Fran McCaffery in-depth, Part 2: On playing within college basketball's rules when others don't

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The dirty side of college basketball isn’t much fun to talk about. When one of the most distinguished, successful, ethical coaches in the game decides to get out … you need to talk about it.

John Beilein’s sudden, mid-May departure from the University of Michigan — where he led the Wolverines to four Big Ten Conference titles and two national runner-up finishes — for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers certainly caught national attention.

One of his longtime colleagues and friends, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, took notice.

“He didn’t like it there. He loved it there,” McCaffery said in an interview with the Des Moines Register this week. “But our game has changed.

“I know he’s disappointed in the state of our game right now. The unethical nature of what’s been going on.”

The changing landscape of college basketball, and how that affects the Hawkeyes in their short- and long-term futures, comprises the theme of Part 2 of my recent conversation with McCaffery. 

(Part 1, in case you missed it, dealt largely with McCaffery's take on what's been a newsy offseason.)

Joe Wieskamp, left, probably won't play in college for four years, coach Fran McCaffery predicted.

TOPIC 1: What does Beilein’s departure say about the college game?

The news struck a nerve with McCaffery, who actually replaced Beilein as one of the head coaches to serve on the NCAA's Ethics Coalition. Beilein was known for producing excellent college teams without cheating.

“It’s getting harder and harder the way he does it, the way I do it,” McCaffery said. “The way it should be done.”

FBI probes and illegal payments of players have been the most glaring scars in the game. But it seems like more issues than ever are cropping up that tear apart the notion of players experiencing a four-year career at one school.

McCaffery said a new rule this year that players can sign with agents but still return to school is one example of unintended consequences damaging the game. Beilein seemed resigned to losing young stars Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole, who had hired agents but not officially made an NBA decision. 

McCaffery: "Agents signing our players and inserting themselves into the equation — it’s safe to say there’s no agent out there that’s advocating for the University of Michigan. I can tell you that.

"I’m not sure some of those rules were for the better. At the time, we all said, you know what? Change is coming. We embraced the change, and we’ll adjust. I’m not sure the change was good. The new recruiting rules. The interaction with agents. The transfer portal. Grad transfers. There are cases when it’s good; but it creates mega-problems elsewhere.

"And if you weigh the collateral damage with some of the changes that were made versus some of the small amount of good ... we probably should make some changes again.”

TOPIC 2: Are other colleges tampering with players?

Absolutely, McCaffery said. (Keep reading.)

That’s why he is adamantly opposed to the thought that all transfers should be immediately eligible.

Iowa recently lost fourth-year junior Isaiah Moss, who intends to become a graduate transfer at Arkansas.

To be clear, McCaffery didn’t insinuate anything about any program tampering with Moss. But he did relate the conversation to his days at UNC-Greensboro and Siena, and what might’ve happened then if today’s transfer-portal frenzy would have been around.

McCaffery: “If you look at reality, the transfer portal is free agency. Grad transfers are free agency.

“Transferring now has become more of the norm. I had some great players (at UNC-Greensboro and Siena) that would have been tampered with. Recruited right off my team.

“You’re not supposed to do that. But that’s what’s being done. It’s kind of on the low end of the cheating that’s going on. Talking to a guy who might be a grad transfer or talking a guy into transferring. That’s against the rules."

TOPIC 3: Will you coach Joe Wieskamp for four years?

Wieskamp, a talented 6-foot-6 swingman who made the all-Big Ten freshman team, was still exploring the NBA Draft process at the time of our interview. Tyler Cook has moved on to his pro ambitions after three years with the Hawkeyes. It’s a rarity to coach and develop four-year program stalwarts, like Aaron White was for Iowa and Ethan Happ was for Wisconsin.

McCaffery: “Probably won’t coach (Wieskamp) or four years.

"If that’s the case, I’d be thrilled for him. I always say, you can’t recruit a guy like Tyler Cook or Joe Wieskamp and talk about the NBA in the recruiting process, and then try to limit their opportunities for the NBA while they’re here. You’ve got to be all-in on the kid and his future. If he ends up leaving next year or the year after … he’ll go at the right time. He’ll go when the time is right. And he’ll make it.

“I think he’ll be back this year. But I don’t think he’ll be here four years.”

TOPIC 4: Who will replace Moss’ shooting-guard role next season?

Although Cook’s departure was expected, Iowa has available power-forward bodies in Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener and Jack Nunge to replace him.

The loss of an athletic, 6-foot-5 wing player, however, leaves a bigger mark.

Moss was a 96-game starter at shooting guard and made 39% of his career 3-pointers.

As a solution, McCaffery echoed a name I’ve heard a lot of buzz about: CJ Fredrick. The 6-foot-3 native of Covington, Kentucky, was impressing coaches behind the scenes while redshirting as a freshman. Even if Moss had stayed, Fredrick likely would’ve cut into those minutes.

McCaffery (on Fredrick): “He’s complete. He can play the point, he can play the 2, he can come off screens, he can shoot 3s. He’s quick, and he’s a really good athlete. He can guard. He can get to the rim and finish. He can score in a bundle. He gives it up easy. Those guys are hard to find, guys that can really score."

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.