COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fran McCaffery went through the same drills Thursday as the other seven coaches gathered here for first-round games in the NCAA tournament.
He sat on a dais and answered questions about Iowa’s season; about his friendship with Mick Cronin, who coaches Cincinnati, Iowa’s opponent Friday; and about how proud he is of a team that was 14-19 a year ago and is back in the field of 68 for the fourth time in six years.
He walked onto the court inside Nationwide Arena and, while his players warmed up for their open practice, sat with the TV crew to give them some nuggets they could drop into Friday’s telecast.
But McCaffery isn’t like the other coaches who are here, for a lot of reasons. Iowa is the fourth school he has taken to the tournament after Lehigh, UNC Greensboro and Siena. He was a head coach at 26. Now approaching 60, he is looked to as one of the leaders in the college coaching community.
But it is his temper, especially this season, that often has brought McCaffery unwanted attention. During a loss at Ohio State on Feb. 26, McCaffery and his son Connor, a redshirt freshman, were given technical fouls by referee Steve McJunkins in the waning minutes of a 90-70 loss, a game the Hawkeyes trailed by just three at halftime.
At game’s end, McCaffery went after McJunkins in the hallway leading to the locker rooms, unleashing a torrent of profanity that was heard by several reporters.
A day later, Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta announced that McCaffery would be suspended for two games, calling what happened “unacceptable.”
The Hawkeyes lost both those games and went into the Big Ten tournament on a four-game losing streak, their seemingly locked NCAA bid suddenly in jeopardy. They managed to beat Illinois before losing to Michigan, and their 22-11 record was enough to earn them the No. 10 seed in the South Region.
“Right now, I’m just really proud of my guys for getting us here,” McCaffery said. “It’s been a long, tough season. Twenty Big Ten games were grueling. We’ve gone through a lot to get here.”
Iowa has come a long way in the past 12 months. It beat Iowa State in the annual game that is more important to many in the state than Big Ten or Big 12 outcomes, and it finished 10-10 in the Big Ten after an 11-1 nonconference run. None of the Hawkeyes’ starters are seniors, and only one senior — 6-foot-7 Nicholas Baer, who averages 6.7 points and 4.6 rebounds — plays at all.
A year ago, the Hawkeyes had their worst season since McCaffery’s first campaign with the Hawkeyes nine years ago. Their bounce back this winter has been sullied by McCaffery’s suspension and two incidents involving longtime radio play-by-play man Gary Dolphin.
The first came early in the season, when Dolphin, not realizing he was on the air, was harshly critical of junior guard Maishe Dailey and of Iowa’s recruiting in general. The fact that Dolphin made his comments thinking he was off-air actually upset McCaffery more than if he had known he was on-air.
“Just means he’s going around talking that way whenever he gets the chance,” he said Wednesday. “I’d have felt better if he’d just been taking a shot publicly, whether I agreed with him or not.”
Dolphin was suspended two games. Then, in February, while complimenting the play of Maryland center Bruno Fernando, Dolphin compared him to King Kong. He was suspended for the rest of the season. Soon after that came McCaffery’s suspension.
It has not been a tranquil winter in Iowa City.
McCaffery’s winters are rarely tranquil, but they are almost always successful. He took Siena to the NCAA tournament three years in a row from 2008 to 2010 and twice pulled first-round upsets, once over Vanderbilt and once over Ohio State.
What’s most fascinating about McCaffery is that friends and peers think of him as one of the most thoughtful people in coaching. He has dealt with traumas that go way beyond a bad loss, a suspension or even a losing season.
In March, 2014, his son Patrick, who was 14 at the time, had thyroid cancer diagnosed and the malignant tumor removed. McCaffery doesn’t fall back on “puts life in perspective” cliches, but he readily admits watching his son deal with the disease changed the way he felt about basketball.
“I’ll never tell anyone it isn’t important,” he said. “I hate to lose. But if Patrick’s okay, if my family’s okay, I’m okay with anything that happens in a game. Doesn’t mean I don’t get angry. But I’m okay.”
Patrick is healthy and planning to follow Connor to Iowa next season. He is 6-6, an inch taller than his brother, who is an inch taller than their father. Their mother, Margaret, is 6-1 and played basketball at Notre Dame.
And basketball isn’t the family’s only sport. Connor averages 4.6 points per game, but his future could be in baseball. After Iowa’s Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan on March 15, he drove back to Iowa City and played three baseball games on the weekend, going 4 for 8 with two stolen bases.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that he’s Big Ten all-academic,” his father said with a huge smile. “He’s got a chance to make it to the next level in baseball. Meanwhile, I don’t know how he balances everything, but somehow he’s getting it done.”
As he spoke, McCaffery was standing in a hallway a few yards from the court where his team was about to practice. He sounded a lot more like a proud father than a coach, much less one who can get so wound up during games. He admitted the publicity that followed his suspension was upsetting but didn’t indicate for a second that he thought his comments about McJunkins — profanity aside — were wrong.
“I have to advocate for my players,” he said. “If I don’t do it, no one else is going to do it. I would love to tell you what I really think about what happened, but I’d get fined again, so I just won’t say anything.
“Look, I understand in today’s world when something like that happens, there’s going to be a lot of reaction to it. I get it. But I can’t let it bother me. I know who I am. My family knows who I am, and my players know who I am. I have to remember that.”
He smiled. “I’ve dealt with things a lot tougher than a little bad publicity the last few years.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.