IOWA CITY — Within days of leaving the University of Iowa in 2007, Steve Alford stood with a Fox Sports Net reporter at the Final Four and spoke of his excitement in building a basketball program at New Mexico.
The interview was broken into two segments. During the first commercial break, the Fox reporter asked Alford if Iowa’s perception as a football school was true.
“Big time,” Alford replied. When approached by a Gazette reporter, Alford declined to respond to any questions, including his off-camera response.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta’s first season coincided with Alford’s final campaign at Iowa. The label “football school” remains relevant, partly because of that program’s annual success and revenue generation. But the school’s renewed commitment to basketball also is apparent.
Since Alford’s exit, Iowa invested $47 million into a renovated Carver-Hawkeye Arena and construction of an indoor practice facility. Tuesday, Iowa announced a seven-year contract for third-year coach Fran McCaffery, which could guarantee him an average of $1.88 million over the final six years, provided he makes the NCAA tournament this season.
“We have to invest in football,” Barta said. “Financially, we need football to be successful. But men’s and women’s basketball, there’s no reason that I can think of that we can’t have incredible success in those two sports as well. Clearly wrestling has a long history of success.
“I guess that moniker of Iowa being a football school, I’d say yes, proudly. And we also believe that we’re a basketball school and a wrestling school.”
Barta has presided over Iowa basketball’s darkest period where the school posted four consecutive losing seasons. He fired Todd Lickliter after Iowa finished an all-time worst 10-22 in 2009-10. The school owed Lickliter $2.4 million in severance, which now is off the books. Lickliter was Barta’s first high-profile hire so the decision was difficult.
When he hired McCaffery, Barta wanted someone who could reinvigorate the fan base from one-on-one meetings and high-impact recruiting to style of play. And, of course, winning.
“I remember receiving anecdotal response from people saying we’re going to lose an entire generation of Hawkeye basketball fans, wishing for the good old days,” Barta said. “So immediately you could see excitement from when Fran came on campus and then he just continued to grow that.”
After years of discussions, Barta sought approval from the state Board of Regents to fund the Carver-Hawkeye Arena project. He received permission to proceed on June 12, 2008, the day the Cedar River nearly destroyed downtown Cedar Rapids and the Iowa River flooded Coralville, Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus.
But Barta weathered through the financial and physical challenges. His staff raised more than $20 million privately for the project, which was completed last fall.
When he interviewed for the Iowa job, McCaffery, 53, identified his boss’ persistence for both the project and turning around the basketball program.
“We got this building built at a difficult time economically and right after the flood,” McCaffery said. “That says a lot about the people I work for and their understanding of what it takes to … you can’t do it all by yourself. You can’t just hire a coach, pay him a bunch of money and say, ‘Go get it done.’ There has to be that kind of partnership.”
“It was all part of a plan to get Hawkeye men’s basketball back to where it used to be,” Barta said. “And when I say ‘used to be’ I mean historically over a long period of time. We’ve had pockets of great success. I remember even in my days at UNI, 15 or 20 years ago, I remember coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena and seeing some games and what it was like back then. The renovation of Carver, the reinvestment in the program that way as well as the hiring of Fran, that’s why I use the term partnership. Working together, let’s get Hawkeye basketball back to where it once was and where we want it to be.”
McCaffery labored through his initial campaign to an 11-20 record, but the Hawkeyes competed against several high-ranked opponents and beat No. 6 Purdue in the home finale. Last season Iowa earned its first winning season since Alford’s final year, finishing 18-17. Iowa beat four top-20 Big Ten opponents and advanced to the NIT. Iowa averaged 11,908 tickets sold per game, up more than 2,358 from 2010. Iowa’s average Big Ten attendance soared to 13,254, compared to 10,489 in 2010.
Entering this season, Iowa pulled in two top-100 recruits in center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell. Roy Marble, the school’s record holder for career points, likes how McCaffery has handled and developed the current players, including his son, Devyn, who averaged 11.5 points a game last year as a sophomore.
“Coach Fran’s way of dealing with him has been monumental,” Roy Marble said. “Straight tough love. That’s where I come from. Fran knew from the beginning what I was thinking of with him as a coach. I went through it, and I love the tough love aspect of it. This is the Big Ten. I think Fran already knew it that he’s going to have to kick some butt. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to kick some butts.”
Barta rewarded McCaffery’s efforts with a seven-year contract that takes him through 2019. The contract contains two different salary structures depending on if — or when — the program advances to the NCAA tournament. McCaffery’s guaranteed salary increases to $1.7 million in 2013-14 if the Hawkeyes advance to next year’s NCAA tournament. If not, he makes $1.5 million that season.
“I’m thrilled with what he’s done in his first two years,” Barta said. “I love the foundation he’s building. All indicators are that Carver-Hawkeye is back, and his program is back on the rise. We’re not near where we want to be yet, but it’s just time to make a long-term commitment by both of us.”
McCaffery said he’s pleased with the program’s progress, but acknowledges it’s just a step toward his — and the program’s — ultimate goals.
“All of the things that we have in place are the pieces we need to be competitive on a national level for a championship, whether it be a Big Ten championship or a national championship,” McCaffery said. “Now I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but at the same time we all have the same goal. We want to compete for championships.”