkeye fans are elated to be able to watch yet another generational talent just a few years after we bid adieu to our last one in all-time leading scorer Megan Gustafson.
And Bluder’s Bunch plays a fun brand of basketball! It’s a joy to watch a fast-paced game where the best player on the floor is donning the black and gold. The Hawkeyes get up and down, they zip passes into tight windows, drill open threes and finish in traffic. It. Is. Fun.
But for all the joy that comes with embracing the success of the Hawkeye women, it’s hard not to stew a bit on the utter contrast between that success and the lack thereof from Fran McCaffery and the men. While much time has surely been spent basking in the glow of Iowa’s first Final Four run in thirty years, it would seem more than a few Hawkeye fans have spent a fair share of time pondering the “what-ifs” of the men’s team.
After all, year thirteen of the Fran McCaffery experience has just wrapped up and the Hawkeye’s drought of Sweet Sixteen success has now extended to 24 years. More than 100 other programs have accomplished the feat in that span.
The thirst for a return to the second weekend of March Madness is reminiscent of the thirst that was last quenched in the final season of former head Hawkeye Dr. Tom Davis. Of course, that run came too late - after Davis had already been notified his contract would not be renewed and the 1998-1999 season would be his last in Iowa City.
That situation unfolded largely because Davis had severely lacked in post-season success. After reaching the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen in his first two seasons at the helm, the Hawkeyes went a decade without a run to the second weekend. They had also outright missed the tournament in three of the seasons leading up to his last at Iowa.
Now, 24 years later, Hawkeye fans are again more than tired of watching Cinderalla fit her foot into that slipper from afar as Iowa wonders “what-if” and turns their focus to next season. And the success of Lisa Bluder and the women is, perversely, like pouring salt on the still fresh wound that is the men’s March Madness drought.
The women, in the last four NCAA Tournaments, have now been to a Final Four, a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight. They have won ten tournament games in four trips, six more than the men have won in the thirteen years under McCaffery and as many as the Hawkeye men have won in the last 34 years combined.
But the recent success may also cloud Hawkeye fans’ memories a bit. While we ALL want more from the men’s team come March, it’s worth noting the success Bluder has seen the last several years would not have come if not for more patience from athletic director Gary Barta than most fans would like to see shown for McCaffery.
During Bluder’s first thirteen seasons in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes won just four NCAA Tournament games. They didn’t advance beyond the second round of the tournament until Bluder’s 15th year at the helm. This despite a vastly superior starting point for the women’s program back in 2000 than what McCaffery inherited in 2010.
The Iowa women missed the tournament just twice between 1986 and 1999 and had been to not only the Sweet Sixteen, but also the program’s only Final Four in the decade that preceded Bluder’s appointment.
The men, on the other hand, hadn’t made the tournament in the prior four years and were fresh off three straight losing seasons under Todd Lickliter. The Hawkeyes had just three tournament appearances in the decade prior and won only a single tournament game in that span. It was an abysmal part of Iowa basketball history that set the program back meaningfully from where it had been when Davis left in 1999.
Despite that, during his first thirteen seasons, McCaffery has been in the same ballpark as Bluder during the same time span. He has a modestly lower winning percentage (.597 vs .626) and does not have the outright Big Ten Championship the Hawkeye women brought home in 2008, but he’s right there in terms of what seems to be most Iowa fans’ measuring stick and biggest concern: postseason success.
That’s not to take anything away from what Bluder and the women have accomplished or to say that McCaffery is sure to turn a corner in year fifteen the way Bluder did. But it is perhaps a reminder that crazy things happen in March and past performance isn’t necessarily indicative of future results. It’s every bit as possible the men get the monkey off their back in the next two years as it is they fall flat - Bluder’s career has taught us that.
But while we wait to see how things turn out for the men, take time to embrace the jubilation that should come with the success Bluder, Clark and the Iowa women are having. If being Hawkeye fans has taught us anything, it should be that success can be fleeting and should be enjoyed when it’s here rather than squeezed out by our ever-present pessimism.