When Fran McCaffery was named as the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes back in 2010, the program was in a state of disarray. The team was coming off three consecutive losing seasons. The prior three years they finished 8th, 10th and 9th respectively in the Big Ten. The roster was utterly devoid of talent and fan support was nonexistent. The fanbase was dejected, frustrated and flat out fed up with a coach who put little effort into recruiting, an offense which focused more on bleeding time than scoring points and a lack of any signs of life.
Enter Fran McCaffery.
It wasn’t a name I, or many Hawkeye fans had heard previously. Certainly not someone anyone had been clamoring for. But he wasn’t Todd Lickliter. That was enough for me to bail early from work with a coworker to see him formally introduced as the new head coach in April of 2010.
I left that introductory press conference as enthused about Iowa Basketball as I had been since March 16th, 2006. What wasn’t to love? Fran came in with an enthusiasm we hadn’t seen since the early days of REDACTED. He talked of speeding up the game, pressing on defense and getting out and running. He talked about attracting talent to a program rich is history. He talked about restoring Carver-Hawkeye Arena to its rightful place as a nightmare destination for opponents. He talked about getting mad again.
After a four year drought and a talent cupboard as bare as the Carver stands, getting back into March Madness sounded like a dream. And a coach with a track record of rebuilding programs into NCAA Tournament teams seemed like just the guy to do it. He gets a little riled up during games? Even better. We just spent three seasons with this:
There was nothing but excitement for the hire. And it wasn’t just limited to myself, my coworker or the Iowa fanbase in general. Beat writers, talking heads and basketball junkies were all on board with the fit of Fran McCaffery in Iowa City.
“Fran McCaffery is a good solid hire for the University of Iowa. Iowa has been hoping for a winner and I believe one has arrived. He’s won at Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro and Siena -- if you can win at those places, you can win anywhere. His teams are enjoyable to watch with their style of play; he lets his kids play free. If Iowa fans give Fran a little time, he’ll get the Hawkeyes back to the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis.”
That was from Doug Gottlieb at ESPN back in 2010. His colleage, Jay Bilas? Also on board.
“Fran McCaffery is a fine basketball coach, and an even finer person. He can teach the game, identify and attract talent, and he is a man of great substance and integrity. Iowa has made a great hire in McCaffery.”
This list of people lining up to compliment Fran’s resume, his personality and his charisma was longer than the list of players transferring out of the Iowa program under Lickliter.
Perhaps even more impressive, he actually delivered. After a first season much like those under his predecessor (even if they were much more exciting losses, they were still losses), things were headed in the right direction. Year two came with 18 wins and a trip to the NIT. Year three? 25 wins and a trip to the NIT championship. And by year four, Fran McCaffery had delivered on his promise to make Carver-Hawkeye mad again - the Hawkeyes were back in the NCAA Tournament. Recruiting was picking up (the roster now included a couple top-100 players, including a certain 7-footer Fran kept away from Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels) and fan support was at or above the levels before Lickliter.
Yet here we are, just under eight years after his hiring and people seem to be turning on Fran. We’re two years removed from our last NCAA Tournament appearance (let’s be realistic, that dream is long dead for this season). Fan support is waning, as Carver looks more and more like it did during those Lickliter years. And the consensus among the Iowa sports media seems to be that Fran’s sideline personality is no longer what they would like to see.
Quite frankly, all of that makes me mad. Again. Fran McCaffery is who Fran McCaffery was. Love him or hate him, he is the same man and same coach who was hired in 2010 and I don’t expect that to change much in the remainder of his tenure at Iowa.
Is he a defensive guru? No. It shows. Iowa’s defense has never been great under Fran and it’s exacerbated when there are woes on the offensive side of the ball. Long scoring droughts become deadly when his teams can’t get a stop at the other end of the floor. Both the poor defense and inconsistent offense seem much more prevalent when he has young teams. See Iowa Basketball, 2017-2018.
Does he get fired up on the sidelines? You’re damn right he does. You know why? He cares. A lot. He cares a hell of a lot more about winning and losing these games than anyone sitting in press row or behind a keyboard on a message board.
Can you imagine putting your life’s work into the hands of a bunch of 18-22 year old guys every week? I mean seriously, you put all this time into recruiting the guys you want, think you can get and who fit your program, then you hand it all over to them. You try to teach them the game and your gameplan and once the whistle blows, it’s on them to execute it.
And then you get this:
Look, Luka Garza is a freshman and he’s shown more accountability in some of these interviews than just about anyone I’ve watched. Maybe he’s buying in too much or maybe he’s just a little naive, but can you imagine sitting in Fran’s chair if this is the case? You’re working your ass off to prepare your team, trying to instill a sense of urgency in them. You put together a gameplan to beat an opponent and they come out without any intensity and throw the gameplan in the garbage, only to watch your opponent pull away to an almost insurmountable lead.
Yeah, I’m probably going a little nuts to light a fire under them too. But it doesn’t seem to be sinking in. Garza isn’t the only one talking about the team playing without intensity or sustaining effort.
After yet another home loss, this time to Ohio State, junior Nicholas Baer, the guy known for his energy and effort, had this to say to HawkCentral:
“It’s just a matter of continuing to sustain that effort. Not taking plays off, staying lively whenever they go on a run.”
Taking plays off? Staying lively? Fran runs one of the deepest rotations in college basketball, why in the world are guys taking plays off? It’s enough, as a coach, to make you blow up and snap a clipboard over your knee.
Tom Izzo snaps a clipboard over his knee during a "conversation" with Dane Fife.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) January 5, 2018
Wait, that wasn’t Fran? That was a guy widely respected in the coaching community and the media and who gets absolutely no flack whatsoever from officials? Well I’m sure he had more reason to blow up like that. Oh, his team is actually 15-2 and ranked first in the country (at the time)? Interesting.
And yet, the Iowa sports media seems to have had enough with Fran occasionally yelling either at his players or officials in the midst of this season. Give. Me. A. Break. The guy came here with a promise to make us mad again. He did. And now it seems the only people with any energy and passion left for this basketball team are the ones wearing suits on the sidelines.
There certainly doesn’t appear to be any of it from the guys in uniform on the sideline. At least not from anyone whose name isn’t Cook. Everyone seems to come out with some energy and confidence until roughly the first media timeout, at which point the opposing team inevitably goes on a ridiculous run while the Hawkeyes put forth little to no defensive effort and completely stall out on offense.
Take, for example, Ohio State. Iowa led 12-9 just before that first media timeout. Then the Buckeyes went on a 19-4 run. It was early, but it sealed the game. Iowa never got within 8 before the half. In the midst of that, Ohio State’s Kam Williams let the entire Iowa bench know it was too easy to score.
Afterward, Baer had the following to say to HawkCentral:
“Any time you hear that as a competitor, that’s going to fuel you a little bit. We were able to come out and play a lot better. I think that did galvanize us a little bit, especially when a player comes in and says that on your home floor. That’s not going to sit well.”
Cook also made mention of it:
“He did get some open shots, but the way I was raised, the people I grew up around, that never flies with us. That’s all I’ll say about that.”
Really? Great, so they put a stop to the run and made a comeback, right? Wrong. Because this team has no fight. Sure, they went on an 11-2 run to start the second half and got the deficit down to 5, but that was it. The Buckeyes went on a 10-0 run of their own and Iowa was never able to get it any closer than 9.
The talk was there after the game, but we haven’t seen any changes from this team all year. The story, from an effort, lack of gameplan execution and passion standpoint has been the same in basically every loss this season and some of the victories as well.
Hello Jerry hit the nail on the head.
This basketball team continues to show up game in and game out as if they are a Top-25 team and can roll on anyone in the country. That’s clearly FAR from the case. Lots of things need to be fixed #Hawkeyes— Jerry Scherwin (@JerryScherwin) January 5, 2018
And he’s right, that clearly hasn’t been the case. Setting aside for a moment the meltdown in the Cayman Islands, this team is on pace for its worst start to conference play since Fran’s first year. After last night, they’re now 0-5 in conference play and a measly .500 overall. And it’s not like they have been losing them at the last second.
Prior to last night’s game, they had led for a grand total of NINE minutes of Big Ten play. That’s..... Not ideal. Not unless those 9 minutes are all at the end of games. They weren’t.
H/T to @bud2380 for encouraging me to look this up. In 160 minutes of B1G play, Iowa has led for (by my count*) exactly 9 minutes:— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) January 5, 2018
0:00 vs. Penn State
2:56 at Indiana
4:14 vs. Michigan
1:50 vs. Ohio State
And yet, amid all those losses and all the building frustration from fans and Fran alike, it seemed like there was no such frustration building for the players (Garza may be the exception here). There was no urgency, no passion and no fire.
It really seemed like the athletes thought they were flat out better than everyone they faced, regardless of the complete lack of success and under-performance of expectations, and just coast to victories.
It seemed like they still thought they were back in the Caymans in November and it was just a little toe stub.
Relax.— Jordan Bohannon (@JordanBo_3) November 20, 2017
It’s been so much more than that. This morning, the team is in last place in the conference. Things aren’t about to get any easier as they face the teeth of the conference schedule.
Midway through last night’s atrocity, things came to a head for Fran. In the midst of what was one of the worst displays of officiating I’ve witnessed in some time, Cordell Pemsl set a pick on Maryland’s Anthony Cowan, who decided to throw an elbow to the back of Pemsl’s head rather than work over it.
This is the cheap shot that got Fran pissed initially pic.twitter.com/lNwajYwntV— HeavensBarstool (@HeavensHawkeye) January 8, 2018
There was no foul called. There was no review (all blows to the head are reviewed and flagrants can and are assessed retroactively). And as Fran is want to do, he stood up for his guy.
As Chad Leistikow pointed out on Twitter, this was only the first time in just over four years that Fran has been ejected from a game. It was warranted and he was right.
I think we can all agree it was about more than just a blatantly missed call or the brutal officiating in the game at large. It was about standing up for his players, because he cares about them more than anyone. It was about all the promises he made in April of 2010. It was about his life’s work as a college basketball coach. It was about getting his team to play like they care.
It seemed to work. Last night was the first time all year I’ve seen some fight in this Iowa team. It came in a blowout loss on the road in a season that has little left to salvage. But it came from a group of guys who will be here, for the most part, for another two seasons.
That group of guys is who Fran is counting on to get this team back where it should be. He’s counting on them to be mad again. He’s counting on them to get us mad again.
Fran McCaffery is exactly who he was when he was hired nearly eight years ago. We’re going to find out who this team is over the next 13 games.