Following sports can become a generational pursuit when you’ve been around for nearly seven decades.
I thought of that last weekend, when University of Iowa basketball players Caitlin Clark and Keegan Murray spent time together in California as finalists for the Wooden Award. Two finalists from the same university is a rarity, but there they were. The consensus sophomore all-Americans are just the latest chapters in what has been a historical four-year stretch of national attention for the two Hawkeye hoops programs.
Clark and Murray took the Big Ten and the nation by storm in 2021-22. Watching them play the game at such a high level was must-see basketball. And the fact both are Iowa natives made it even more enjoyable.
I first crossed paths with their family trees long before Caitlin or Keegan were born, thanks to my sportswriting career at the Des Moines Register.
My connection to Caitlin Clark goes back to the early 1980s. Her grandfather, Bob Nizzi, was the football coach at Dowling Catholic. I first interviewed Coach Nizzi in the early 1980s, and also covered some of his games. I always appreciated the passion and intensity Coach Nizzi had for the game and his players.
I experienced that passion and intensity in a unique way after the Maroons had defeated West Des Moines arch-rival Valley, 13-9, in the first round of the 1983 state high school playoffs. The Tigers had handled Nizzi’s team less than two weeks earlier, 21-0. After that game, some things appeared in the paper that Coach Nizzi didn’t care for.
After the playoff victory, Nizzi stood as his players circled around him in the middle of the field. And then he pulled out several Register articles and set them on fire.
The next morning I got a phone call from Coach Nizzi, who apologized for what had taken place the night before. I respected him before that call. I respected him even more after it.
Nine years later, I came calling to Keegan Murray’s family tree. His father, Kenyon, signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Iowa in November of 1991. After a sparkling senior season at Battle Creek Central that saw Kenyon average 26 points, 10 rebounds and 2.9 steals, he succeeded Chris Webber as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball.
I first interviewed Kenyon in April of 1992, days before he played in the McDonald’s all-America game in Atlanta, Ga. Murray, regarded to be the Hawkeyes’ most high-profile recruit since Roy Marble, knew what was waiting for him. So did his future coach, Tom Davis.
“I think it’s important for me to keep tempering the enthusiasm,” Davis said. “People, bless their hearts, really would like to jump on him and tell him how great he’s going to be. He’s a terrific high school player, but college is different. Let him show it first, then let’s talk about how good he really is.”
Kenyon had selected Iowa over Michigan, saying the Hawkeye program “was just a better fit for me. I think Iowa can use me more than Michigan can.”
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That college choice benefitted Iowa’s basketball program for a second time when legacy recruits and twins Keegan and Kris Murray signed with the Hawkeyes in November of 2019.
I first saw the twins play at the Chris Street Memorial basketball tournament in Indianola when they were in grade school. Kenyon, who was a freshman at Iowa when Chris died and had become his close friend, was coaching his boys up.
One thing struck me that day in Indianola. As Kenyon talked to his team in the huddle, both Keegan and Kris made eye contact with their dad and absorbed every word he was saying.
Caitlin was a junior at Dowling when I first saw her play in a semifinal game of the 2019 Girls’ State Tournament. She was clearly a blue-chip point guard. Of all the victories Coach Lisa Bluder has had during her time at Iowa, getting Clark’s signature on a national letter of intent is one of her most impressive achievements.
And the national adulation shown for Clark and Murray in 2021-22 comes in a four-season stretch that is unprecedented in Hawkeye history.
In that window, the women’s program has had a national player of the year in Megan Gustafson. Gustafson, Kathleen Doyle and Clark have been consensus all-Americans. Gustafson (twice), Doyle and Clark have all been Big Ten Player of the Year. Monica Czinano was also a first-team all-Big Ten selection. Bluder was Naismith Coach of the Year in 2019. Gustafson won the Lisa Leslie Award, the Naismith Award and Honda Sport Award and was Big Ten Athlete of the Year.
Clark has won the Dawn Staley Guard of the Year Award twice and also won the Nancy Lieberman Point Guard of the Year Award in 2022.
Garza became the first consensus National Player of the Year in men’s program history in 2021. He was twice a Big Ten Player of the Year, and was twice a consensus all-American. Murray became the program’s fourth player to be named a consensus all-American in 2022. Murray was also a first-team all-Big Ten selection in 2022 and won the Karl Malone Award that goes to the nation’s best power forward. Garza also won the Naismith Award, the Wooden Award, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award and Pete Newell Award. He was named the Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 2021.
The women’s program has had the Big Ten’s scoring leader in four of the past five seasons – Gustafson in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and Clark the past two seasons.
The Iowa men have had the last three Big Ten scoring leaders in Garza in 2019-20 and 2020-21 and Murray last season. No Big Ten men’s team has had three scoring leaders in a row since Purdue’s Rick Mount from 1968-70.
Both Gustafson (2,804) and Garza (2,306) had their numbers retired after becoming the career scoring leaders in women’s and men’s history.
And those are just the highlights.
While Murray has a chance to become the highest-drafted NBA player in men’s program history in June – Fred Brown went to Seattle with the sixth pick in 1971 – Clark has two more seasons to spin some more magic, and create stories to be told for generations to come.