Fran McCaffery in-depth, Part 1: Tackling Twitter, Isaiah Moss departure with Iowa's coach
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery isn’t on social media. And he’s grateful he isn’t.
Still, the 10th-year Iowa basketball coach hears what is said about his team. Particularly the negative stuff toward (that sometimes tags) his players. He was particularly disturbed that despite a 23-win season — in which his team came within an eyelash of the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years — there was relentless doses of vitriol among a certain segment of Hawkeye followers.
If you’re active on Twitter, you’ve surely seen it.
I’ve sure seen it.
If I tweeted something about Jordan Bohannon, someone would inevitably pipe up and complain that he wasn’t playing satisfactory defense.
The social-media treatment of leading scorer/rebounder Tyler Cook was over-the-top negative, and that trend has continued since the Hawkeyes’ season ended with an overtime loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
If you had a nickel for every tweet contending that Cook — only one of the most explosive players ever to wear a Hawkeye uniform — will never be an NBA player … you could probably buy a few carts of groceries and still have enough left for a tank of gas.
And when you’re the head coach with one son on the team — and a second on the way — you can imagine how the negativity can be amplified over any loss or any setback.
“In the old days, people would say stuff to the person they’re standing next to,” McCaffery said this week in an exclusive interview with the Des Moines Register. “Now they post it. Now they attack people directly.
"It’s upsetting. When I say they, my boys (Connor and Patrick) — but (also) my guys. The guys on the team. And it’s sad. It’s disgraceful."
McCaffery isn't a guy who backs down. He'll fight for his players against all-comers, sometimes taking it to the extreme — like he did when berating an official in a hallway after a game at Ohio State, a tirade that resulted in a two-game suspension.
“People say stuff about me, it really doesn’t bother me. I don’t care. I know people say, ‘Oh, sure.’ But it really doesn’t," McCaffery said. "Because once you sign up for this profession, it’s coming.
"What bothers me is when you have an amateur athlete, especially a young kid who’s growing and trying to figure it out, and you see him get viciously attacked."
This unusually newsy offseason has only added to the unrest.
A longtime, loyal assistant coach departed. So did three junior players. Talented freshman Joe Wieskamp added a slightly bit of uncertainty by testing the NBA Draft process. There hadn’t yet been a big recruiting win; only close losses.
In a 32-minute interview, McCaffery spoke in depth about some of the program’s pressing issues in addition to what he sees the latest troubling trends in college basketball. His answers were compelling, and I didn’t want to cut him short, so I broke the interview into two parts.
TOPIC 1: Why did Isaiah Moss leave?
To the fans I trust, this was by far the most concerning offseason development. Most plugged-in folks realized Cook wanted to go pro after Year 3 no matter what. It wasn’t a surprise to see Ohio native Maishe Dailey transfer to Akron.
But Moss? It didn’t quite add up for outsiders. Moss was a 96-game starter and 39% career 3-point shooter, and his role theoretically should've expanded. Yet his father told an Illinois fan website that his son desired a better fit to help him reach the next level.
After our interview Wednesday, Moss tweeted that he had committed to Arkansas — a team that is rebooting with a new coach.
McCaffery: “I really, really like Isaiah Moss. I have a great relationship with him. Tremendous respect for him. Been a really good player for us for a long time. I hope it works out for him. I really do.
“He will make shots. He is a great locker-room presence. Every one of his teammates loves him. He’s going to play hard. He’s not going to be in trouble, ever. He’s a really good person. Wherever he goes, he’s going to give them what he’s got.
“Fourth-leading scorer (actually fifth, at 9.2 points a game). Fourth on the team in shots (276). Fourth on the team in minutes (24.1 a game). I’m just assuming, he wants to be first or second on the team in shots. First or second on the team in minutes. I’m sure that’s what he’s looking for, and I hope that’s what he finds.”
TOPIC 2: Why did Andrew Francis leave?
Francis had worked under McCaffery for 12 years — three at Siena, nine at Iowa. He was considered Iowa’s most relentless recruiter and an ally to players when tough times struck.
But last month, he accepted an assistant coaching position at California of the Pacific-12 Conference.
It’s important to note that McCaffery had enjoyed rare stability among his assistants — having never lost one in nine years among Francis, Kirk Speraw and Sherman Dillard.
While this is hardly a crisis, it was at least worth asking why Francis would desire a fresh start elsewhere. This was the first time McCaffery has answered questions on the matter.
McCaffery: “I think he felt like he wanted a change. He started his career at Villanova, came with me to Siena, came with me here. He’s spent his career on the East Coast, in the Midwest. I think he feels like now he’s on the West Coast, it really provides him with a broad-based resume to get a head-coaching job. I would’ve thought he’d been a head coach by now. He’s been close on a few.
“Hopefully getting some West Coast experience will help.
“He’s one of the great ones.”
TOPIC 3: Has McCaffery targeted a defensive guru to replace Francis?
Iowa’s adjusted offense (according to KenPom.com) is elite. It was No. 15 out of 353 Division I teams in the country last season. That’s the top 5%. One spot behind Kentucky, one ahead of Villanova.
McCaffery is a highly regarded offensive coach who likes to play at a fast pace. His teams have won three NCAA Tournament games in the past five seasons.
Yet Iowa’s adjusted defense last season was 111th nationally; last in the Big Ten Conference. Given Michigan's success under now-departed John Beilein after he recruited a defensive guru to his staff (Luke Yaklich) and seeing defensive-minded teams Virginia and Texas Tech make the NCAA title game … why not go that direction with a new assistant?
Or maybe an assistant focused on recruiting?
McCaffery, who will turn 60 later this month, said he instead preferred to find a well-rounded coach. He was expecting to name a Francis replacement next week.
McCaffery: “I look for somebody who’s good in every area. You’ve got to be able to coach as it relates to breaking teams down. Scouting. Relationships with players. Relationships in recruiting. To be able to speak to alumni groups. You’ve got to be able to do it all. The reason for that is, I’m not able to be in this office every day. Whatever comes through that door, any one of my guys has to be able to handle it.
“The other thing is, professionally, I want that person — whoever it is — to have an opportunity to be a head coach. If you only specialize in one thing, you can’t ever be a head coach. A lot of guys over the years have been utilized in that way. Well, he’s my recruiter. He’s my defensive guy. He’s my administrative guy. Those guys move over one chair, and they’re in over their head.
“Nobody ever did that to me. So I’m not going to do that to them.”
TOPIC 4: What about the futures of Cook and Wieskamp?
McCaffery said there’s a zero percent chance Cook will be back. He was confident that Wieskamp would be.
After our interview, McCaffery was headed to Chicago to support Cook's appearance at the NBA Scouting Combine. It came as no surprise to McCaffery that Cook was ready to move on.
McCaffery: “Tyler Cook is a really bright young man. … He’s done what he needs to do academically (and is close to getting his degree). And he wants to be a professional basketball player.
“Maybe it’s in the G League. Maybe it’s on an NBA roster. Maybe it’s overseas, making really good money. Either way, he’s got ... a 12-year window, maybe 13 years, to make money.”
TOPIC 5: Final thoughts from a 23-12 season?
There’s a reason I opened this column with the pointed stuff about social media. It was a jarring experience as a columnist covering the team, to see so much negativity amid a plus-nine turnaround in wins (from 14-19 in 2017-18). Even if it was a minority of fans, it was an effectively vocal minority.
And, as I spoke with McCaffery, it became obvious that from the top down, the Hawkeyes went through the 2018-19 season with an us-against-the-world mentality.
“(Bohannon and Cook), they’re some of our best players,” McCaffery said. “But they get some of the brunt of the negativity. I think in a lot of ways you sort of develop this band-of-brothers mentality in the locker room.”
Look for Part 2 of the McCaffery interview in the coming days, in which the future of Hawkeye (and college) basketball is addressed.
But for now, I'll leave you with his answer about the Iowa team that's been the closest of his nine to reaching that elusive Sweet 16.
McCaffery: "Going through that journey, the ups and downs. We always talk about family. Well, that’s kind of what family is. We’re traveling together, eating together, staying in hotels together, competing together. We’re dealing with success and failure together. Adversity together. That’s what it is.
"I wish people could have been in the locker room after that (Tennessee) game. It was without a doubt the most emotional locker room I’ve ever been in. Players were not afraid to tell each other how much they loved each other. Players, coaches crying.
"It’s never going to be great all the time. But we accomplished some amazing things coming off a disappointing season. I’m very proud of what we accomplished."
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.