Yesterday marked the six-year anniversary of Iowa's hiring of Fran McCaffery to become the new head basketball coach.
Six year anniversaries aren't traditionally a big deal -- it's the "wood" anniversary, per Hallmark (which is rather fitting, since Adam Woodbury's last-second tip-in against Temple gave us one of the memories from this season that's sure to endure for years to come) -- but it's probably as good a time as any to take stock of Fran and his tenure at Iowa.
I don't think there's any Iowa fan that isn't grateful for what Fran has done to restore this program from the moribund state that he inherited it in from Todd Lickliter. Iowa had an express pass to the bottom of the conference in those years, with win totals dropping steadily and fan apathy rising at alarming rates. Fran injected energy and excitement into the program from his very arrival, even if it took a few years before Iowa was actually good enough to win more than half of their games. His results at Iowa steadily and consistently improved after that, at least until recently. And it's those recent results that have led to more discontent in the Iowa fanbase. I've seen it in the comments here in game threads and after losses. I've seen it in the @BHGP mentions. I've seen it on message boards, heard it on call-in shows, and experienced it in person at times -- that dissatisfaction or unrest with Fran (or at least some of his results) and the question of whether he can lead Iowa any higher. Seeing Iowa's 2014 late season swoon mirrored so eerily by this year's team was certainly unsettling and frustrating to behold. To be clear: I'm pretty confident that the #FireFran line of thought is a notion that's only being seriously advocated by the lunatic fringe of Hawkeye fandom. I believe that the vast majority of fans don't believe that a coaching change is needed. But the general discontent and frustration with Fran or some of his results is worth acknowledging and discussing, too.
This discussion also brings to mind a very good recent post from Dave Schwartz at Hawkeye Nation that attempted to provide an autopsy for Iowa's 2015-16 season. One of the most interesting points raised was whether or not the 2015-16 season was a success.
Except, Iowa raised expectations by starting 10-1 in the Big Ten and climbing to No. 3 in the country. Once that happened, we started talking about a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, and we *gasp* allowed ourselves to think Iowa might be a national title contender.
Then the Hawkeyes lost. Then they lost again, and again. They lost to lousy teams like Penn State and Illinois and fell to a No. 7 seed.
From that point of view - how far Iowa fell - the season missed expectations. But it missed expectations because the Hawkeyes set them so high to begin with. I suppose one's overall feeling toward this season will have to do with whether they're a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty personality.
If you had told me in November that Iowa would finish tied for 3rd in the Big Ten and make it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, I would have taken that in a heartbeat. I wasn't sure what to expect from this year's team, even with so many seniors and so much returning experience. I thought Iowa could be pretty good (for the record, I picked them to go 20-10, get an #8 seed and lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, which was pretty similar to what most of the BHGP braintrust predicted back in November), but how good depended on the emergence of some bench players and how much Iowa's seniors would improve.
But then the season happened and expectations got transformed as a result. I didn't realize that Jarrod Uthoff would elevate his game so much that he would become Iowa's first consensus All-American since 1952. I didn't realize that Peter Jok would improve dramatically and become an All-Big Ten player. I didn't realize that Iowa would sweep Michigan State -- and Purdue. I didn't realize that they would spend six weeks ranked in the AP top ten and a full month ranked in the AP top five. I didn't realize that they would dominate the Big Ten over the first half of the season and (seemingly) have a realistic chance at earning their first Big Ten title -- shared or outright -- in well over 30 years.
That's the thing about expectations: they're not locked in place. They change. They evolve. Iowa's high level of play in January set those lowered preseason expectations on fire and gave us license to dream big, and so we did. In hindsight, that Iowa team was a bit of a mirage; the Hawkeyes weren't really as good as they looked during that giddy stretch of play. But the fall from that dizzying height still hurt. Finishing in a tie for 3rd in the Big Ten sounds pretty good in the abstract... less so when it happens because you lost five of your final six regular season games and let a chance to claim at least a share of the Big Ten title slip through your grasp. Losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament doesn't sound too bad in the abstract, either, especially against a team that goes on to make the Final Four -- but it still stings when you spent so much of the season looking like a team that could easily make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and could possibly even challenge for more.
But I digress a bit. Fran's tenure at Iowa has had its bumps in the road, but overall it seems impossible to characterize it as anything more than a smashing success. Iowa's won 118 games over the last six years -- you have to go back to the run from 1992-93 to 1997-98 to find a stretch with more wins (120) than that. If you look at just the last four years, the period featuring this tremendous senior class, Iowa has won 89 games. You have to go back to the four year stretch from 1985-86 (the final year of George Raveling's tenure) to 1988-89 to find a better period (97 wins) and that includes the 30-5 1986-87 team, one of the best teams in school history. Iowa has won 20 or more games for four straight seasons, something only Lute Olson and Tom Davis have done before. (Although in fairness to some of Iowa's great old coaches like Bucky O'Connor, Sharm Scheuerman, and Pops Harrison, college basketball teams played a lot fewer games back in their day, which made it much harder to get to 20 wins.)
Iowa has finished with a .500 or better record in the Big Ten each of the last four years -- you have to go back to the end of the Dr. Tom Era to find a comparable run. In eight total seasons [REDACTED] only had three years with a .500 or better record in Big Ten play. Iowa has won back to back games in the NCAA Tournament, something they last did nearly 20 years ago (1995-96 and 1996-97). They've made three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament (and, yes, we're going to count the First Four; as each year goes by, those games start to feel more and more normal and more and more like part of the NCAA Tournament), which they last did in the early 90s.
I understand the frustration and dissatisfaction, particularly after the way the season ended. Fran certainly isn't an infallible or perfect coach -- not by a long stretch. I hope he uses the offseason to take a long look at everything -- his use (or non-use) of timeouts, his practice of sitting a player with two fouls for the remainder of the first half, his gameplans, his halftime speeches, his end-of-game coaching, his rotations, his treatment of the media, his recruiting, etc. Determine what's working and what's not working -- and come up with ideas on some new approaches for the things that aren't working. (The end-of-game coaching issue is one that seems to particularly need some fresh thinking; Iowa is 18-39 under Fran in games decided by six points or fewer, which is a truly wretched result in close games.)
But based on the success he's enjoyed through his first six seasons at Iowa, he certainly deserves an opportunity to try and fix his flaws and modify his approach to (hopefully) lead Iowa to bigger and better things. He's done a good job at Iowa -- a very good job, in fact. Iowa has been down the road of replacing a coach who had seemed to plateau at a "good, but not quite great" level -- and they spent the better part of a decade in the basketball wilderness as a result. Fear alone shouldn't dictate coaching changes (or non-changes), but we shouldn't forget or ignore the lessons of the past, either. If you're going to move on from a good coach, you'd better be very sure that a) you really don't think he can take your team any further and b) you have a good replacement lined up. Fran is a good coach -- possibly a very good one -- and the results we've seen from him so far bear (Baer?) that out. He's done a tremendous job of helping the Iowa program climb out of a deep, miserable hole and re-establish it as a program that can regularly place in the top half of the Big Ten and contend for NCAA Tournament appearances. But with that success comes new expectations -- higher expectations. That's just the nature of the beast. Can Fran take Iowa further than he has so far? That's TBD and we won't know the answer for a few more years yet. But based on the last six years, Fran has certainly earned a chance to find out.