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Fran McCaffery and the Art of Avoiding the Hotseat

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Taking stock of Iowa’s basketball coaching situation

NCAA Basketball: Southern Utah at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery prepares for the fast-approaching start to the 2018-19 college basketball season he finds himself facing dramatically different circumstances than he has in recent years. After following three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament by taking a largely freshmen-led team to the NIT, expectations for a return to the NCAA were widespread at at the outset of last season. While the media was largely divided on Iowa’s place in the Big Ten hierarchy (most polls had them finishing anywhere between 5th and 9th in the conference), Hawkeye fans seemed far more bullish about their team’s prospects. Even with the departure of Peter Jok, the return and inevitable improvement of the bulk of Iowa’s young talent from the previous season plus the addition of talented freshmen Connor McCaffery, Luka Garza, and Jack Nunge seemed more than enough to get this team over the hump.

Iowa’s massively disappointing record of 14-19 has left many fans either pessimistic or just plain apathetic about the upcoming basketball season. Going into Fran McCaffery’s ninth year as head of the program, it’s worth taking stock of his tenure thus far to determine how fans should view his teams’ recent struggles in light of the coach’s earlier success. Is Fran McCaffery on the hotseat going into this season, and if not, should he be? What would it take for Fran to be in danger of losing his job at the conclusion of this season?

This question should be approached through two lenses: the perspectives of the fans and the perspectives of the administration. The gap between the opinion of the administration and that of the fans was made clear by athletic director Gary Barta’s handling of McCaffery’s two-year contract extension last season. McCaffery was given this extension on November 29, 2017, but Barta refrained from publicizing this news due to fear of backlash from the Hawkeye fans due to the team’s disappointing 4-3 start and its embarrassing loss to Virginia Tech the night before. Barta and the university wanted to double-down on their investment in McCaffery, while the fanbase was understandably reluctant to do so without further evidence that McCaffery could continue, or even maintain, the growth of the program.

Is Fran currently on the hotseat?

Probably not. As disappointing as the 2017-18 campaign was, many fans still give McCaffery credit for digging the Hawkeyes out from the pit of abject misery in which they lingered under Todd Lickliter and are not willing to pull the plug on his rebuild project after one underachieving season. Multiple hot seat projections view him as being safe entering the season, and McCaffery’s contract extension certainly indicates that his job status is secure in the eyes of the athletic department.

Should McCaffery be on the hotseat?

A fan’s answer to this question is likely dependent on the broader expectations they have for the program. While a fan who believes Iowa basketball should be competing for conference and national championships on a regular basis has likely already lost their patience with Fran, someone who is content with Iowa winning roughly 20 games a year and making frequent but abbreviated appearances in the NCAA tournament may hold a higher opinion of McCaffery’s performance. Fran has elevated Iowa’s recruiting, gotten the Hawkeyes ranked the top ten on a few occasions, and brought the program its first NCAA tournament wins since 2001.

Still, it’s worth examining what has normally been required for a basketball coach to lose their job at the University of Iowa. While Todd Lickliter is the only coach to be fired since the 1970s, Tom Davis was functionally let go when former athletic director Bob Bowlsby opted not to renew his contract at the end of the 1998-99 season. The table below shows how Davis and McCaffery compare in terms of their winning percentage, tournament berths, and tournament wins:

Tom Davis vs Fran McCaffery

Coach Win % NCAA Bid % NCAA Wins/Year
Coach Win % NCAA Bid % NCAA Wins/Year
Davis 0.658 0.692 1.07
McCaffery 0.56% 0.375 0.25

McCaffery’s seat should be feeling pretty warm by Bowlsby’s standards, but many fans resented Bowlsby for parting ways with Davis, and Barta’s decision to extend McCaffery’s contract provides little reason to suspect that he operates under the same paradigm as his predecessor. McCaffery has yet to reach the level of success that Davis had during the 90s and is nowhere near replicating the feats of Lute Olson and Ralph Miller. However, while one massively disappointing season may be enough to spark questions about McCaffery’s long-term job prospects, it is hardly enough to warrant giving his immediate termination serious consideration.

What would it take for McCaffery’s job to be in serious jeopardy?

Another berth to the NCAA tournament would likely be enough to satisfy most of the McCaffery critics for the time being, but a third consecutive year missing the field of 68 would signal a troubling trend in the program’s trajectory. Fran McCaffery helped make Iowa basketball relevant again, but continually missing the tournament causes the shine on a program to fade quickly. High school recruits have short memories, and the more the images of Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff winning NCAA tournament games start to fade from the collective memory, the harder it will be for McCaffery to sign highly-coveted recruits that aren’t related to him.

On the other hand, McCaffery’s new contract could deter the athletic department from strongly considering his termination in the near future. Not only would Barta’s office look incompetent for firing a coach so shortly after giving him a contract extension, but Fran’s extension also increased the price of his buyout to $9 million if the university terminates him before July 1, 2019. Barta bet the future of the Iowa basketball program on Fran McCaffery, and one doubts he would be particularly eager to pay the costs of folding on that bet unless he absolutely must.

Finally, McCaffery’s persona and general sideline demeanor factor into this conversation. Many fans were willing to forgive Fran for his occasional tirades directed at officials even when they resulted in technical fouls, ejections, and a suspension, viewing his behavior as that of a passionate coach trying to light a fire under his players. However, these antics become far less endearing when the team is losing and could be perceived as a sign that Fran is in over his head or lacks the discipline necessary to reverse the downward trajectory of his team. If the program’s struggles continue and appear to be more systemic than originally thought, future tirades warranting action by the university or the league could be used justification for the athletic department to terminate McCaffery with cause and avoid having the buyout clause of his contract.

All things considered, McCaffery can silence the conversation about the fragility of his hold on the head coaching job by leading his team to the NCAA tournament this season. Missing the tournament would likely result in a growing segment of the fan base losing faith in McCaffery’s coaching prowess, while another season similar to the 2017-18 campaign would place him squarely on the hotseat. It’s hard to imagine Barta firing McCaffery until at least 2020 considering the size of his buyout, but another poor year could put the coach on a very short leash. McCaffery’s contract extension certainly improved his job security, but nothing can do more to keep him off the hotseat than winning.