Leistikow: There's crying in basketball. Let Iowa assistant Kirk Speraw's story explain.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Kirk Speraw found out it was junior forward Ryan Kriener who spilled the beans that the 40th-year college coach was crying after Iowa’s NCAA Tournament win against Cincinnati, Speraw playfully replied: “That’s it. He’s not playing tomorrow.”
Behind the humorous comment, though, the Hawkeye assistant coach's Friday-afternoon tears spoke volumes.
They represented a day of joy for Hawkeye basketball, an outpouring of emotion in a moment that was a long time coming.
“They’ve worked so hard," Speraw said Saturday, "trying to change what happened last year.”
More than making amends for a 14-19 season in 2018, the tears represented the human side of college basketball that is often so easy to overlook from a couch or from behind a keyboard.
Speraw’s emotions, first and foremost, were about seeing the players find happiness from the thousands of hours they put into their sport.
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“I don’t know that anybody who’s not directly involved in a student-athlete’s life,” he said, “understands what a student-athlete goes through. … There is no down time for them.”
A full academic course load. What’s essentially a full-time job of being a college athlete at the highest level — workouts, practices, film study, travel. So much travel. Most players spend hours of free time visiting patients at the University of Iowa hospitals, helping to lift up those who are helpless and hurting.
All of that work … only to be blasted by outsiders if a game doesn’t go the right way.
“Unfortunately, in today’s society, we’ve got a lot of people that want to tear you down for whatever reason,” Speraw said, pausing for a few seconds to collect his emotions. “But quite honestly as an Iowan, that’s not how Iowans respond. They care about people. They’re always ... building people up.
“But there’s a small minority in the entire country right now, their whole purpose is to tear people down. And that’s unfortunate. These guys deserved yesterday’s win, and they deserved to enjoy that moment.”
Kriener initially said he wasn’t sure why Speraw was bawling immediately after Friday's 79-72 win.
What Speraw just outlined, though, summed up the reason perfectly. Well, part of the reason.
The other part was undoubtedly personal.
We in the media don’t write much about assistant coaches. They rarely get notoriety for what they do in a high-pressure, high-turnover profession. Speraw and Fran McCaffery’s two other primary assistant coaches, Andrew Francis and Sherman Dillard, put in long, long hours.
They do it for the love of the game, and their love for the players.
Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl explained that as the team boards a plane after a road game, he sees coaches already poring over the next opponent’s game film.
“As soon as we walk into our scouting report,” Pemsl said, “they know them like the back of their hand.”
Friday’s game was especially meaningful for Speraw. A native of Sioux City, he walked on at Iowa in the 1970s — skirting scholarship offers so he could play and learn under Lute Olson. In 1980, the last time Iowa has been to a Final Four, Speraw was in his first year of coaching as a graduate assistant.
“I’m a Hawkeye,” he said simply.
As he navigated the country with various coaching jobs, Speraw and his family kept an eye on — and rooted for — the Hawkeyes. He was the head coach at Central Florida from 1994 to 2010, making four NCAA Tournament appearances. He’s been with the Hawkeyes for the last nine.
Friday was a quietly special moment for him. Minutes after Iowa's NCAA Tournament draw was announced last Sunday, Speraw was diligently studying Cincinnati. He was assigned to assemble the scouting report.
And, boy, he nailed it.
Maishe Dailey said Speraw went through at least 15 games — multiple times — to assemble the plan of attack for the first-round game against the Bearcats.
“He stays up all night,” Dailey reported. “He doesn’t sleep.”
Nicholas Baer, a fifth-year senior from Bettendorf and former walk-on, said Speraw has been as much a mentor as basketball coach in his life. Baer sees a dedicated Hawkeye in Speraw who is devoted to helping the players succeed.
“We come to practice some days and his eyes are bloodshot," Baer said, "because he’s been watching so much film. He loves the University of Iowa."
Speraw said each viewing takes roughly two hours, depending on how much he rewinds. If he watched 15 games twice each, that's a good 60 hours of film-study notes. With Cincinnati, he observed that the Bearcats played a certain type of defense early in the season but later changed it.
He told McCaffery that he thought Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin might go back to some of those early tactics to combat Iowa’s wide-open style.
Speraw was right.
It took some in-game adjustments after the Hawkeyes fell in an 18-5 hole. But the Hawkeye players started clicking with confidence in the second half to grab the win.
Then came the smiles. And the tears.
Speraw is sometimes drawn into raucous locker-room celebrations after big wins. Sometimes there are chest pumps. Not Friday, though.
Fittingly, at the Big Dance, Speraw was dancing a jig of joy with Hawkeye players.
“When you’ve been in it as long as some of us have been in it, it never gets old,” Speraw said. “To get to the NCAA, to be dancing, to enjoy your hard work paying off."
In Speraw’s assistant-coach travels, the only time he’s ever been to the NCAA Sweet 16 was in that very first year, in 1980. He didn’t make it as a Florida assistant under Lon Kruger or at UCF. This will be Iowa’s third crack at a round-of-32 win since he’s returned.
This is Year 40 in coaching. He knows he can't do this forever. The Iowa players, they know these Sweet 16 chances are hard to come by.
Safe to say, for the whole Hawkeye program, a win in Sunday’s 11:10 a.m. CT game against Tennessee would come with immense meaning.
And, more than likely, more tears of joy.
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.