Why Iowa's Fran McCaffery is college basketball's most misunderstood coach
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Fran McCaffery has a specific and particular mistrust of social media and he knows exactly why he has a problem with it.
The Iowa head coach understands that the snapshots and hot takes and random thoughts that jumble together across various platforms are entertaining, but can also twist the real picture in regard to an athlete, a coach, a program or an issue. And, in doing so, it impacts one of the most basic tenets of his coaching philosophy.
"I am always going to want to defend my guys," McCaffery, whose No. 5-ranked Hawkeyes begin their Big Ten Tournament campaign on Friday against Wisconsin, told me in a telephone conversation this week.
"The things that upset me is when our players at any point in time have had a bad game or taken a loss and they are getting attacked. People can directly attack them and some of the stuff said is just despicable. That’s going to get me (fired up)."
McCaffery doesn’t like it when information is portrayed out of context, which is why snippets on social media irk him. He doesn’t like it either when his message is misunderstood, though he might be the most misunderstood coach in America.
Heading into the time of year when everything in college hoops gets magnified, McCaffery possesses both an outstanding team and a prevailing reputation. Basketball has come to know the current iteration of the Hawkeyes as a skilled, unified, tenacious unit that went 20-7 in the regular season, good enough for the No. 3 spot in a loaded conference and a projected No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In Luka Garza, McCaffery has a true college superstar who just clinched a second straight Big Ten Player of the Year award and is widely expected to claim national honors.
To those looking in casually from the outside, they may also know McCaffery as being a hard-nosed coach with a bit of a temper, and an occasional habit of venting his fury at referees. Journalists, too, have sometimes been in the firing line, with a particularly tense exchange going viral recently on, yep, social media.
Within the program’s walls, however, he is a firm believer in a calm vibe and his players perpetually show themselves as being ready to go to war for him.
"If Fran believes he or his players are being attacked, he fights right back," The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman said. "In the 11 years he has been at Iowa, there’s one line he will never, ever, cross, and that’s saying something negative about his players."
FOX Bet currently gives the Hawkeyes the sixth-best odds to win the national title at +2000 and though McCaffery, aware as anyone of the unpredictability of March, doesn’t like to quantify success as reaching a certain point in the bracket, he is aware his program hasn’t reached a Final Four since 1980 or a Sweet 16 in this millennium.
The Hawkeyes enter this year’s postseason on a high note having won seven of their last eight. They have momentum behind them and carry an aura of settled focus.
"Back when I was coming up coaches yelled at you as some kind of motivation," McCaffery, who has been the head coach at Iowa since 2010, added. "I have done it, but I don’t do it a lot. No matter what, I am coaching another man and woman’s child. There is a fine line between motivation, teaching and holding them accountable, and trying to ensure they max out their potential.
"I don’t need to scream and yell as some way of building their manhood. They’re good kids."
Over recent seasons, McCaffery has also been able to blend coaching with fatherhood, with his sons (redshirt junior) Connor and Patrick, a redshirt freshman who recovered from a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2014, part of his squad.
One of the fears of being a dad that they don’t tell you about in the manual is how one day your thoughts won’t be about your son’s grades or whether his room is tidy (it never is) but an entirely selfish terror that soon he won’t be around you anymore. That high school days are over and suddenly he’s living somewhere else, doing something else and communicating via phone calls and Zoom.
McCaffery has been able to delay that inevitability, in the most satisfying way possible.
"Incorporating my boys into this group has been an amazing experience because we are enjoying this ride together," he added. "I come to practice every day thrilled for the opportunity to see my boys and I know they are with a great group of young men. It gives you a real perspective on what you are doing when your own child is part of the program."
Both Connor and Patrick are key members of this year’s team and will likely play a big role if the Hawkeyes are able to capture a Big Ten Tournament title. While an injury to elite shooter Joe Wieskamp is a concern, the team’s fortunes will hinge heavily as always on Garza, coming off a tremendous campaign in which he became Iowa’s all-time leading scorer.
Last weekend saw emotional scenes as McCaffery let Garza know his jersey would be retired and the player responded by shedding joyful tears onto the hardwood at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"I honestly didn’t expect that at all," Garza said after the game. "I didn’t realize that was a plan or that was going to happen. For Coach to tell me that, it was a surreal feeling. Time slowed down as I heard those words."
The jersey retirement caused some upset feelings to the family of former player Roy Marble, an Iowa legend who held the program’s all-time scoring mark before Garza topped it this season. Marble died in 2015, but his number has not been retired by the school.
Over the coming weeks, McCaffery and his group have an opportunity to give the program some of its most cherished history. Nothing is certain in college basketball, and definitely not in these pandemic-affected times, but there is a growing feeling that if there is going be a time when Iowa makes magic happen, it is now.
"I know all about how March throws up things you didn’t expect," McCaffery said. "But this group all have each other’s back and we’re ready for what lies ahead."
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.