DAYTON, Ohio ó The most important game in Fran McCaffery's four-year Iowa coaching career ranks second on his Wednesday checklist.
As his players attend a morning meeting, McCaffery and his wife, Margaret, will wait impatiently outside a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics surgery room for news about their second-oldest son, Patrick. McCaffery hopes to return to Dayton in time for Wednesday's game, but his priorities begin with his son.
"If anything occurs where Margaret and Patrick need him, thatís No. 1," Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said.
Iowa's men's basketball team (20-12) competes against Tennessee (21-12) in the Hawkeyes' first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years. In 2010, McCaffery took over a program that bottomed out with a record-low 22 losses. The grind back to national relevancy was daunting and at times overwhelming through his first three seasons.
This year it came together early on. Iowa was ranked for most of the season before falling out after a late-season swoon. But even with the rough finish, Wednesday's game is the culmination of McCaffery's Iowa journey.
Yet when a tumor was discovered on his 13-year-old son's thyroid, there was no question McCaffery needed to be with Patrick. Through dumb luck, the game happened to land on the day Patrick was scheduled for surgery. Removing a tumor isn't like shifting a knee scope back two weeks. There was no waiting for this. So McCaffery planned to board a private plane at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday from Dayton and fly to Iowa City for Patrick's surgery. His experienced group of assistants will handle morning meetings and the team shootaround.
"Hopefully I'll be back before the last meeting we have, which is typically right before the pregame meal or right after the pregame meal and be ready to coach the game ... assuming all goes well," McCaffery said.
It's been a rough time for the 54-year-old McCaffery, who lost both of his parents to cancer. His face is weathered and his eyes show the wear of little sleep. Margaret, herself a former All-American women's basketball player, usually travels with McCaffery and attends team functions but stayed behind with Patrick.
Iowa's players have responded.
During Thursday's Big Ten Tournament first-round game, they took floor wearing white T-shirts with "P-Mac" on the front and "#teampat" on the back with the number 22. That was initiated by the team, and junior guard Josh Oglesby informed McCaffery with a voicemail during his March 10 radio show.
McCaffery broke down when he heard Oglesby's message, same as he did when he told them the news about Patrick earlier that day.
"I just broke down in front of the team," McCaffery said, fighting through emotion. "I will never forget Devyn Marble putting his arms around me. 'We love you, Coach. It's going to be OK.' We still don't know if it's malignant or benign until we do the surgery on Wednesday. But we told the team, it was very emotional. to a man they all hugged me. "Again, it kind of tells you the kind of people that we have, and I can't say how much I love them."
McCaffery's children ó Patrick, Connor, Jack and Marit ó are staples around the program at home games and road trips. It will be strange for the players not to see Patrick at the arena.
"We're all like family," Marble said. "Pat is a guy that's basically at practice with us every day. He's like our little brother."
Coaches generally have an unbalanced lifestyle filled with constant trips and few moments with their family. McCaffery adjusts to ensure he attends games or school functions. This situation is more challenging than most, but it's also the most important."The crazy thing about this business, any business, is finding that ability to balance between your family life and your professional life, and never letting your professional life take more control," Barta said. "Thatís hard to do because youíre passionate about both of them. Fran is really good at that. Heís really good about being passionate about his family and being passionate about his job. This is testing it to the nth degree, without question but itís something that heís been doing all his career."