I could always hear the voice, whether I was attending an Iowa men’s basketball game in person or watching it on TV.
Whenever the shot clock melted under 10 seconds during a Hawkeye possession, a familiar voice from the bench would start the countdown.
‘Nine…8…9…7…6,’ letting the team know that time was slipping away.
That voice belonged to Kirk Speraw. Which is not surprising, because he did all he could to make Iowa’s basketball program a success. And his work often took place far from the public eye.
Speraw could spot a flawed shooting stroke a mile away, and knew how to fix it. He could break down tape and put together a rock-solid scouting report. He had Coach Fran McCaffery’s ear during the heat of a game. He had an eye for talent on the recruiting trail. The players respected him, and he was an all-Big Ten chest bumper in the locker room after a big Hawkeye victory.
Now he’s leaving one of his life’s great passions, Iowa basketball, and retiring at the end of next month. Speraw came to Iowa to play for Lute Olson as a walk-on in 1975. He departs in 2022, after his second tour of duty, leaving a lasting impression on the program.
When McCaffery was hired as Iowa’s coach in March of 2010, he said he’d add a former Hawkeye to his staff.
Less than two weeks later, Speraw’s hiring was announced. It was a hire that proved extremely beneficial as McCaffery rebuilt a downtrodden Iowa program brick by brick. Speraw often mixed the mortar.
I remember talking to one of Speraw’s Iowa teammates, Steve Krafcisin, when McCaffery brought Speraw back to Iowa City. Krafcisin, who also retired recently as the women’s basketball coach at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone, predicted the hiring of Speraw would be a positive step in the rebuilding process.
“He’s a great guy, and very loyal,” Krafcisin said a dozen years ago. “A very team-oriented guy. He always had a positive attitude.”
When McCaffery ran into Lute Olson at the Final Four in 2010, the current Iowa coach asked the former Iowa coach about Speraw. Olson recommended that McCaffery hire Kirk. Speraw will forever be linked with those two coaches. Pretty good company.
Olson invited Speraw to join his program as a walk-on in 1975-76. Speraw had earned first-team all-state honors as a guard at Sioux City North. His team finished third in the Class AAA state tournament in 1975. He scored a tournament-best 77 points in three games at state. In the final two games of his prep career, Speraw made 25 of 32 shots from the field.
Kirk didn’t play a lot at Iowa, but he paid close attention to Olson and the way he ran his program. Speraw was also the son of a highly-respected coach. Bud Speraw was an assistant basketball coach at Sioux City Central for years, and later became the head baseball coach at Sioux City North.
Bud Speraw was right where he wanted to be on the night of May 26, 1989. He was standing in the third-base coaching box for a game against Abraham Lincoln of Council Bluffs. That’s where he suffered a fatal heart attack at 62 years old.
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Bud Speraw had seen his son chase his dream at Iowa under Olson, a larger-than-life figure in the state as he rebuilt the program. Bud saw Olson give his son his first coaching job as a graduate assistant in 1979-80, and what a year it was. Iowa went to the Final Four.
From there Kirk became an assistant coach at Florida Southern, then the head coach at Pensacola Junior College, followed by an assistant’s position at Florida and finally a head coaching job at Central Florida. Speraw became the program’s winningest coach, with a 279-233 record and five NCAA appearances.
And then it was back to his alma mater, where he spent 12 seasons and helped turn the program from a laughing stock to a rock-solid Big Ten program.
Respect at this level never comes easy. It takes someone with experience at rebuilding programs, like McCaffery has done throughout his career. And it takes someone who is familiar with the landscape. Someone like Speraw.
I can remember watching a preseason practice in the fall of 2010. I was impressed with how the practice was run, and the attention to detail. Walking out of the practice with Speraw, I told him I was impressed with what I saw.
“Us?” he asked, incredulously.
The practice facility, and new coaching offices, were being built during that 2010-11 season, and the temporary basketball office was in Kinnick Stadium. The coaches would often make the long climb up the Caver-Hawkeye Arena steps to head to their makeshift offices after games. After being humbled by Northwestern on Jan. 12, 90-71, Speraw walked right past me as I was writing the game story. We made eye contact. He just offered a slight shake of the head.
Yes, it was the start of a daunting journey.
And though a Big Ten regular-season title and a return to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament remain on the to-do list, four straight 20-win seasons and NCAA berths (if the pandemic hadn’t shut the door in 2020) and a 26-14 regular-season Big Ten record the last two seasons shows the progress that was made with Speraw on the staff.
During the 1978-79 season, I was one of several sports copy editors at the Des Moines Register who had pooled our money to buy several season tickets for Iowa basketball. We took turns going to games.
I drew the final regular-season game, an expected drubbing of Northwestern on March 3. It looked like Iowa was going to finish a game shy of a piece of the Big Ten title. But then the unexpected happened. Wisconsin’s Wes Matthews made a desperation 50-footer to upset No.4 Michigan State earlier in the day, 83-81.
A victory over the Wildcats would let the Hawkeyes share a piece of the Big Ten title with the Spartans and Purdue at 13-5.
Iowa crushed Northwestern, 95-64. Speraw got in on the action, making two field goals in five attempts in the final home game of his career. A fan favorite, many in the crowd cheered loudly when Speraw took his turn cutting down the net.
Forty-three seasons later, what turned out to be Speraw’s final game on the Iowa bench against a Big Ten opponent came in a victory against Purdue for the Big Ten Tournament Championship. The nets were cut down again.
What a way for a loyal, team-oriented guy to say goodbye.