The Jamboree 2012: Ghosts of Lute

Chris Chambers

Fran McCaffery has tugged at the Iowa fanbase's heartstrings where it counts: On the recruiting trail.

I was almost named Lute.

I was also almost named Hayden, but the Vint household is first and foremost a basketball household, and so Lute Olson was always the deified coach of choice. In fall 1980, it was completely justified: Olson had just followed up a Big Ten title with a run to the Final Four, Ronnie Lester was laying claim to the title of best Iowa basketball player ever, and Iowa looked like it had finally reached the destination in basketball. Lute was a tenacious recruiter, and Lute was a great game coach, and those two things are difficult to find in one person. Alas, it was short-lived; three years, and three more NCAA Tournament appearances, later, he was gone, and ever since he left, Iowa's been looking for his replacement.

George Raveling: Could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Not a great coach. Not even an average coach. Brought in a boatload of talent and guided it to a middling Big Ten finish.

Tom Davis: Tom Davis was a bad recruiter.

I know the revisionist history surrounding the termination and resuscitation of Dr. Tom requires that all members of the Iowa internet community refrain from any cross words about a man who was unceremoniously shown the door by Bob Bowlsby with the vocal support of a majority of the fan base, but the fact is that he was not a good recruiter. His best team -- really, his only truly great team -- was a squad he inherited from George Raveling in his first year. Davis rarely landed top talent, even from inside his own state. He lost Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison to Kansas, the true death knell of his tenure; Hinrich and Collison led the Jayhawks to a Final Four that Iowa could have made. He lost Raef LaFrentz to Kansas, too, another local kid who plied his trade for Roy Williams in Lawrence, another missed opportunity for Davis. Andre Woolridge, who was arguably the best player that Davis had after the 1986-87 guys left, was a Nebraska transfer. Davis has to receive credit for Acie Earl, who he miraculously landed out of Moline. He signed Jess Settles, he signed Chris Street, and he got Dean Oliver and Ricky Davis at the end of his run, but those are the extent of his in-state success stories (and not one of them, save Ricky, was really being chased by the big guns). His big men were notoriously projects; some worked (Les Jepsen), most didn't (Guy Rucker). Late in his run, he developed a soft spot for really tall, really gangly, really and completely unathletic big guys like Antonio Ramos. Those were bad choices.

Tom worked at Iowa at a time when recruiting went from "obscure parlor game that nobody wanted to watch" to cottage industry. He was coach during the Bruce Pearl thing with Illinois, during the Fab Five at Michigan, during the first time that a kid could go to a web site and ask that eternal question: "Who the hell is J.R. Koch?" It was the shift, not in the importance placed on recruiting by fans but the information available to fans, and his lack of success in that arena that ended Davis' stint at Iowa. There was a fan perception, grafted onto the program in the days of Lute Olson, that Iowa not only had to recruit harder than anyone else to win, but could in fact land the conference's best player by doing precisely that. Davis didn't meet that expectation, and so Davis was gone.

Steve Alford: He was a competent recruiter. Steve Alford did a nice job of recruiting Iowa, mostly, landing guys like Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner and Mike Henderson and Alex Thompson (who was a big deal out of high school). Alford's best work was with transfers, though, whether from rival schools (Adam Haluska, Luke Recker) or community college (Reggie Evans). It says a lot about Alford that, recruiting rankings-wise, his best class at Iowa was his first, featuring a four-star center (Jared Reiner), a four-star power forward (Glen Worley), and a McDonald's All-American (Jerome Harper), none of whom ever approached their expectations at Iowa (to be fair, Harper never made it here). None of his recruiting classes for the next six seasons ever approached the hype of the 1999 class.

Todd Lickliter: Here's where the worm turns. I honestly, sincerely, do not believe that Todd Lickliter was a bozo as a tactician. I freely admit that I had no idea what he was doing, and that it didn't look to be more than ball screen, missed three point shot, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as some sort of tactical genius. Where Lickliter failed was in deciding that he didn't need to dive into the AAU morass to win in the Big Ten. Lickliter famously refused to play ball with AAU coaches, preferring to work through high school networks that, as we now know, mean little to today's recruits, even within the state of Iowa. He hired a local low-level collegiate head coach as his primary assistant due in large part to his knowledge of the high schools that produced talent for Loras. His basketball required a level of discipline reserved for service academies, and he lost players to transfer constantly. Lickliter was done in by losses and empty seats and transfers, to be sure, but repeated misses in the in-state recruiting battles (given visual personification when Harrison Barnes held his Signing Day event and Iowa's hat didn't even make it onto a table filled with hats) took their toll, especially when those losses showed up at Wisconsin and kicked his ass.

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After last season, Iowa lost a four-year starter to graduation. He was a kid who signed with Alford, stayed through Lickliter, and finally won with McCaffery, a player who put the team on his shoulders in February when his young teammates were gassed. Iowa also lost a mercurial, borderline-schizophrenic point guard who turned the ball over constantly but also did the improbable with striking regularity. Those losses should be enough to temper expectations for a team that has just one senior, went 18-17 a year ago, and plays in the nation's toughest conference. And yet, expectations are through the roof for the 2012-13 Hawkeyes. It's because of one thing: Fran McCaffery, the recruiter.

Where Steve Alford structured his coaching staff like a football team (there were coaches for guards, coaches for big guys, etc.) and Todd Lickliter structured his to stay out of the morass and still find some talent, McCaffery's Iowa staff is built not only to make him competitive in the modern collegiate basketball recruiting world, but to give him inherent advantages in the world of AAU basketball.

It starts with Sherman Dillard, the impeccably-dressed assistant and former Lefty Driesell disciple at the center of the Hawkeyes' AAU movement. Dillard is a former head coach, having spent ten years coaching between Indiana State and James Madison, and is no slouch with a clipboard. But the key to Dillard's role lies not in his work as a head coach, but in what he did when he left: He spent six years in charge of Nike's skill camps (his official title was Global Camp Director, which demands all caps), where the world's biggest shoemaker would bring in the best basketball talent from around the world to learn from Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. And you don't get that kind of talent to come learn basketball without connections. Dillard was responsible for the Kyle Meyer find, and his well-cultivated AAU links will pay off far more into the future.

Andrew Francis was a young assistant for McCaffery at Siena. Prior to that, he was a video assistant for Jay Wright at Villanova. Francis is young, hungry, and east coast-based. His Twitter feed reads like a basketball Anthony Bourdain, as he travels the schools, AAU tournaments, and pickup courts of the east coast and Midwest. Francis was the lead recruiter on Mike Gessell. That's really all you need to know.

Of course, the story isn't complete without an actual Lute Olson legacy component, and that's where we find Kirk Speraw, a former Lute-era Iowa point guard and assistant. Speraw spent 17 years as the head coach at Central Florida, making four NCAA Tournaments (not terrible for a team in a one-bid league). He was good enough that some were considering him as a dark horse candidate for the Iowa head coaching job after Alford left. Speraw excels as a tactician, but he's also pounded the pavement, and his Sioux City ties certainly don't hurt.

McCaffery himself is relentless. He's constantly on the road, attending high school games, doing that thing that the great ones do: Making his presence known to every player on his radar. Woodbury and Gessell have both mentioned their astonishment at finding McCaffery in the bleachers for games that were less than a day removed from Iowa's. He understands what his predecessor never did: That his presence is far more important for influence than for scouting. There is game tape available, but watching and scouting from game tape doesn't let you walk into a high school gym in black and gold and immediately draw the attention of everyone in attendance to you and, by extension, your target.

There were questions early in his tenure, to be sure. McCaffery lost Ben Brust (who probably could have helped) and Cody Larson (who probably couldn't). He strung along Wes Washpun for months while chasing other point guards, only to have Washpun leave for Tennessee (again, probably not a big loss in retrospect). But he retained Marble and McCabe, and his ability as a talent scout is unparalleled (see Aaron White), and any injustice was forgiven in September, when McCaffery landed Gessell and Woodbury in quick succession. Iowa had signed one four-star recruit since 2000. McCaffery added two in a month, and in doing so, shook off a Roy Williams full court press for a player Iowa desperately needed. The Lickliter era was done. The demons of Dr. Tom had been exorcised.

The expectations are too high for a team that will feature two freshmen in the nation's best basketball conference. But it's nice just to have expectations again. It's been a decade since we expected anything from Iowa basketball. It's been a generation since we aimed this high. It's been, quite literally, a lifetime since Lute was here. And Lute's program is back.

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