McCaffery: ‘This place is going to be rocking again’

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

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Fran McCaffery didn’t need to be sold on Iowa.

He didn’t need persuading that last year’s 10-win season was an anomaly, or that Hawkeye fans could fill Carver-Hawkeye Arena to capacity again, or that the in-progress practice facility would boost recruiting.

No, the man who has rebuilt three different programs — Siena, UNC-Greensboro, and Lehigh — simply had to remember a time nearly 25 years ago, when he came to Carver as the 26-year-old head coach at Lehigh.

“I will never forget the atmosphere in this building,” he recalled Monday at his introductory press conference.

That memory — and a six-year contract starting at $1.1 million and escalating up to $1.35 million per year, Athletics Director Gary Barta said — made McCaffery’s decision to become Iowa’s 22nd head basketball coach easy, he said.

It caused him to uproot his wife and four kids and leave a Siena program that had made three-consecutive NCAA Tournaments to head for Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes haven’t won anything of substance since the days of Lute Olson and Tom Davis with the exception of two— Big Ten Tournament titles, in 2001 and 2006.

“This is a very proud moment for me, and Gary is right: I made it clear from minute one that I wanted to be your coach,” McCaffery said to a large contingent, including former Hawkeye greats. “I always said if I thought about leaving [Siena], it would be a very small list.”

Bobby Hansen, a former Iowa star and member of the search committee, said, “I did not know if we could get him out of the East. He recruited us, basically. He recruited the University of Iowa saying he wanted to be here. That was huge.”

After spending the last five seasons at Siena, McCaffery inherits a program that just endured the worst three-season stretch in the history of Iowa basketball under former head coach Todd Lickliter.

Nine scholarship players left the program during the Lickliter years, and rumors swirled before Lickliter’s firing that more might be on the way out. Now that McCaffery is in place, the three players made available for comment on Monday — sophomore Matt Gatens and freshmen Cully Payne and Eric May — all said they planned to remain Hawkeyes.

“After meeting Coach and everything like that, I have a great feeling,” Payne said. “I’m comfortable here. He seemed like a great guy, and I’m excited to play for him.”

Gatens said, “I was impressed by him. He seemed like a personable guy, easy to talk to.”

McCaffery, who has yet to sign his contract but will do so in the coming weeks, brings with him a polished résumé and a history of turning around programs. His first season at Siena, he led a team that had won six games the year before to a 15-victory season.

In each of his last four seasons with the Saints, they won 20-plus games.

The basis of replicating that at Iowa, he said, will come on the recruiting trail and in the practice gym. McCaffery also said he has talked to the Hawkeyes’ four signed recruits and plans to meet with in person soon.

“I do know one thing everybody agreed on, and that’s that we all want the same outcome,” Barta said. “We want to fill Carver again. We want to compete for Big Ten championships, and we want to do it with this guy.”

Described by his wife as a “tremendous teacher,” McCaffery spurned Seton Hall and St. John’s to become the Hawkeyes’ next coach.

Iowa, he said, felt like a place he could raise his family, a place in which he could recruit and compete at the highest level, and a place in which he could restore a once-proud program to its former glory.

“I can promise you this: We’re going to compete,” McCaffery said. “We’re going to play the game the right way. I’m going to coach with passion, but our players are going to have fun. They’re going to enjoy what they do on the floor. And this place is going to be rocking again.”

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