McCaffery changing the culture

BY SCOTT MILLER | MARCH 31, 2010 7:30 AM

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These desserts, they’re to die for, Margaret McCaffery said.

The wife of new men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery whips up everything from French apple cobbler to brownies with frosting for her husband’s players. And the players come over to the McCaffery house in droves — for captain meetings, all-team meetings, and, of course, for the desserts.

“It happens a lot,” Margaret McCaffery said.

At his introductory press conference on Monday, Fran McCaffery pointed out that his spouse and the couple’s four kids are at the hub of his off-the-court relationship with his players. The McCafferys sell family to prospective recruits.

“I think when parents drop their children off and turn them over to you,” the head coach said, “they have to know and understand there’s going to be a family atmosphere that they can feel comfortable about, and they can sleep well at night knowing that their son is in good hands.”

McCaffery recognizes he needs to change the culture surrounding his team.

It’s a culture that has produced the worst three-year run in the program’s history under former head coach Todd Lickliter. Attendance plummeted, apathy heightened, and the losses piled up.

An aspect of this culture was Lickliter’s seemingly nonexistent off-the-court relationship with players, causing nine scholarship players to leave during his tenure. Even Athletics Director Gary Barta said he was looking for a coach committed to “student-athletes and their personal lives.”

“That’s something I really enjoyed in high school. I was real close to my high school coach,” sophomore Matt Gatens said. “A lot of people felt like we didn’t have that these last few years, and that’s probably why some people left the program because they didn’t feel real connected to the coaches.”

Freshman Cully Payne said, “The first thing [McCaffery] said was, ‘I want you guys to be apart of my family.’ For a player to hear that is kind of comforting.”

Desserts not withstanding, perhaps McCaffery’s biggest tweak in the Hawkeye system will come with his style of play. A more fast-paced offense — his Siena teams averaged 76.1 points per game over five seasons — and pressure defense contrasts Lickliter’s slow-it-down philosophy.

McCaffery simply said, “We’re going to push the ball” — a sentiment current and former players liked to hear.

“It’s going to be different, but I think every basketball player really likes to go up and down,” freshman Eric May said. “That’s a big part of basketball.”

Nearly half a dozen former players showed up at McCaffery’s press conference Monday. After the new head coach was introduced, nearly all of them spoke of this change in culture — eager to see an up-tempo team.

Maybe Carver-Hawkeye Arena will sell out again, they hoped. Winning is at the heart of everything, they persisted.

Indeed, under Lickliter, the wins were seemingly nonexistent — only 38 in three seasons. To revitalize the once-proud program, McCaffery will do it his way, with a little bit of help from his wife, of course.

“With everything that’s on the line, it’s still really about the kids,” said former Hawkeye Jess Settles, the sixth leading scorer in Iowa history. “You want kids who come to Iowa to have a good time and win and compete. I think a lot of the former players over the last 10 years have had very difficult experiences here.

“It shouldn’t be that way.”

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