EUGENE, Ore. — As the team prepared for its National Invitation Tournament second-round game against Oregon, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery sat under a basket and talked about his program, both in present and future tense.
For two minutes he spoke frankly and calmly until ... “STRETCH,” he shouted at the players minutes into their workout. Then McCaffery continued making his point without pause.
McCaffery, 52, flipped the switch from professor to coach to salesman without skipping a beat. It’s the same message, Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said, McCaffery masters for everyone.
“I love people who are the same whether they’re dealing with alumni, fans, or whether they’re dealing with student-athletes,” Barta said. “It’s all about passion, and it’s consistent and it’s sincere. So when he’s talking to a recruit, when he’s talking to a fan on the I-Club circuit, it’s the same topic. It’s the same passion, it’s the same person. I think the genuineness comes through.”
But don’t forget intensity and never underestimate McCaffery’s commitment. McCaffery’s emotion bubbled over at times in his two-year Iowa career, including a notorious incident Jan. 10 at Michigan State when he slammed a chair on the court. But he’s also committed toward building Iowa into a Final Four contender, something Barta noticed from their first conversation.
“When we talked about Iowa, he had mentioned several times that he really wanted to be here,” Barta said. “It’s a place that he had a passion for. Then just talking, his goal is to win a national championship. Some people might chuckle at that, but that’s exactly the mentality we want to have. You know it’s not going to happen overnight.”
In 2010, McCaffery took over a program that finished 10-22, the most losses in school history. Iowa ended that regular season with historical bad losses to border rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota. The talent level was depleted and attendance waned at all-time lows.
But McCaffery, who also had offers from Seton Hall and St. John’s, was undeterred. He knew the job was challenging and included more than just recruiting and coaching. He had a plan for where he wanted to take Iowa, yet he had the straddle the line between immediacy and the big picture.
“I don’t think you really project one year or two years,” McCaffery said. “You sort of deal in the moment with what’s in front of you. You try to figure out, who do we have and what do we need? At the same time, with the other components of this profession, you have to sell the program and sell my vision and go out and interact with the media and interact with the I-Club and the Hawk fans. In that case, selling a vision of what we’re going to do. But then you’ve got to jump in.”
McCaffery started at almost less than zero. Former Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter had signed a talented four-member class, and McCaffery had to re-recruit them. Two chose to leave: Cody Larson (Florida) and Ben Brust (Wisconsin). Two others — Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe — opted to stay. McCaffery also had to fly to Arizona in a failed attempt to entice the team’s leading rebounder, Aaron Fuller (USC), to stay.
“Then we had to develop who we had; we didn’t have a whole lot left,” McCaffery said. “We had to make sure Matt Gatens maxed his potential.”
Concurrently, McCaffery hit the road recruiting for his own players. Within a week he put a full-court press on the 2012 class, which included Rivals’ top 100 players Adam Woodbury of Sioux City East, Mike Gesell of South City Sioux (Neb.) and Linn-Mar’s Marcus Paige. McCaffery almost immediately offered scholarships to the three players. Paige picked North Carolina, but Woodbury and Gesell tabbed Iowa.
The trio played AAU basketball for Martin Brothers, and McCaffery attended all of their summer games. All of them.
“Coach McCaffery, I think, could not have worked any harder to recruit Adam,” Sioux City East Coach Ras Vanderloo said after Woodbury picked Iowa over North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Iowa also signed three Rivals’ three-star recruits: Anthony Clemmons, Pat Ingram and Kyle Meyer.
“One of the things we tried to do was lock into that class that we thought was going to be critical,” McCaffery said. “Those guys haven’t even shown up yet. We needed to sign some players, and we were ecstatic with a couple of things. No, 1, Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe honored their commitment. And Bryce Cartwright and Melsahn Basabe came. We felt with those four, we had four really good players.
“I felt pretty good that those four players from a talent and character standpoint could help our team win at the Big Ten. That they weren’t band aids. That we could win games with those guys. They’ve proven they’ve been terrific.”
Iowa finished 11-20 in McCaffery’s first season, but the record was softened by late-season competitive losses and a win against No. 6 Purdue in the regular-season finale. This year Iowa earned a winning record (18-17) for the first time since 2007. Iowa beat four top-25 squads and accepted its first postseason bid in six years.
“I think Fran is doing things in a positive way,” Hall of Fame ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. “I think you have to be patient.”
Senior Matt Gatens, who finished his career as Iowa’s sixth-leading scorer, has nothing but admiration for McCaffery.
“He’s one of the top coaches in America,” Gatens said. “I always feel lucky to have had him. He’s been a joy to play for for two years. He taught me a ton. All these coaches have. Right from the get-go, his confidence and his knowledge of the game and he’s easy to talk to. He’s been great for me personally and great for this team and this program.”
Moments after the Hawkeyes’ season-ending NIT loss to Oregon. Barta stood outside Iowa’s locker room and summarized his meetings with McCaffery two years ago. Barta smiled as he talked about the future.
“When Fran and I were meeting during the interview process, we talked about his vision,” Barta said. “He and the staff have built a foundation, and the foundation has kept getting stronger.
“You always want to be as far ahead as you can get, and you always want to be further than you are, but I’m thrilled with where we’re at. There’s no doubt the table’s set to do extraordinarily well with the guys we have coming back and the guys that are coming in. It brings a smile to my face.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the pace and where we’re headed. ... Better days are ahead. There’s no doubt.”Within days of his return to campus, McCaffery was out recruiting once again, selling Iowa as a place to grow and compete and, eventually, to win.