Miller: Time to Circle the Wagons

March 28, 2010

Written by Jon Miller

I love traveling to Iowa’s bowl games.  One of my favorite things to see in all the world is tens of thousands of black and gold clad Iowa fans invading and taking over Channelside in Tampa, or the Riverwalk in San Antonio, or walking the streets of Disney in Orlando, or dominating the scene at the Clevelander on South Beach.

Those sights are lasting memories for me, and they evoke pride in being an Iowa Hawkeye fan.

The passion and support that Hawkeye fans have given their teams through the decades has been amazing and we have a national reputation for it.

While these things are true, the mood surrounding the Iowa basketball program for the better part of the last six or seven years has not been as pleasant.  Iowa fans had grown accustomed to making it to the NCAA tournament three out of every four years during the 21 years prior to Steve Alford being named head coach.

Since that point in time, Iowa has won just one NCAA tournament game in three appearances…that’s an 11 year span.

Between 1978-2006, Iowa finished in the Top 25 in basketball home attendance…the last several years has seen attendance drop to record low levels in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

This isn’t some call to action for people to go out and buy season tickets just because Iowa has hired a new coach.  It would be great if people wanted to do that, but I certainly cannot criticize them for finding other things to do with their time through these recent years.

However, I do think it’s time for Iowa fans to circle the wagons and embrace Fran McCaffery now that he has been hired as the 22nd coach in the history of the Iowa basketball program, if for no other reason than he is a Hawkeye now, and he is whom Gary Barta hired.

Each of us wants to see the program return to relevance; it’s not really relevant right now.  However, Iowa just hired a guy who believes that it can be, and who believes its more relevant than St. Johns or Seton Hall; McCaffery had been sought after to fill those positions.

But the man from Philly who was once dubbed ‘White Magic’ during his playing days at Penn said ‘no thanks’ to those eastern jobs, because he wanted to see the Iowa opportunity to the end.

He did, and he got it.

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To repeat; McCaffery wants to be at Iowa.  Right about now, I don’t know how long that list is as it relates to accomplished basketball coaches.  He turned down strong overtures from other schools because he wanted the Iowa job.

McCaffery is an accomplished coach in his own right.  From his Siena bio:  In 2008, McCaffery became just the 31st coach (15th active) to take three different programs to the “Big Dance”, and he is the first to do so with three programs from one-bid leagues (conference’s that sent just one team the year his program advanced). He also boasts a 100% graduation rate among student-athletes he has recruited who have exhausted their eligibility during his tenure.  McCaffery inherited a depleted Siena team that was picked last in the 10-team MAAC in 2005-2006. Instead, the Saints finished conference play in fourth place, earning a bye to the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament.

When he took over the UNC-Greensboro job, it was down in the dumps; he would lead them to their best record in program history while he was there…when he took over Lehigh and led them to the NCAA tournament, he was the youngest coach to ever coach in the Big Dance.  His Lehigh teams had two winning seasons in three years and the 1987-88 squads’ 21-10 record remains the best in program history. Lehigh had just four winning seasons in the 55 years prior to his arrival.

The success he has had at these three programs have a few important things in common…one being they have gotten better after McCaffery arrived, and another being he turned around all three programs and took them to their best seasons they ever had.

The Iowa job will require a lot of work to rebuild something that was once very good.  When McCaffery was an assistant in Notre Dame in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, he recruited high major talent.  He also knows what the Iowa job is capable of, as he crossed paths with the Iowa coaches during the Tom Davis years and was aware of the success the Hawkeyes had.

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The Iowa job needs someone that is not afraid of hard work, and it’s clear that McCaffery is not afraid of that.  He also hasn’t hit some career plateau to where the Iowa job is just the last stop in a long line of big paydays that will allow him to ride off into the sunset…it’s his first real shot at big time basketball because Iowa is in a big time league.  It’s his chance to put his name on something that can have a long lasting effect; the Siena fans will remember his turnaround and what he did for them, but you are talking about a school from the MAAC.  If he can come into Iowa and turn this program around, lead it back to relevance and respectability, he’ll have made quite a mark and will be remembered fondly for generations to come.

But he won’t be able to do that unless the Hawkeye Nation rallies around him and gets behind the Fran McCaffery era.

I understand that his name isn’t going to create any ‘splash’ factor at Monday’s press conference.  The reality is that unless Gary Barta was able to hire Bruce Pearl, there probably weren’t any realistic splash coaches out there who were really interested in the Iowa job.

McCaffery’s name came out of the blue the way Todd Lickliter’s did a few years ago, and I know that there are number of fans that are wondering why Iowa went and hired a third straight coach from a mid-major program, since the last two hires (Steve Alford and Lickliter) have not worked out.

McCaffery has been an assistant at a major program, where Alford and Lickliter were not.  McCaffery has recruited high major talent against other high major programs, where Alford & Lickliter had not, nor had any members of their initial coaching staff’s.

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McCaffery will have other advantages that Alford and Lickliter did not have, one being a brand new, state of the art practice facility that will be completed in 14 months.  It’s something the Iowa program has badly needed, something that Alford and Lickliter could have used but something that McCaffery can sell recruits for the next year until the facility is opened for business.  That’s not an insignificant aspect to all of this, because I think it’s a silent (yet pricey) showing that the Athletic Department has not been behind basketball the way it needs to be…it’s been that way for a long time.

I understand that there will be more venting on the message boards tonight and up until McCaffery has his introductory press conference, and likely some after that.

However, I can guarantee you that McCaffery will not succeed at Iowa unless he has the support of the fans, and that starts with the message board discussions since we are several months away from the first games taking place in Carver Hawkeye Arena.  In the end, wins and losses will be the ultimate judge for any coach, but few coaches are able to succeed if they are constantly surrounded by negativity and especially if that is the case before they even hang the first photo in their office.

With a new coach comes renewed optimism.  McCaffery’s Siena teams have played an uptempo brand of basketball.  his 2010 squad ended the year averaging 75.1/ppg while holding opponents to 65/ppg.   In 2008-09 they averaged 77.4/ppg & the 2007-08 the Saints scored 76.9/ppg.

They have employed full court pressure when they have needed a boost to get back into games.  He’s recruited well at the levels he has been at, given the glass ceilings that go along with recruiting in leagues like the MAAC.

Whom McCaffery hires to flesh out the ranks of his coaching staff will be incredibly important, and that’s the next thing I eagerly look forward to learning.

Fran McCaffery needs your support…the Iowa Basketball program needs your support.  A lot of people felt like it was time for the Todd Lickliter era to be over; Gary Barta stepped up and made a tough decision.  It looks like he made another tough decision with this hire, taking the road less traveled and the road some fans are questioning.  Barta is no fool; Athletics Directors seldom get a chance to hire a third basketball coach if their first two hires don’t work out.  So Barta is all in with McCaffery.

I am hopeful that Iowa fans will be, too.

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