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Free-For-All Friday: How Does Fran McCaffery Become the Greatest Coach in Iowa Basketball History?

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What does Fran McCaffery need to do to be remembered as one of the greatest coaches in Iowa Basketball history? Hint: Win. A lot.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa
The first 7 years of the Fran McCaffery era have been great. How does he become the greatest?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Jerry: Jonah, I have a present for you!

MAZELTOV!

I figured since I was starting out this bad boy for once, I’d surprise YOU with a gif that represented where you are in life now. Also, this is absolutely off topic but can you or someone in the comments section definitively tell me how to say “gif” properly? Do you say it as if it's the peanut butter brand or with the hard “G”? I need to know so I don’t sound like a dumb nerd… just a regular one. Editors note: it’s pronounced with a hard G.

Anyways, now that we got that out of the way, a few weeks ago we talked about our love for Fran McCaffery. In fact, I would say that it was probably beyond love. I think we are safely in the Kool-Aid sippin’ fan boy zone.

But, I was thinking about it this past week and while The Franimal is the perfect coach for the basketball program I choose to obsess over, the man is by no means a “perfect coach”. Now, as a human, he’s perfection. He’s got that perfectly groomed, all grey, side part, those perfectly sized “Dad that runs Iron Man’s for funsies” Nike glasses and has children that are killing the sports game right now.

But, he has his flaws like any other college basketball coach.

So my question for you this week is, what are the things that McCaffery needs to improve on as a coach/recruiter to make the next 3-8 years one of (if not) the most productive run in Iowa basketball history?

JPinIC: Ahhh, Jerry, it’s so good to be back my man. And thank you for that glorious gif(t) - see what I did there? That so aptly captures the stage of life I feel I’ve now entered, I really don’t think there’s more to say on it other than to warn you that not only do I have two weeks of pent up gif-ing to do, I’m also finally embracing my inner dad and will also be working in bad puns and dad jokes to spice things up.

So, as the resident old guy now, I think I have a responsibility to point out from the start here that making any sort of opinion on how to make the next several years the most productive in Iowa history, we have to take a trip down memory lane and identify what the current most productive stretch in program history is so we have the benchmark.

To that end, I think it makes the most sense to go in chronological order and walk through some of the high points of an Iowa Basketball program that comes in as the 23rd best in college basketball according to the AP’s list of top 100 programs based on appearances in the rankings.

Coincidentally, I think chronological order also kind of puts things into descending order. So we start at what I think is the apex with Bucky O’Connor in the ‘50s. Now, I know I’m kind of the resident old guy around here, but no, I wasn’t around for these times. So take any opinions here with a grain of salt I suppose, but the numbers speak for themselves in my opinion.

During the 7-year stretch of O’Connor’s tenure as head coach from 1951 until his death in 1958, Iowa went 114-51, good enough for the second-highest winning percentage of any coach in Iowa history. But he also wracked up a pair of runner-up finishes in the Big Ten and a pair of Big Ten Championships and Final Four appearances in back-to-back season in ‘54-’55 and ‘55-’56, capped by a loss in the NCAA Championship to the San Francisco Dons and Bill Russell.

For a program that’s been to three Final Fours in its history, having a coach take the team to the promised land in back-to-back season is damn impressive. A big part of that was the “Fabulous Five” O’Connor recruited to Iowa.

From Wikipedia:

Under O'Connor, Iowa would see unparalleled success in what some consider the most successful era in Iowa history. In 1953, Iowa finished second in the Big Ten behind the efforts of a starting lineup fully composed of sophomores. As juniors, the "Fabulous Five" won the Big Ten outright and eventually finished fourth in the nation. In 1956, as seniors, they again won the Big Ten outright and finished second in the nation only to Bill Russell and the undefeated San Francisco Dons.

Here’s a look at his accomplishments by year.

Bucky O’Connor Results by Year

Year School Coach Record Conference Big Ten Rank Post Season
Year School Coach Record Conference Big Ten Rank Post Season
1951-52 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 19-3 11-3 2nd
1952-53 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 12-10 9-9 6th
1953-54 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 17-5 11-3 2nd
1954-55 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 19-7 11-3 1st NCAA FINAL FOUR
1955-56 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 20-6 13-1 1st NCAA RUNNER-UP
1956-57 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 8-14 4-10 8th
1957-58 Iowa Bucky O'Connor 13-9 7-7 6th
Totals 114-59 (.659) 71-41(.634)*

Really impressive stuff and makes you wonder what could have been if he hadn’t tragically lost his life in an auto accident at the age of 44. Following his passing, Iowa saw former Fab Five member Sharm Scheuerman take the reins, but not reach the heights of O’Connor. He was followed by Ralph Miller and Dick Schultz. But it wasn’t until the late ‘70s when the Hawkeyes would make a run at the success they had seen under O’Connor. The coach to lead them there? A guy you might’ve heard of: Lute Olson.

To me, Lute comes as close as anyone to matching O’Connor. He led Iowa to its only other Final Four appearance in 1980 and reached the NCAA Tournament in five consecutive seasons to end his career with the Hawkeyes. At 168-90, Olson’s winning percentage of .651 comes close to matching O’Connor and Iowa never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten under his leadership. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown:

Lute Olson Results by Year

Year School Record Big Ten Big Ten Standing Post Season
Year School Record Big Ten Big Ten Standing Post Season
1974–75 Iowa 10–16 7–11 7th
1975–76 Iowa 19–10 9–9 5th
1976–77 Iowa 20–7 12–6 4th
1977–78 Iowa 12–15 5–13 8th
1978–79 Iowa 20–8 13-5 T-1st NCAA First Round
1979-80 Iowa 23–10 10–8 4th NCAA Final Four
1980–81 Iowa 21–7 13–5 4th NCAA First Round
1981–82 Iowa 21–8 12–6 2nd NCAA Second Round
1982–83 Iowa 21–13 10–8 T-2nd NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Total 168–90 (.651) 91–71 (.562)

Perhaps the best argument for having Lute ahead of O’Connor is the fact that he ushered in what has to be considered the golden age of Iowa Basketball. Following the five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under Olson, George Raveling took the Hawkeyes to a pair of tournaments in three seasons and brought in some of the best talent Iowa has ever seen. After his departure in 1986, Iowa entered the Tom Davis era.

Under Davis, the Hawkeyes went to 9 NCAA Tournaments in 13 seasons, reaching an Elite Eight and the Sweet Sixteen twice and only finished with fewer than 20 wins three times, one of which was a 19-11 season in ‘91-’92 that still saw Iowa reach the second round of the Tournament.

Despite the high floor, the ceiling remained below that of Olson or O’Connor as Dr. Tom never won a Big Ten Championship or reached the Final Four. That said, his longevity and record of 269-140 (.658 winning percentage) easily place him on the Mount Rushmore of Iowa Basketball coaches for me.

From wikipedia:

Dr. Tom Davis took over from George Raveling and coached the Hawkeyes for 13 seasons from 1986–87 to 1998–99. Davis's signature was running the full court press defense for the entire game and using rapid, continuous substitution. In his first season, the Hawkeyes won their first 18 games and obtained the No. 1 ranking in the AP and UPI polls for the first time in school history. That squad won a school-record 30 games and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, losing to UNLV 84–81. Retaining their key stars B.J. Armstrong, Ed Horton, and Roy Marble for the following season, the Hawkeyes began the 1987–88 season ranked in the top five by most polls and publications. Iowa would make it to the Sweet Sixteen, avenging their loss to UNLV in the Second Round, before losing to former coach Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats. In all, Davis led the Hawkeyes to nine NCAA Tournaments, winning every First Round game in the process. In his final season, Iowa returned to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to eventual National Champion UConn. Under Davis the Hawkeyes also made two appearances in the National Invitational Tournament. He is the all-time winningest coach in Iowa history with 269 wins.

Here’s the year-by-year breakdown for Dr. Tom:

Dr. Tom Results by Year

Year School Record Big Ten Big Ten Standing Post Season
Year School Record Big Ten Big Ten Standing Post Season
1986–87 Iowa 30–5 14–4 3rd NCAA Elite Eight
1987–88 Iowa 24–10 12–6 3rd NCAA Sweet Sixteen
1988–89 Iowa 23–10 10–8 4th NCAA Second Round
1989–90 Iowa 12–16 4–14 T–8th
1990–91 Iowa 21–11 9–9 T–5th NCAA Second Round
1991–92 Iowa 19–11 10–8 5th NCAA Second Round
1992–93 Iowa 23–9 11–7 T–3rd NCAA Second Round
1993–94 Iowa 11–16 5–13 T–9th
1994–95 Iowa 21–12 9–9 T–7th NIT third round
1995–96 Iowa 23–9 11–7 4th NCAA Second Round
1996–97 Iowa 22–10 12–6 T–2nd NCAA Second Round
1997–98 Iowa 20–11 9–7 T–5th NIT first round
1998–99 Iowa 20–10 9–7 T–3rd NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Totals 269–140 (.658) 125–105 (.543)

With Dr. Tom’s, uhhh, departure in 1999, the golden age of Iowa Basketball officially ended in my eyes. Because anyone perusing this site is almost certainly aware of the happenings of the Hawkeys since the turn of the millenium, I’m not going to bore anyone be re-hashing the REDACTED days or the utter mess that was Todd Lickliter. But, for context, I think we should think about where we are now under the Franimal.

We are entering year eight under McCaffery, which is one year beyond the tenure of Bucky O’Connor and will put him even with REDACTED. He took over the program and has done what has to be considered the greatest rebuild in the program’s history (I said I wasn’t going to re-hash it, but I will just remind you that the best season under Lickliter was a 15-win year that ended in a 10th place finish in the Big Ten in 2009 - ugh). We’ve gone from an 11-20 season in Fran’s first year to back-to-back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, and into the first rebuilding year of his tenure last season. And in that “rebuilding year,” Iowa was a few plays (or calls - eye roll) away from the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive year. And the future is bright.

Here’s a look at the results year-by-year under Fran:

Fran Results by Year

Season School Overall Big Ten Big Ten Standing Postseason
Season School Overall Big Ten Big Ten Standing Postseason
2010–11 Iowa 11–20 4–14 10th
2011–12 Iowa 18–17 8–10 7th NIT 2nd Round
2012–13 Iowa 25–13 9–9 6th NIT Runner-Up
2013–14 Iowa 20–13 9–9 6th NCAA Play-In Round
2014–15 Iowa 22–12 12–6 3rd(T) NCAA 2nd Round
2015–16 Iowa 22–11 12–6 3rd(T) NCAA 2nd Round
2016–17 Iowa 19-15 10–8 5th(T) NIT 2nd Round
Total 137–101 (.576) 64–62 (.508)

So, if I’m ranking Iowa Basketball coaches all-time right now, I think I go O’Connor, Olson, Dr. Tom, and Fran in that order. To the elephant in the room here: yes, I already have Fran ahead of REDACTED. In one fewer season, he has as many NCAA appearances and more NCAA tournament wins. If, in his eighth season, Fran can win 16 games, he’ll have more overall wins and the winning percentage will be close. Oh, and Fran did that coming off of the total disaster that was Todd Lickliter, not a full cupboard from a Sweet Sixteen run left by Dr. Tom for REDACTED.

Now, before I dive into what I think needs to be done to jump O’Connor, Olson and Davis, let me ask you, Jer, how do you think he stacks up as of today?

Hello Jerry: I honestly just can’t believe you did so much research. Usually you spend your precious time looking for the right gif’s, not statistics. Bravo, Jonah. Two kids looks good on you.

Anyways, a couple of thoughts from your Wiki-dump:

  1. Bucky O’Connor sounds like a character from a Steven Spielberg World War II movie. “If you want to live, O’Connor, I need you to give up your life. Do you think you can do that for me? ANSWER ME BUCKY! ANSWER ME, DAMNIT.” I think I just created fan fiction about an Iowa basketball coach from the 50’s… it’s been a long week.
  2. I went into a deep rabbit hole about Milton “Sharm” Scheuerman. Not only did he look like the 1950’s version of Brock Lesnar mixed with Biff from Back to the Future, he also took over as the head coach of the Hawkeyes when he was 24 years old after Bucky passed away tragically. Shouts to Sharm always and forever. I’m 28 and I write for a blog and am in “sales management.” Sharm had already coached Donnie Nelson by the time he was my age.
  3. The San Francisco Don’s were ELITE back in the day. People forget that.
  4. Thank you for pre-ranking McCaffery over REDACTED. It’s not even close. If revisionist history wants to claim McCaffery’s NCAA Tournament teams are of the one-and-done kind, take a look at REDACTED’s history in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments.

McCaffery has some work to do, but like I mentioned before in our FFF, we are getting to the point where we don’t HAVE to see the forest through the trees. The tree in front of us is beautiful and big and it looks like a consistent Top-25 tree.

In terms of his coaching up to this point, I think you need to look at McCaffery’s tenure in thirds. The first three years he was trying to pull rabbits out of a hat while building back up the Iowa brand name. The second three years was all about getting back to the NCAA Tournament and getting out of the first round (something that he can then pitch to the top talent in his pipelines). Now, having accomplished both of those feats, it’s about bringing in the best possible talent to run his style of basketball (dude has legit Top-100 recruiting capabilities now) and creating a top-tier Big Ten team along the likes of Wisconsin.

This past season was the first year of the latter third. Not a bad start, especially when you consider the freshman that blossomed right in front of our eyes, the talent that’s coming in (ALL THE UTHOFF’s) and the type of recruits that are looking at Iowa City as a future potential home.

It’s very, very bright.

But with that said, what will it take in the next two-three seasons to skip past Dr. Tom? What does he have to do as a coach to get them there?

Tom Davis Iowa
Dr. Tom had an amazing run at Iowa. Perhaps more amazing is the ability to win in those uniforms.

JPinIC: Well, I’m not even going to attempt to get into the actual things he needs to do as a coach as far as in practice or on the sidelines to get it done - I’m just not enough of a basketball guy to really tell you with any knowledge so I’ll leave it to you. But what I can do is look at the numbers and tell you what I think he needs to do from a results standpoint to be considered the best.

First, I think he needs longevity. I think he’s here for the long haul and he needs to be. I think he needs to be here at least 7 more years. He is currently sitting 132 wins behind Dr. Tom’s record for an Iowa coach. To top that over the next 7 years, Fran would need to win just over 22 games a season. That’s not outlandish, but nothing to scoff at either. I think most Iowa fans would be pretty happy if the Hawkeyes averaged 22 wins a year for the better part of the next decade. But getting there is going to take achieving the second thing I think Fran needs to be considered the greatest.

He needs to have a run like Lute had to end his tenure where he makes 4-5 NCAA Tournaments and he needs to have a couple deep runs. I think he needs at least one Final Four and a couple Sweet Sixteen appearances. Now THAT is a tall task. What’s more, I think Fran has basically two windows to do it unless he has a much longer tenure than Dr. Tom (which is entirely possible and if he accomplishes either of these two things I think he will absolutely deserve). The first window starts next year. Gasp!

No, really, he has to make the NCAA Tournament next season to have a shot at a run like Lute. The talented and incredibly large (6 members including RS Moss) freshman class from last year will be sophomores and they are the clear key to making a run. Add in Garza, Nunge and maybe Connor (spoiler alert! - signs continue to point to him not playing basketball for next year at a minimum) and you have a really good group of young guys. To rip off 4+ years in the tourney this group has to get there next year. In their junior year, they need to make a push toward the Sweet Sixteen and as seniors, they need to be pushing for the Elite Eight or more.

It might seem ridiculous to say, but barring a recruiting miracle (not out of the question) there will be another rebuild year after this massive group graduates. Now, I think Fran has upped the floor on recruiting to the point where I think the next rebuild will be even better than last year and Iowa can still make a tournament appearance in that year, but I don’t think they could make a deep run with 5+ freshmen. Likewise with that next big group as sophomores. So that second window for a deep run comes in ‘22-’23 and ‘23-24, or the end of the next 7-year period of the McCaffery era and what could be the end of his career at Iowa if we’re assuming he gets one more year than Dr. Tom. Again, if he manages a deep run or two OR is putting up 20+ wins a year and getting to the tourney, i think he deserves a longer leash than Dr. Tom got at the end of his time so this is all moot.

To get all that done, I think the key is talent. Fran has to keep improving the talent level the way he has the last 7 years. He needs to find a breakdown PG in the class of 2019 and another slasher to pair with Patrick McCaffery. And I think he needs to find a way to avoid another recruiting class of 4+ guys. I think he can get it done with grad transfers, JUCO guys and pure transfers to help balance things.

But what else, Jerry? Is there something he needs to do with his actual coaching? Late game timeouts? Substitution patterns? More team dinners with Margaret? Break it down for me man!

Hello Jerry: Wait, wait wait, Jonah. You’re talkin’ bout rebuilds? Already?

Did you forget that this past year McCaffery had to “rebuild” (Granted, with the freakishly long athletes that he so dearly covets and is able to target now without being laughed at) and STILL almost made the tournament while compiling 19 wins?

What are you seeing that screams rebuild? To me, it seems like you’ve been taking way too many naps with the boys.

Jack Nunge, Luka Garza and Connor McCaffery (he’s playing, don’t @ me) will be heading into their senior season when the current core of young guys graduate. Joe Weiskamp will be a sophomore and Patrick McCaffery will be ready to take the reigns as a jack of all trades freshman. Plus, McCaffery just offered Tyrell Terry a point guard in the class of 2019 and he looks pretty water buggy if that’s your thing:

Two important points that I want to bring up if only to convince you that a new brand of basketball is coming to Iowa City to the likes of which we’ve never seen before:

  1. I can’t wait to see the talent McCaffery gets to commit to Iowa City in the class of 2020 if he does in fact get Iowa into the Sweet 16 or further in the next two or three years. Guys want to play this brand of basketball… especially the super athletic ones. Tyler Cook is only the beginning. And if McCaffery goes all-in on the approach I think he’s going with, some of the top talent in the country is going to have to take a look. What’s that approach? I’m so glad you asked...
  2. … Do you REALLY think McCaffery needs a traditional point guard to run the system he wants to employ? I think we’re (yes, we’re) trending towards positionless basketball, where players are merely numbers on the floor and not “Point Guards” as we know them. I hate to steal from Jalen Rose, but he’s right when he says that we label these guys as “point guards” or “Power Forwards” to make the game easier to follow. But with the direction I think I see with McCaffery, it seems like he wants every player on the court at any given time to be able to play two or three positions, handle the ball and create good opportunities on the offensive end of the floor. That’s why Isaiah Moss, Nunge, Garza and Cook (along with Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kriener to a smaller degree) are so interesting to me. Can’t you see a future lineup of Jordan Bohannon/Moss/Nunge/Garza/Cook on the floor spread wide and going to town? Isn’t that fun as hell? On top of that, would you be shocked if Patrick McCaffery is running some “point” by the time he comes to campus? I wouldn’t. Look at this dude:

He’s going behind the back and crossing those “water bug” type dudes up and down the court.

I’m honestly giddy at the potential of it all.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the 4+ recruiting classes point though. I don’t much enjoy college free agency, but it would be amazing if Iowa had the potential to land Cal transfer Charlie Moore this year. There are quality transfers every year that McCaffery should be able to supplement as a way to create a sense of seniority when his roster looks young as well as a creative way to move scholarships around for recruits he feels like he NEEDS to land at a later date. Just because you have them, doesn’t mean you HAVE to use them on freshman. If you like two guys, get them and supplement with these quality transfers that can make an immediate impact on your roster.

Oh and that little thing about timeouts… yeah he needs to use them. Especially when the opponent is on a 12-0 run. Seems like it would be worth calling one every now and then. But I’m just a boob on the internet.

But back to the positionless basketball. When you look at the future of Iowa basketball through the lens I painted above, are you more optimistic? Are you still CRAVING a water bug? Can that type of basketball get McCaffery his 22-wins a year and a Final Four appearance or two?

JPinIC: Let me start by saying, YES, there will be another rebuild. The scholarship distribution dictates that it’s going to happen. But, as we saw this year, that doesn’t mean the team won’t make the tournament in future rebuilding years. That’s how far we’ve come.

Now, on to your point about recruiting and positions. I love the positionless basketball and that is pretty clearly where Fran is headed. To a point. I think he views the traditional 2-4 positions as interchangeable. But if you listen to him talk much, you start to hear him talk a lot about the luxury of having guys like Nunge and Garza coming in so Cook and Pemsl can play their natural position, the 4, and not slide to the 5. And he’s right. Unless the rest of the conference is going completely positionless as well, Tyler Cook’s minutes are limited if he is forced to defend a guy like Isaac Haas - a true, pure center who is playing with his back-to-the-basket and within 10 feet of the hoop. And, as you point out, Fran continues to throw out scholarship offers like candy at a Fourth of July parade to pure point guards who can get into the lane at will. So no, I’m not craving a “water-bug” PG, but Fran sure seems to.

Hello Jerry: I demand you put the “Y Tho” Meme here…

Thank you. You may proceed.

JPinIC: To me, that all points to future rosters of 3 guys in that 6’4” - 6’8” range who can handle the rock, knock it down from beyond the arc and don’t care what “position” they’re playing, and a pure point with a big man in the post for defense and rebounding. Based on the recruiting efforts to date, I think that “pure” point guard is likely to be a smaller, water-bug type (he’s been so close on guys like Ulis, Moore and Guerrero and continues to target them) and the “center” is going to be a guy 6’10” + who can run the floor and stroke it from at least mid-range, with the ability to hold his ground in the center of a zone or maned up against a guy like Haas.

I think Fran’s dream would be to have 2 of the PG types, 2 of the C types and then 9 guys who are all interchangeable. Everyone with the ability to run and everyone with the ability to knock it down from outside. And we’re getting there. If you look at next year, you are pretty close to that. The missing things, to me, are guys like Cook and Pemsl developing more of an outside shot and another pure PG.

I love JoBo as much as anyone, but he isn’t going to be penetrating to the rim at will in the Big Ten any time soon. He makes up for that by being one of the best shooters in the conference. After this season, you lose Uhl - I don’t think there’s much that’s walking off campus with him - and you replace him with Weiskamp. That’s a net positive and it’s not close. And I think that roster has a shot at a run. But the difference between a run and a Final Four is multiple guys on the floor who can break down their defender and get into the lane any time they feel like it.

It’s possible those guys are on the roster and just happen to be some of those “interchangeable” pieces. I hope so. I hope Isaiah Moss and Christian Williams and even Maishe Dailey grow and develop to the point where they can, on any given trip down the floor, isolate their defender and blow past him for an easy bucket or dump off to a wide open Bohannon/Weiskamp/Baer for three or slashing Nunge/Cook for a monster dunk. I hope. If not, the class of 2019 had better include someone who can do it and do it early in their career or Fran could struggle to bring us to the promised land.

I think I know your answer, but in wrapping this week up, I have to ask: do you think he gets it done? If so, how long does it take to get there?

Hello Jerry: As always, sir, you’re probably right. As much as I would love for McCaffery to stack Iowa with a bunch of Greek Freaks that can be your point, nailing a couple of those Ullis type point guards is a damn good consolation prize… especially if he continues to bring home the 6’7” bacon.

I think McCaffery can get us to the Elite Eight at least in the next few years. I’ll even call my shot. When this current core are seniors, I think that they not only will win the Big Ten but make one of the most exciting runs in the tournament that we’ve ever seen.

Damn right I’m a Kool-Aid sippin’, card carryin’, McCaffery believer. You should be too.