Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year. --Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave (1853)
It must have seemed almost impossible to those that had loyally attended Iowa basketball since the Lute years, or even the Dr. Tom years. That Iowa, a historically robust basketball program with substantial (Top 25) annual home attendance and sustained success, as measured by NCAA tournament invites, had in a matter of less than a decade become...this. Gary Barta was up against it, and by it you can imagine a wall the height of the Hoover Dam. Another poor hire to follow up two previously dreadful hires, might just put Iowa basketball back to the dark ages. And then this happened:
"I made it clear from minute one that I wanted to be your coach."
So said Fran McCaffery on the day of his introduction as new head coach of Iowa basketball. The cynic could've heard that and calculated that Fran McCaffery must have been pretty damn hard up for a job and was, as is expected of new coaches waxing poetic about their new digs, blowing smoke. But on the contrary, Fran McCaffery was a proven rebuilder of programs, coming off arguably his greatest rebuild to date, and was sitting on the job market with probably the second best resume out there, and he did not need Iowa and its rebuilding job for the ages, nearly as badly as Iowa needed him.
Iowa basketball by March of 2010 had, outside of its conference affiliation, nothing going for it. It had become a joke. Fans had abandoned the program, as had the players. The program had all the makings of a John Carpenter movie set; the program had become "Escape from Iowa City." It did not help matters that the national basketball scene in the spring of 2010 was not exactly ideal for a coaching search, especially for a vulnerable, wounded duck Iowa program. There were a number of other programs that were probably richer in resources (money, players, fan enthusiasm), sitting in the middle of talent pools that would make Iowa look like a basketball Siberia, and they too were looking for a coach. Most of these programs on the hunt were poised for quicker turnarounds too, as they were coming off much more favorable recent circumstances. Auburn, Boston College, Clemson, DePaul, Oregon, Rutgers, St. John's, Seton Hall, and Wake Forest were just some of the programs out looking for a new head coach at the time. There were no obvious avenues for Gary Barta to go down. No coach envisioning Iowa as his dream job; no coach with any worthwhile resume anyway. Former assistant and fan favorite for the job, Bruce Pearl, was firmly entrenched at Tennessee at the time and about to go on an Elite Eight run in the NCAA tournament. He wasn't going to throw that away for the program reduced to rubble that was Iowa at the time, and at a likely lateral move salary-wise (at best). No other desirable coaches with even tacit links to Iowa existed.
Complicating matters, Iowa was not sitting on a strong hand for their search either as its previous head coach, Todd Lickliter, had not only stripped the place of any luster but had left with a good deal of earmarked money as well - thanks to his handsome payout. Thus, it was unlikely Iowa would be in a strong position to outbid other similarly interested programs for the services of any broadly coveted new head coach. Tom Izzo did his best to undermine Iowa's search with some wounding comments about the program from his perch as the de facto dean of Big Ten coaches, stating that he was outraged that Lickliter was let go at all and especially after only three years. The firing led Izzo to, in essence, refer to Iowa basketball as a coaching wasteland, even offering up Alford as evidence of his claims. In the "what have you done for me lately" culture of college athletics, Iowa basketball was limping into a coaching search. Few thought Iowa a worthwhile destination.
"He's a good choice. But I didn't think he was going to go that route. I thought he'd go for one of the Eastern openings, like Seton Hall or St. John's. That seemed like more of a natural progression. I was surprised when his name popped up at Iowa." -Dick Vitale upon hearing that McCaffery was hired by Iowa.
Fran McCaffery for reasons not fully understood by the likes of Vitale and others found the Iowa situation to his liking. He had the perfect resume for the kind of rebuilding job Iowa would be, and history shows it was no easy task for even a skilled program-maker like McCaffery. Upon arrival some players were too skeptical of the daunting task ahead of McCaffery and begged out of their scholarship offer (Ben Brust) or would leave a secured one behind (Aaron Fuller, and then later Cully Payne). Fran came in and immediately settled down an anxious program and four years later Iowa has three consecutive post-season tournaments under their belt, soon to include the most prestigious of them all, the NCAA tournament. But how have some of the other programs that were in search of a new coach in 2010 fared? Better or worse than Iowa? Let's take a look.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 24-12, 15-17 (39 wins in prior two seasons)
New hire & Salary: Tony Barbee, $1.5 million annually.
Record since hiring: 11-20, 15-16, 9-23, 14-16
Current job status: Fired
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 22-12, 15-16 (37 wins)
New hire & Salary: Steve Donahue, estimated at $1 million annually.
Record since hiring: 21-13, 9-22, 16-17, 8-24
Current job status: Fired today. (UPDATE: courtesy of PSD)
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 23-9, 21-11 (44 wins)
New hire & Salary: Brad Brownell, $1.2 million annually.
Record since hiring: 22-12, 16-15, 13-18, 20-12
Current job status: Solid. 1-year extension granted in 2011 (to 2017). In NIT this year.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 9-24, 8-23 (17 wins)
New hire & Salary: Oliver Purnell, $1.8 million annually.
Record since hiring: 7-24, 12-19, 11-21, 10-16
Current job status: On the hot seat.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 8-23, 16-16 (24 wins)
New hire & Salary: Dana Altman, $2 million annually.
Record since hiring: 21-18, 24-10, 28-8, 22-8
Current job status: Rock solid. In NCAA tourney for second straight year.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 11-21, 15-17 (26 wins)
New hire & Salary: Mike Rice, $1.1 million annually
Record since hiring: 15-17, 14-18, 15-16
Current job status: Fired in 2013 for violating conduct clause.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 16-18, 17-16 (33 wins)
New hire & Salary: Steve Lavin, $2 million annually.
Record since hiring: 21-12, 13-19, 17-16, 20-11
Current job status: Solid. In NIT this year.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 17-14, 9-21 (26 wins)
New hire & Salary: Kevin Willard, $1 million annually.
Record since hiring: 13-17, 21-13, 15-18, 15-16
Current job status: Shaky. Probably has to earn NCAA bid next year to keep job.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 24-7, 20-11 (44 wins)
New hire & Salary: Jeff Bzdelik, unknown but probably in excess of the $1.3 million paid at previous job (Colorado).
Record since hiring: 8-24, 13-18, 13-18, 17-16
Current job status: Probably will be fired soon.
Record in two years prior to coaching search: 15-16, 10-22 (25 wins)
New hire & Salary: Fran McCaffery, $1.5 million annually (just received a raise)
Record since hiring: 11-20, 18-17, 25-13, 20-12
Current job status: Rock solid. New raise. In NCAA tournament this year.
Of the 10 coaches hired by major basketball programs in spring of 2010, only two have their teams in the NCAA tournament in, this, the fourth year of their tenure -- the year in which the majority, if not all players are their recruits: Altman and McCaffery.
Of all the coaches listed above only Altman (95) has more wins in his four years as coach than Fran (74). Altman was a mildly surprising hire by Oregon. In 2007, Altman accepted the coaching job at Arkansas before changing his mind after being introduced by the school. Altman who was highly successful for many years at mid-major Creighton was highly coveted every year by larger programs but had asserted his commitment to Creighton and seemed destined to end his career there. Altman was likely never considered by Barta, for even a second, mainly due to salary requirements.
It is fair to say that Fran has been an exceptionally good hire. But, more than that, he has far out-performed his class. As you can plainly see, hiring a new coach comes with considerable risk. Iowa would be well served to lock-up Fran for the foreseeable future. His salary is likely below his market value, even with his recent raise, and in the fickle world of college basketball there is no doubt that his agent is receiving exploratory phone calls.