Commentary: Is McCaffery the ‘splash’ Iowa needed?

BY SCOTT MILLER | MARCH 29, 2010 7:30 AM

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Common sense stipulated Gary Barta had to make a splash with his hiring of Iowa’s new basketball coach. Some critics even chirped the Hawkeye athletics director needed a big name perhaps more than he needed a good coach.

Tickets don’t sell themselves, I guess.

Hawkeye fans wanted Bruce Pearl or Kevin Stallings or Scott Drew to replace Todd Lickliter. Those were the names that could instantly revitalize discouraged fans.

Instead of Pearl et al., they got Fran McCaffery.

Wait, what? Who? From where? And Hawkeye website, how do you spell his name?

Barta needed a slam-dunk hiring to save the basketball program — and probably his job, too — and this is the guy he chose: A nondescript head coach from Siena who hasn’t recruited the Midwest in 11 years?

I thought Barta may have committed career suicide by picking yet another mid-major head coach to lead his basketball team out of its darkest days. And part of me still feels that way. It’s hard for me to see a guy named Fran invigorating such a ravenous group of fans.

As I began to research McCaffery, though, this feeling quickly disappeared. His players love him, or so it appears; his system — up-tempo and high scoring — is fun to watch; and his coaching résumé speaks for itself.

Indeed, McCaffery is, by all accounts, a good coach. After all, you don’t lead Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro, and Siena to NCAA Tournaments without knowing your way around a sideline. In particular, Siena’s consistency under McCaffery was unquestionably excellent.

His last three years with the Saints read like this: 2007-08, 23 wins, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season champions, conference tournament champions, NCAA Tournament win; 2008-09, 27 wins, conference regular-season champions, conference tournament champions, NCAA Tournament win; 2009-10, 27 wins, conference regular-season champions, MAAC tournament champions, NCAA Tournament loss.

Regardless of the competition, that’s an incredible three-year run.

Still some fans will wonder what makes McCaffery much different from Lickliter, who was national Coach of the Year before Barta snatched him away from Butler in 2007?

It’s a valid question, really, but the answer can be found in a Sports Illustrated article from earlier this season in which Margaret McCaffery talked about making her famous desserts for prospective players when they came to town.

“We promise our players’ parents that we’ll watch out for them,” she told SI.

This is an important part of collegiate athletics — and it’s something that Lickliter never seemed to grasp — but does it make McCaffery the right man for the job?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure.

Not long ago, some called this the most important hiring in the history of Iowa basketball. That, of course, was a load of hyperbole, but it shouldn’t undermine the fact that this was actually important.

Another bad hiring could set Barta back five years and leave Carver-Hawkeye Arena empty for longer than that. The financial repercussions of that alone would cripple the once-proud program.

It has been an absurdly long time since Iowa men’s basketball won anything of significance. So long that I have talked to friends and fans and families who have all but given up on the idea of the Hawkeyes being good.

It’s sad, really.

McCaffery’s job isn’t to replicate the glory days of Tom Davis and Lute Olson. That would be an impossible burden to place upon even the most seasoned head coach. His job is to replace that sadness with some wins.

Only time will tell if that’s an impossible burden, too.

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