Leistikow: Some thoughts on the two-game suspension of Iowa's Fran McCaffery

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery, no doubt, deserved the two-game suspension he received from Iowa athletics director Gary Barta this week. And the $10,000 university-imposed fine he'll personally pay for violation of the Big Ten Conference's sportsmanship policy.

A meant-to-be-private lashing at official Steve McJunkins became a publicly embarrassing tirade for the Hawkeye basketball coach and the program. An appropriate and stern message had to be sent, and it was.

While I spent Wednesday primarily focused on the most important issue surrounding the eventual reinstatement of radio broadcaster Gary Dolphin, the McCaffery topic is a big one, too.

A day after an 18-minute news conference with Barta and McCaffery, here are some thoughts.

Fran McCaffery, right, spent 20 minutes facing questions from the Iowa media on Thursday -- a day after his profanity-laced tirade toward a Big Ten official that accused him of cheating. Athletics director Gary Barta, left, handed McCaffery a two-game suspension.

Absolutely, college basketball officiating can be tough to watch.

One night, everything’s a foul. The next, anything goes. From one TV timeout to another, the way the game is called by three officials changes. As a fan of the game, the inconsistency can be maddening. As a player, I know it is, too.

Imagine being a coach, with your professional livelihood on the line — and you’re at the mercy of at least 40 to 50 judgment calls a game, 31 nights per winter. On many of these calls, well-meaning officials are out of position to know what happened. There comes a point when it’s difficult to stay composed.

So, the coaching game within the game becomes how they "work" the officials. The titans of the sport are masters at this — Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski, for example. And if a game is perceived to be swayed by how coaches can influence officials, that's worth talking about.

When two bellowing coaches are in your ear for 40 straight minutes a night — usually with little repercussions — it’s no wonder calls are missed. If distracted driving is akin to drunk driving, distracted officiating can mean bad officiating.

What I’d like to see: A hard-line stance by the NCAA to stop allowing coaches to get in officials’ ears during the game or even dead balls. During timeouts, those conversations can occur. If anything — one word — is said from coach to official outside of a timeout, it should be an automatic technical foul. Automatic.

Let all coaching take place between the coaches and players during the action.

And let the referees focus on their jobs.

Swearing is sadly commonplace and mostly accepted in college sports. But the biggest line McCaffery crossed was calling McJunkins a cheater.

Did he mean it? Yeah, maybe, McCaffery said. But also, not really.

“I shouldn’t have said it. But I wasn’t really feeling good about what took place in that moment. At all,” McCaffery said. “The official in question has been a guy of integrity in the past. For that reason, I shouldn’t have said it.”

Some folks have latched onto a narrative that when McJunkins is officiating an Iowa game, the Hawkeyes lose. I crunched recent numbers to see if it was a legit claim.

Here’s what I found: Iowa is 6-9 over the past three seasons when McJunkins is on the crew. That record falls to 2-8 in Big Ten play, including 1-3 this season. (The win was at Penn State; the losses were vs. Wisconsin, at Minnesota and at Ohio State.)

In those 15 games, though, Iowa has been called for 45 fewer fouls — 257 to 302 — than their opponents. That suggests poor play, not biased officiating, is the real reason for the losses.

It will be interesting — given the national attention this has drawn — to see if McJunkins officiates any Iowa games from here on out; not just this season. After McCaffery’s disdain over a 2013 Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan State, official Ted Valentine wasn’t assigned to Iowa games for years.

Also in the news today:The Gary Dolphin conversation we should be willing to have

Should it matter that McCaffery meant his tirade to be private?

He thinks there is a difference, that he chose to lash out after he left the viewing area of 14,000-plus fans at Value City Arena.

He also thinks this won’t affect his relationship with Big Ten officials.

Even if you don’t buy that, here is his perspective.

“I think if you look at every coach, there’s been issues with officials during the season. This is not an isolated incident with one coach,” McCaffery said. “We all express our opinions. Sometimes it’s on the spot, sometimes it’s before, sometimes it’s later. That’s just how it is.”

While the incident was out of line from my perspective, that answer does make some sense from his.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, left, speaks during a press conference with Iowa men's basketball head coach Fran McCaffery on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

On multiple occasions, Barta expressed '100 percent' support for McCaffery.

Maybe some cringed a bit when he said that, in light of Tuesday night. But as an athletics director, anything less than 100 would have been seen both publicly and internally as a coach on thinner ice than the day before.

“One of the reasons I was excited to hire him is exactly because of that passion,” Barta said, doubling down on that full support. “We’ve talked about, I don’t ever want you to lose that. I don’t ever want you to change that. There are certain things, and I won’t go into detail, where I want you to get better. And he wants to get better.”

When I asked whether he thought McCaffery needed anger-management treatment, he didn’t say yes. But he didn’t say no.

“(UI President) Bruce Harreld’s going to constantly tell me what I need to look at and get better at every year; I’m going to keep doing the same in conversations with Fran,” Barta said. “And we’re not going to talk about those publicly. But at the end of the day, I know Fran does a great job. I trust the work he is doing.”

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.