Leistikow: McCaffery's bond with Tom Crean goes beyond basketball

Chad Leistikow

In the weeks since Tom Crean the basketball coach was fired at Indiana, heartwarming stories have surfaced about Tom Crean the man.

Fran McCaffery has a story about Tom Crean the friend.

McCaffery, now entering his eighth season as Iowa’s head coach, vividly remembers two phone calls he received on the morning of March 21, 2014.

The first came before anyone in the McCaffery home was awake, and brought devastating news: The thyroid tumor removed from McCaffery’s son Patrick two days earlier was malignant.

In this Feb. 27, 2014, photo Iowa's Fran McCaffery shakes hands with then-Indiana coach Tom Crean prior to their game at Assembly Hall. A few weeks later, Crean would make a profound phone call to McCaffery, while their son was headed to the hospital.

It was the last conversation a parent wants to have: Wake up, son. You have cancer. And we need to get to the hospital.

“Burst into tears, as you can imagine,” McCaffery says. “… He didn’t want to go.”

As much confidence as Fran and Margaret McCaffery have in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, fear of the unknown settled in. Another surgery awaited Patrick, who turned 14 the day before.

“Your mind is spinning. Your son is distraught,” McCaffery says. “We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.”

As they drove to the hospital, McCaffery’s phone rang again.

This time, the voice on the other end brought comfort.

It was Crean, and the timing of the call was no accident.

Crean, a devout Christian, had been in touch with McCaffery — who had been preparing for Iowa's first NCAA Tournament game in eight years — about Patrick’s health. And he knew his colleague and friend would be getting his son’s results about that time.

“I told him (the news),” McCaffery says. “He said, ‘OK, we’re going to pray. We’re going to pray over the phone right now.’ We prayed.”

A few meaningful minutes became a powerful memory for McCaffery.

What stands out to McCaffery as he looks back on that prayer — just he and another Big Ten Conference basketball coach — was the consistent amount of care and love Crean offered him, not only in that moment but over the years.

Patrick McCaffery, 17, is now an Iowa City West sophomore. He has been proclaimed cancer-free since June 2014.

Crean had plenty of other things going on — like rebuilding (and eventually sustaining) the Hoosiers’ proud basketball tradition. Crean had taken over a program on three years’ probation with just one returning scholarship player following the scandal-ridden Kelvin Sampson era. By Crean's fifth season in 2012-13, the Hoosiers were the nation's preseason No. 1 team and went on to win Crean’s first of two Big Ten championships.

“None of my colleagues have ever inherited a worse situation than he did,” McCaffery says. “It’s pretty hard to go from where they were to No. 1.”

Crean and McCaffery have known each other since the early 1990s, when both were up-and-coming assistant coaches — Crean at Western Kentucky, McCaffery six hours north at Notre Dame. They were professional colleagues then.

They became closer once both were in the Big Ten; their wives became friends, too.

When Crean and McCaffery talk now, rarely is it about X’s and O’s.

“He’s one of the most incredible thinkers I’ve ever been around,” McCaffery says. “I’ll get stuff from him on Bill Belichick’s defensive philosophy. I’ll get stuff from him on the Holy Spirit.”

Most of all, they talk about their kids. Their oldest sons are standout baseball players and high school seniors: Riley Crean, a pitcher who signed with Indiana, Connor McCaffery, a left-handed slugger and top-100 national point guard in basketball who is committed to Iowa.

On that morning phone call three years ago, Crean shared with McCaffery that he and Riley had also prayed together for Patrick on their way to school.

A few weeks after Crean’s March 16 firing, Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel wrote a compelling piece about Crean’s behind-the-scenes acts of love, involving acquaintances and strangers alike. Other stories have been written, too, about Crean buying food for people in need on the side of the street; about helping a man and his car stuck in a snowy ditch.

“It’s genuine,” McCaffery affirms. “It really is.”

It’s a side of the man that can't be grasped through a two-hour game on TV.

I know many Hawkeye fans who would get annoyed watching Crean patrol the Indiana sideline over the course of nine years. They saw what appeared to be an over-caffeinated, constantly pacing, hyper-intense, in-the-officials-ears enemy.

Tom Crean was Indiana's coach for nine seasons, winning two Big Ten championships, before being fired in March.

McCaffery laughs, knowing he can relate. Opposing fans love to hate him, too.

They’ve bonded over being lightning rods on the sidelines, and turned to each other when they see outside pressure affecting their kids.

It turned out that Crean’s final victory as Indiana’s coach came at McCaffery’s expense – a 95-73 result in the Big Ten Tournament that probably kept the Hawkeyes from reaching the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year.

Being friends doesn’t make that loss hurt any less.

But the bond that was strengthened over an impromptu prayer three years ago is why McCaffery says their friendship will “unquestionably endure for the rest of our lives.”

Following successful surgery and treatments, Patrick has been cancer-free for nearly three years. He’s become one of the top Class of 2019 basketball prospects in the country.

The McCafferys have lots of people to thank for their support as Patrick faced an uncertain future. Michigan State's Tom Izzo was one of the first fellow coaches to check in. Countless others offered a hand, too.

But for McCaffery the father, he'll always remember what Crean the father (and friend) did for him in a scary moment of uncertainty.

“Just incredibly unique and thoughtful things happened through that process,” McCaffery says. “But that’s one of the most memorable. That Tom took it upon himself. … That just speaks to who he is as a person.

“He’s a basketball coach. But he’s a dad, a husband, first and foremost. He’s thinking about what someone else is going through. Which is all you need to know about him.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.