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Is Iowa Taking a Gamble With Fran McCaffery? If So, Is That A Bad Thing?

Calculated risk
Calculated risk

It seems to me that professional and collegiate coaching are, by nature, a fairly conservative enterprise. I have no statistics to back-up this claim, it's a completely anecdotal observation and before I go any further let me explain what I mean by conservative---I mean coaching is a mostly conformist, conventional, traditional and cautious enterprise. Now, there is some evidence to support this notion. As a real quickie example of what I mean would be the Belichick moment last year. Against the Colts, deep in his own territory and late in the game, the madman went for it on fourth down---and his Patriots were winning at the time! While there was some support for the decision the next day, the majority opinion that I heard on talk radio, and read on blogs and in the newspapers was that it was an fairly reckless decision and the outcome proved it to be so. The Patriots lost on a last minute Colt's drive thanks to the short field handed over on a platter by Belichick's gamble, or so said the conservatives. Or here is a less specific one; there is the endless discussion masquerading as debate of whether or not a basketball team should foul an opposing team on the final possession when leading by 3 points. The thinking being that two free throws does nothing to advance the cause of the opponent and by fouling a player (not in the act of shooting mind you) you insure he cannot make a 3-point shot and tie the game and send it in to overtime. Almost every coach agrees with the tactic in theory, yet it almost is never employed. There are infinitely more examples of sport's conservative nature. But this is not a piece arguing for or against conservative decision-making in coaching. This is about trying to understand Fran McCaffery's mind.

We don't know a lot about Fran McCaffery the man, much less his mind. We don't really know if he is a conservative coach or not? We don't know if he is smart enough to push the right buttons at Iowa and get this program back on track. Hell, we don't even know what his blueprint is for this job, or if he even has one. We do know, however, that he has an exceptional education.

Fran majored in Economics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most highly regarded business school in America, which is nestled within one of the more rigorous universities in the Ivy League. When he was 26 years old Lehigh hired him and made him the youngest head coach in Division I basketball that year (1986) and in his spare time, when he wasn't coaching his team to a spot in the NCAA tournament (which he did two years after he was hired), he was earning a graduate degree in education. So we know the man has racked up some pretty spiffy scholarly credentials. But does that mean he's particularly smart? I mean, many a man and woman has achieved similar educational accomplishments while deeply engaged in a time consuming profession and done so merely thanks to discipline and hard work. Maybe, just maybe, Fran is a guy who is easily focused in the classroom and so why not chase down some fancy parchment paper. Or maybe he's a degree junky, perhaps he's one of them. Although, I don't want to take his academic credentials too lightly either, especially when you consider that within the ranks of the coaching profession far too many of these guys were barely able to grind out a degree as a Physical Education major. Ironically enough this is nothing new to Iowa fans. They've seen this kind of man before. Dr. Tom Davis earned a doctorate in History while he was simultaneously learning the ins and outs of the full court press and the bounce pass. My point I guess is that a head coach with a good education does not necessarily mean a coach with a sharp mind. Having a well-educated coach is exotic though, so we should factor it in when thinking about who and what we have here in Coach Fran McCaffery. So let us keep sifting through the scraps of information we are able to gather about our new coach, and his mind.

At his press conference Coach Fran rattled off a list of strategies he expects to employ as coach at Iowa to get the job done. Whether it is half court sets, ball screens, an up-tempo offense, or a match-up zone, man-to-man defense (and he listed more than I can recall) McCaffery said he's willing to try them all or, if need be, abandon them at a moments notice depending on the conditions. This answer was a blinking neon light to me and I even jotted it down on paper when he said it. But again, coaches have said these sorts of things before only to end up running the same offense and same defense for weeks on end without so much as a single wrinkle thrown in. Consider, just as an aside, that Todd Lickliter did not use a full court press a single time that I can recall this season, not even when there was nothing left to lose. There is the viable supporting argument for this though in the form of Kirk Ferentz, who has always felt it is better to be good at one or two things than to spread yourself thin in an effort to do many things just okay. But football has more parts and pieces than basketball and comparing football strategy and basketball strategy has always struck me as a waste of time. At the very least, I find it almost never helps me to look at either sport with a more refined eye. But back to McCaffery's answer at the press conference. He had a chance to define his basketball style, his system and his response was to say that he would do whatever the situation presented him. Well, what he really said was, "We'll play basketball the right way." Which sounded for a moment like he was saying the players will do whatever he asks them to do or they will play with class and integrity or something. But I got it. I understood him. He was saying that what he does as a coach is not a sound bite. His style is not some branded product. What he does is arm his players with all kinds of tools and then he tells them to be prepared to use them all, and to him that is the right way to play. Which is kind of radical really.

These days it is more common than rare for a so-called quality coach to be admired for his system, for which he is known to be very faithful...a particular strategy he uses with a stingy exclusivity. Star coaches are applauded for their strictly controlled loyalty to their system, and even when their system fails to produce there is still applause because he "stuck to his guns" and didn't "cave in," he is still lauded because he "wouldn't back down." Maybe I am reading McCaffery as a radical because we're in the age of hyper branding and it's not a very compelling pitch to say, "my calling card is I have no calling card. I do what I have to do whenever I have to do it. I am committed to nothing in particular but find everything worthwhile and useful." No, not even Zig Ziglar could sell that. It might just be that Fran McCaffery fell into Iowa's lap because he's not brand-able.

Economists are known to analyze things like this (if your still with me). Malcolm Gladwell, for example, is America's popularizer of economic studies. In his book Blink he uses the story of Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine Corp General to poke holes in the notion of conventional wisdom. Van Riper played Saddam Hussein in a war games challenge put together by the Pentagon as a ramp-up to the Iraq War. Van Riper ripped the American military a new asshole in the games, despite possessing fewer resources, fewer men, and so forth. Gladwell's argument was that Van Riper used tactics that were unorthodox and went against the grain of conventional military thinking, which "sped up the game" and made the war one of instinct and reaction instead of point, counterpoint. Gladwell would go on to argue that the more powerful "team" was forced into a defensive posture by Van Riper's unorthodox, ever-changing tactics, thus rendering the American's superior technique and conventional strategy with which they were expert...almost useless. Perhaps this is the kind of thought process that informs McCaffery's coaching style. 

At the press conference it seemed to me that McCaffery put forth, or stumbled upon, a theme in his answers. He portrayed himself as adaptable, and when you look at his basketball resume it's hard not to be convinced. This is a guy who has coached in three of the five geographic regions of the U.S., he's coached at two small private school with limited resources, a small private school with abundant resources, and a state school with practically no resources at all. As a head coach he's won at each and every stop after taking over a program that was in less than ideal shape, which suggests at the very least that he's not discombobulated by change and can adapt to circumstance. One could even say his adaptability was obvious as far back as when he was a college student, as he transferred from Wake Forest to U Penn, from one coach to another and was highly successful at both schools. So big deal, he's adaptable. Whoopie ding dong. Right? Well, not so fast.

I believe that people who are able to adapt, manage and thrive amidst change, acclimatize to it effortlessly and successfully, instill an acceptance of it, even make it comfortable for people, are highly intelligent people. Change is complex and challenging. It forces people outside of their comfort zone. Change makes people cognitively think through things they might otherwise do subconsciously. An example of this is tourists in NYC. When you walk down the street in Manhattan you can pretty easily spot a tourist, even one without a camera. How? They are the ones staring at that which the locals have long since forgotten about, the tall buildings. Tourists are always looking awe. It is a dead giveaway. No town in the U.S., and few in the world offer anything like the NYC skyline. It is a big change to be in a town with this kind of scale. But it's not just tall buildings or the myriad of uniquely New York City things that bring out this sort of behavior; it is even common things like crossing the street. New York City has crosswalks with walk/don't walk signs, just like everywhere else in America, but tourists very often look back and forth and back again when the sign says walk, before crossing the street. Why? Because it's a wholly new place, and in their minds they have to negotiate so much they even negotiate the recognizable. By the end of the day they're exhausted from all the thinking. Sociologists even have a name for this, they call it culture shock.  Now, the truth is all this newness is a lot of fun on a vacation, indeed that is often the purpose of a see and do new things. But imagine if every day of your life was like being a tourist on your first day in Manhattan. For most people it would be a nightmare. In everyday life, at some point, people just want to turn their brain off and cross the street without really thinking about it. But here's the thing, smart people have a huge tolerance for this, they like to have things be complex and difficult because it allows them to use their gifts, whereas dumb people....not so much.

Adaptability is a very nice feature to have as a human, but as a coach we don't often think about its value. Maybe it is because a lot of coaches really try to limit and reduce things down to systems and make things highly structured so there are no surprises and the outgrowth of that is...inflexibility and conservatism. The NFL coaches are fucking pissed, almost to a man, at the new overtime rules. Why? They have to make decisions now that before had become utterly conventional and rote. But I'm betting Belichick is just fine with the new rule. For him, I am assuming, he thinks this could provide him another edge.

Smart people generally do smart things, and in a competitive arena that means trying to force your opponents brain to hurt. Maybe Fran McCaffery is on to something. Maybe this whole "do whatever is needed to do" attitude is a kind of radical reinvention. But hey, maybe Fran McCaffery just looks like a smart guy. Maybe Fran McCaffery is really just another pedestrian mid-major coach who's been one-step ahead of exposure his whole career. Maybe. I'll look forward to finding out. 



SUBJECT: From a Siena Fan

Just read your post on Fran’s style of play and him coming off as being “adaptable” based on the circumstances.

His first year at Siena, they were coming off a 6-24 season and after the previous coach was fired – a couple of players bolted, the signed recruits asked out of their commitments and Fran was left with 5 or 6 scholarship players, and had his best returning player – the only post player, go down with an Achilles during a summer league game.  Siena was picked dead last in the MAAC, not expected to win a game in the league and maybe not for the season.  The tallest starter was 6’4.  Well, we knew from the first game – a close loss at Penn (who was the best team in the Ivy, and very good under Fran Dunphy at the time) – that Fran might know what the hell he is doing.  Siena wound up 10-8 in MAAC play, good for 4th, and 15-13 overall.  They played an up-and-down style – press, halfcourt traps, tried to force turnovers and tried to limit turnovers.  They would get tattoed on the glass on a nightly basis – but were winning a lot of games, several by double-digits.

Fran’s 2nd year at Siena, he had the big recruiting class that just finished their senior year this year (3 straight NCAA Tournaments) come on board – but had the post player back that had ruptured his Achilles the previous summer.  Siena still played uptempo – but the offense now ran through the post, instead of through the 5 guards he had to work with the previous season.  Again – the ball went through the post, he was playing 3 freshman 30-35 minutes a night and they won 20 games and had a chance to send the conference tournament title game to overtime in the last 10 seconds.  Two years down – two different styles of play – two successful season.

After that, years 3, 4 and 5 resulted in Siena emerging as a mid-major power – size, quickness, athleticism – the style of play was what Fran aims for – uptempo, mix the defense – but the team was still able to adapt – grinding out wins over teams that focus on tough defense or running teams that wanted to run into the ground.  I think last year’s NCAA Tournament is a perfect example – Siena gets Ohio State (in Ohio) in the first round – tough, physical, defense-oriented game – not the way Siena wants to play – but Fran had them there right at the end of the game and Siena made the plays in overtime to win.  Two days later they’re playing the #1 overall seed in Louisville – who wants to press, trap, get out in transition – opposite of what Ohio State wanted to do……5 minutes left in the game and who has a 4 point lead?

You guys hit a homerun.


Siena Fan (the fan asked it to be anonymous)