Sunday, December 25, 2005

It's Been 50 Years Since Bucky O'Connor's Hawkeye 'Fabulous Five' Clobbered Illinois, 96-72, And Went On To Finish 2nd In the NCAA Final Four

Strange as it may seem, there have been times throughout the University of Iowa's rich athletic history when Hawkeye basketball teams actually won championships and important games, and when fans filled an arena and made real noise.

A number of those teams were coached by the late Frank “Bucky” O’Connor, who was in charge of the Hawkeye program from 1952-1958, as well as part of the 1950 season while filling in for Pops Harrison.

O'Connor's records at Iowa were 114-59 overall and 71-41 in the Big Ten.

His 1955 and 1956 teams won Big Ten Conference championships and reached the NCAA Final Four both seasons. His 1956 squad, known as the “Fabulous Five,” lost to Bill Russell's San Francisco team 83-71 in the championship game.

This is the 50th anniversary of that team, which was –- and remains –- the best in school history.

The Hawkeyes’ overall record that season was 20-6. Their championship record in the Big Ten was 13-1.

Fifty years? Impossible. It can’t be. But it is.

It’s hard for me to believe that a half-century has slipped by since Carl Cain, Bill Schoof, Bill Logan, Bill Seaberg and Sharm Scheuerman were piling up victory after victory in that magical 1955-56 season.

In those days, the home games were played in Iowa Fieldhouse, a mass of steel that was a bitch of a place for visiting teams to play.

Crowds filled the arena more often than not. The noise in the place was deafening. The arena provided a tremendous home-court advantage for Iowa's players and coaches.

I saw my first game in Iowa Fieldhouse when, as a 10-year-old, I watched Harrison's team that included Murray Wier and Dick Ives, beat Purdue, 43-41, in 1946.

I made the trip from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City that night on the old Crandic train with a classmate from Lincoln School and his dad. The old man was a story himself. The first time I ever saw him, he was keeping score of an Iowa basketball game on a sheet of tan wrapping paper while listening to it on the radio.

There was, of course, no TV then. At least not in our neighborhood.

Heck, we were lucky to have a radio.

We sat in the north bleachers of the old barn of an arena that Feb. 9, 1946 night. I remember Wier, a little guard, darting all over the floor. And I remember Harrison getting the crowd revved up by climbing over the canvas that then separated the Iowa bench from the court.

I was on hand for many more games in the Fieldhouse after that, including the March 3, 1956 classic that saw O'Connor's Fabulous Five blitz Illinois, 96-72.

I then was a student at Iowa, and I was able to get a first-hand look at the outstanding team that included forwards Cain and Schoof, center Logan and guards Seaberg and Scheuerman.

It was not a team made up of superstars. The guy who would have come the closest to star status was Cain, who averaged 15.8 points and was able to jump much higher than his 6-3 frame should have allowed.

Logan averaged 17.7 points, Seaberg 13.9, Schoof 10.8 and Scheuerman 10.1.

The 24-point demolition of Illinois was the 13th in succession for the Hawkeyes in that 13-1 Big Ten season. The only conference loss was to Michigan State 65-64 on Jan. 7 in the first game.

That turned out to be Iowa’s fourth straight defeat –- coming after losses to Washington, Stanford and California –- and the last until the 12-point loss to Russell and San Francisco in the game that decided the national championship.

The title game was played in, of all places, Evanston, Ill., on the Northwestern campus.

Although the Hawkeyes trailed by only five points at the half, they were no match for Russell. The man who would later go on to have a standout National Basketball Association career scored 26 points and grabbed an astounding 27 rebounds.

Seaberg and Cain each scored 17 points for Iowa, Schoof had 14, Logan 12 and Scheuerman 11. Logan totaled 15 rebounds, Cain 12.

Things were never the same for O’Connor after that. With the Fabulous Five gone, Iowa’s records slipped to 8-14 in 1956-57 and 13-9 in 1957-58.

Then came the real tragedy.

O’Connor died at 44 years of age in a highway accident April 22, 1958 near Waterloo.

I was long-gone from Iowa City then. I was working in my first fulltime sportswriting job since getting my degree from Iowa in February, 1958.

I was the sports editor of the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune when I noticed a wire service story that said O’Connor was dead.

I couldn’t believe it any more than I can now believe 50 years have gone by since the Fabulous Five was bringing excitement to Iowa Fieldhouse.

Scheuerman, then a young assistant coach, was named O’Connor’s successor. He stayed in the job until Ralph Miller took over in 1964.

Now that magical 1955-56 is but a memory. But a very pleasant memory nonetheless.


In the large photograph above, Iowa's Carl Cain rises for a layup in the Hawkeyes' monumental win over Illinois on March 3, 1956, at the Fieldhouse, in a game that decided the Big Ten championship. The Fabulous Five led Iowa to the national championship game that season. Photos courtesy of Iowa Sports Information. Cain is also pictured at the left, Bill Seaberg is at the lower center, Sharm Scheuerman is at the upper right, Bill Schoof is at the lower right, Bill Logan is at the upper center, and coach Bucky O'Connor is pictured above Seaberg.