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Overreaction Monday: Fran to Arkansas Rumors Raise Questions About Iowa Hoops

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McCaffery was rumored to be a candidate for the opening at the University of Arkansas last week. He wasn’t, but a number of questions still need to be asked.

Iowa v Tennessee
With the recent speculation regarding head coach Fran McCaffery and the opening at Arkansas, it’s time for a good look in the mirror.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Hawkeye fans have, for decades, known the depths of the agony of defeat. There have certainly been good times and in the case of Iowa wrestling, there have been great times. But by and large, fans of Iowa athletics have had to settle to an extent.

For football, that’s meant the occasional upswing with 10 or more wins and a trip to a New Year’s Day now game, but mostly season after season in the comfort zone of 7-5 to 9-3. Most often it means moments of excitement followed by moments of disappointment and a ho-hum 8-4 record.

For basketball, there’s a bit less consistency as you might expect given there’s been three hoops coaches in the span of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure. After 13 seasons of regularly winning 20 games and making the NCAA Tournament under Dr. Tom, the bar has been set decidedly lower since his departure.

In the eight seasons under REDACTED, the Hawkeyes struggled to reach the level of mediocrity so many fans had grown tired of under Davis. Iowa won 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament only three of those eight seasons before it was on to the next up and coming coach from a mid-major.

In the three years that followed, mediocrity was something Hawkeye fans could only dream of. Anyone that stayed dedicated to Iowa basketball during the Lickliter years likely promised their soul to have any semblance of a successful basketball program again.

Big Ten Basketball Tournament - First Round
Fans were excited to be landing the coach of the year. It has taken a nearly a decade to undo the damage Todd Lickliter did to the Iowa basketball program.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It took some time and there have certainly been some bumps along the way, but we seem to be largely back to where we started, finally.

I can remember quite vividly the excitement with which I departed my place of work early with a coworker to watch Fran McCaffery be introduced as the new head coach in 2010. I really had no idea who he was before the announcement, but once word started to spread, I was elated. Coming off the Todd Lickliter era, we were looking at a coach who was promising the polar opposite of what we had just endured.

At that introductory conference, there was talk about a style of basketball that would be visually please. There was talk about getting up and down. There was talk of changing defenses and getting after people. There were bumper stickers with the new tag line for the team - Let’s Be Mad Again.

I lapped it up. We all did. And we were all fine being a little patient as Fran built things back up to mediocre. After all, we were coming out of the abyss and the style of play was a hell of a lot more enjoyable to watch.

Now we sit here, nine years later, and that familiar feeling has fully sunk in for Hawkeye fans. We’re fresh off the fourth NCAA Tournament appearance of the McCaffery era and the fifth time in nine seasons with more than 20 wins.

Yet the excitement for most Hawkeye fans is gone. My coworker who gladly lapped up the talk of a faster pace, fire and passion is now ready to move one for a coach who will preach patience, defense and a calm demeanor. It would seem the same frustration that has bubbled up with every coach the last 30 years has heated to a near boil and likely would have boiled over in Iowa City this year if not for the incredible comebacks against Cincinnati and Tennessee.

That was highlighted this week with the news of the University of Arkansas’ coaching search involving Fran McCaffery. Or rather, the apparent involvement of McCaffery. Early last week, there was a report floating around that McCaffery was a candidate for the Razorbacks’ opening. Then the media found their way to FlightAware.com.

For those that don’t feel like reading between the lines, the other candidates were said to be Kelvin Sampson of Houston, Richard Pitino of Minnesota, Eric Musselman of Nevada and the aforementioned REDACTED, formerly of UCLA. Oh, and if you go check the inbound flights to Iowa City’s municipal airport on Sunday, March 31, you’d also find a flight arriving from Houston. That same plane had flown from Springdale, Arkansas to Houston before making its way to Iowa City, then back to Springdale.

For several days, it seemed like a distinct possibility that Fran McCaffery was interviewing for the opening at Arkansas. Despite telling Rob Howe he was not, the evidence was to the contrary and what coach in history has told local media he was looking to leave?

When faced with the news, most Hawkeye fans had one of two responses: Why? or Good. Both say a lot about the state of Iowa fans’ mentality.

We tend to think of ourselves of fans of a school and program that’s at a level higher than the rest of the world perceives us. For all the grief we give Nebraska fans for thinking they’re a program they once were, we tend to think we’re a program we’ve never been. We’ll be the first to admit the mediocrity and losses we’ve endured, yet we turn our collective noses up at the prospect our head basketball coach might be interested in a job at Arkansas.

It’s true that the Razorbacks have fallen on relative hard times (they made the tournament three times in time McCaffery has been at Iowa), but they had a run in the early 90s that Hawkeye fans would kill for. At the apex under Nolan Richardson, they made the tournament 13 out of 14 seasons, making three final fours, two title games and winning a national championship. It’s a program with history better than our own. And they pay more. Mike Anderson was signed to an extension around the same time McCaffery got one, but for roughly $300k a year more. It’s not nuts to think we could lose a coach to that type of program.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the candidate pool for an opening such as Arkansas’. It ultimately came out that Fran was in fact not on the interview docket. The flight to Iowa City was actually to meet with Steve Forbes of East Tennessee State, who was in Iowa City due to the passing of his father (he’s from Lone Tree, Iowa).

But the rest of the pool was as stated and Arkansas ultimately hired Musselman away from Nevada. What does that say about a potential candidate pool if Fran did leave for another opening? It’s one thing to say you’d be excited by something different, but would that type of pool genuinely make Hawkeye fans happy?

I find it hard to believe any Iowa fans would be excited to see Richard Pitino on a short list. The guy was on the verge of being fired at Minnesota after finishing under .500 a third of the time he’s been with the Golden Gophers. They’d be downright mad (again) if REDACTED managed to make the cut.

Steve Forbes might get some folks excited, but then again, he had that whole “show cause” thing with the NCAA thanks to his involvement with former Hawkeye assistant Bruce Pearl. Eric Musselman is the flavor of the month, but he’s an NBA guy who has had some limited success at Nevada and seemed to be getting out of town before things fall apart next season.

Lack of big time replacement candidates isn’t an argument for not moving on from a coach if it’s time, but it shouldn’t be ignored entirely. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. If the end goal is to move the program toward more success than you’re currently having, you need to know if there are coaches out there you have confidence in doing so without putting you on probation. Not only that they’re out there, but that they want to come to Iowa City and can have success quickly.

If a coach departs there is sure to be turnover that follows. Can a replacement coach bring in enough talent to fill the gaps immediately? How long will it take to get just back to where you were prior to the departure? Then how long to improve? How long do you give a new guy if they aren’t hitting those benchmarks? What if they started off doing so but seem to have stalled?

These are questions that have landed countless programs (cough Illinois cough) in a vicious cycle of turnover and wasted seasons. A number of those programs would love to have a guy like Fran, who is one of only a couple handfuls of coaches ever to take 4 different programs to the NCAA Tournament. Even more would love to see him off their schedule.

Yet here we are again as Hawkeye fans, taking for granted what we perceive as mediocrity. We’ve grown so accustomed to our 8-4 football seasons, our 20-win basketball seasons that we want change just for the sake of something different. Different isn’t always better.

Auburn v Virginia
Bruce Pearl is a likeable guy and he’s a winner. He would be a great hire at Iowa if it weren’t for the whole NCAA sanctions thing.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s time to evaluate what it is we expect from our programs. If it’s national championships, there are massive cultural shifts that need to happen. There need to be vast increases in donations, for starters. And we should probably become much more open to the idea that our coaching staffs will be paying players to come here.

If those aren’t things we want to embrace, what is realistic? What is that benchmark we should be holding our staffs accountable to? Are the people we have running our programs now the ones to get us there? If not, can we actually attract the people who can? Do we trust the athletic administration to make that decision?

Happy Monday. Question everything this week.

Go Hawks.