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1978-1980 Iowa Cornets

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Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1980)

Born: March 21, 1978 – WPBL founding franchise.
Folded: September 29, 1980

Arenas:

Team Colors:

Owners:

WPBL Championships: None

 

They can rightfully claim to be the first women’s professional basketball team ever formed in the United States.  They travelled the small cities of Iowa and beyond in a custom 1964 Greyhound bus known as “The Corn Dog”.  Team members co-starred with Pistol Pete Maravich in a box-office flop from the auteur who brought you UFO: Target Earth and Bloodbath in Psychotown.  And they were pretty good too.  During their short two-year history, the Iowa Cornets appeared in two championship series and produced one of the earliest stars of the women’s game.

George Nissen purchased the first franchise in the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League on March 21st, 1978 for the sum of $50,000.  Nissen was a star gymnast at the University of Iowa in the 1930’s who pioneered the manufacture and sale of the modern trampoline at his Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. in Cedar Rapids.

The state of Iowa had a unique fervor for the sport of girls basketball, although not in a form that many of today’s fans would recognize or appreciate.  School girls in Iowa and a few other Midwestern states played a variation called “six-on-six”, with three forwards and three guards.  Forwards could not cross the half court line to defend and guards could not cross the boundary to participate in the offense.  Each player was limited to only two dribbles before they had to pass or shoot.  The Cornets and the WPBL, of course, would play the more conventional five-on-five rules familiar to the rest of the nation.

“We didn’t really get “negative” reactions <to five-on-five>, but we did have to win <Iowa fans> over.  It helped that about half of the Cornets were from Iowa and our fans knew who we were,” recalled former Cornets All-Star Molly Bolin in 2011.  “I’m sure the game was slower than they were used to but we still scored a lot of points.  I think we averaged closed to 100 per game and having a few home games televised and being in the papers made people curious to see us play.”

Molly Bolin Iowa CornetsNissen wanted the club to truly belong to the entire state.  The Cornets would split their 17-game home schedule among eight different venues throughout Iowa for the 1978-79 WPBL season.  The Cornets primary homes would be the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines and the newly constructed Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids.  The team also scheduled single game appearances in high school auditoriums in Bettendorf, Council Bluffs, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Spencer.

In June 1978, Moravia, Iowa native Molly Bolin inked the first Cornets player contract for $6,000 during a ceremony attended by Nissen, Cornets General Manager Rod Lein (Bolin’s former college coach) and Iowa Governor Robert Ray.   Bolin was an Iowa “six-on-six” high school legend who played just two seasons of college basketball at Grandview College in Des Moines.  Cornets officials seemed confident that Bolin could adjust to the fluid five-on-five game and equally confident that the attractive 21-year old blonde would help to promote the new team across the state.

Nissen had another idea to promote his newfound interest in women’s basketball.  As the WPBL formed in 1978, Nissen invested $1 million in Dribble, a basketball comedy about a women’s team called the Vixens playing against a men’s team led by NBA star Pete Maravich.  Cornets players appeared as the Vixens and the film was shot on location in Iowa.  The film’s screenwriter and director, Michael de Gaetano, had a pair of ultra low budget horror films to his credit.  Dribble proved to be an expensive flop for Nissen – it opened in Cedar Rapids for a screening in January 1979 and then vanished, until it was released on home video years later under the new title Scoring.  (Brief clips of a few scenes featuring Maravich are available on Youtube, but they were simply too boring to post here.)

Women’s professional basketball debuted at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines with this game on December 17, 1978 against the visiting New York Stars.  The Cornets quickly established themselves as one of the best clubs in the new league, finishing tied with the Chicago Hustle atop the Midwest Division standings with a 21-13 record.  The team finished second in the league in scoring at 104.9 PPG, despite failing to place any players among the league’s top twelve scorers.  The offensive production was well distributed, with Bolin, Doris Draving, Denise Sharps, Debra Thomas and Joan Uhl all averaging in double figures.  The Cornets dispatched the Hustle in the semis before losing the inaugural WPBL championship series to the Houston Angels in the fifth and deciding match on May 1st, 1979 at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston.

The Cornets returned for the 1979-80 WPBL season with a new dynamic – get the ball to Molly.  Molly Bolin led the Cornets in scoring with 16.7 points per game the previous winter, but in her second season she fully emerged as a scoring sensation and one of the earliest stars of the women’s pro game.  During the 1979-80 season, Bolin led the WPBL in scoring with 32.8 points per game, including a record 54 during a televised match against the Minnesota Fillies on January 13th, 1980:

The Cornets won the WPBL’s Midwest Division once again during the 1979-80 season with a 24-12 record.  They defeated the Minnesota Fillies in the league semi-finals, only to lose once again in the league championship series, this time to the New York Stars who defeated the Cornets 3 games to 1 in April 1980.  Bolin was named the league’s co-MVP along with Ann Meyers of the New Jersey Gems.

Photo courtesy of Dave Cusick

Midway through the 1980 season, Cornets founder George Nissen attempted to sell the club to a Des Moines-area disc jockey named Dick Vance.

“We all loved <Nissen>, he was such a class act and it was a tragedy that we lost him as an owner.,” recalled Molly Bolin in 2011.  “He had the team to his house for parties a couple of times and gave us all $100 cash in a card at his Christmas party which was really big bucks in 1978!  He always wanted to do things the right way and we felt he cared about us.

“<The sale> was a difficult time as we were all put in limbo.  We had our doubts about Vance at the press conference that introduced him and after that we finished the season with sack lunches and no hotel rooms on a trip to Chicago.”

The sale fell through and the Cornets spent the summer of 1980 in a state of suspended animation.  At league meetings in late September 1980, WPBL officials granted the Cornets’ request for a hiatus from the league to sell or financially re-organize the team.  Effectively, the club ceased activity at this point and the Women’s Professional Basketball League itself would follow suit after a third and final season in the winter and spring of 1980-81.

 

==Slideshow==

 

==Iowa Cornets Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Season Date Opponent Score Program Other

1978-79

1978-79 12/17/1978 vs. New York Stars  W 99-87 Program
1978-79 2/18/1979 @ New Jersey Gems W 132-88 Program
1978-79 3/23/1979 vs. Milwaukee Does W 105-89 Program
1978-79 3/25/1979 vs. New Jersey Gems ?? Program
1978-79 3/27/1979 vs. Minnesota Fillies W 126-109 Program
1978-79 3/30/1979 vs. Chicago Hustle W 115-101 Program
1978-79 4/1/1979 vs. Dayton Rockettes w 115-84 Program

1979-80

1979-80 11/27/1979 vs. Chicago Hustle W 122-111 Program Game Notes

 

==In Memoriam==

Former Cornet Connie Kunzmann was murdered in Omaha, Nebraska in February 1981 while playing for the WPBL’s Nebraska Wranglers club.  Lance Tibke, a 25-year old nuclear power plant security guard, was convicted of 2nd degree murder and served 9 years of a 40-year sentence before receiving parole in 1990.

Cornets founder George Nissen passed away in 2010 at age 96.

 

==Downloads==

2011 FWIL Interview with Cornets star Molly Bolin

1978-79 Women’s Professional Basketball League Brochure

1978-79 Iowa Cornets Season Ticket Brochure

1979-80 Iowa Cornets Draft Selections

 

==Links==

Women’s Professional Basketball League Media Guides

Women’s Professional Basketball League Programs

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