Leistikow: An interview with Fran McCaffery about race and his Iowa basketball program

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When Fran McCaffery feels conviction about something, he doesn’t hold back his opinions. We’ve seen that clear as day during his 10 passionate years as Iowa’s head basketball coach.

McCaffery was sickened and horrified as he watched the video of George Floyd losing his life while in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer. It stirred up emotions from five-plus decades ago. He recalls being exposed to these subjects as early as age 5, with the 1964 Philadelphia race riot, a response to police violence in his hometown. He grew up admiring Dr. Martin Luther King’s bold leadership against racism.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” McCaffery says of Floyd’s death. “Let the guy breathe. How do you not know that? That’s why that (officer) is going to jail for a long time. And he should.”

To McCaffery, there’s no wiggle room on racial injustice. It’s wrong, period, and it’s gone on for way too long. That’s why, in the aftermath of Floyd’s death on Minneapolis pavement as officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, McCaffery jumped at the opportunity to join an Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition being organized by Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren — a former college basketball teammate of McCaffery’s at Pennsylvania.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has long ties with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and has spoken out against systemic racism.

Each Big Ten institution has 10 representatives, and three of Iowa’s are in the men’s basketball program — Fran McCaffery, his son Connor and assistant coach Billy Taylor (who is Black).

The stated goal of the coalition “is to seek tangible ways to actively and constructively combat racism and hate around the world while also empowering student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.”

McCaffery, 61, says boldly: “We’re going to make a difference. There’s no question about it.”

McCaffery’s strong opinions were evident when he lashed out against “systemic racial injustice” on June 1. In light of allegations of player mistreatment and racial bias within the Iowa football program, I reached out to McCaffery this week with an interest in hearing how he ensures players are treated equally, regardless of skin color.

After all, if football is the front porch of Iowa athletics, men’s basketball is the living room.

As we talked for nearly 30 minutes, it was clear that these questions were almost silly for McCaffery. He describes growing up in a blue-collar, multi-racial neighborhood in Philadelphia. He saw many men around him being thrust into the controversial Vietnam War. 

“When you grow up in a neighborhood like that, you see conflict,” McCaffery says. “I saw that at a very young age, when I was in elementary school.

“Basketball, for me, has been a blessing in that sense. Because you don’t see color. I don’t. Hopefully we can all get to that same place.”

McCaffery says there were times as a youth when he was the only white person in a gym. That included coaches, fans and scorekeepers.

“We’re all hoopin’,” he says. “You didn’t think anything of it.”

Fast forward to 2020, with college athletes feeling more free than ever to speak their minds about injustices. A flurry of social-media posts from Black former players was how the Iowa football issues — which have been acknowledged and initially addressed by athletics director Gary Barta and coach Kirk Ferentz and included the removal of longtime strength coach Chris Doyle — came to light.

One of the prominent issues that emerged in the football saga was a feeling that players felt they couldn’t speak up against unequal treatment without fear of retribution from coaches. That reticence is in stark contrast to how McCaffery describes his approach.

"We meet in one room. I encourage my guys to speak up, I encourage my guys to come into my office,” McCaffery says. “I think it starts with communication.”

Former Black Hawkeye standout Tyler Cook said in an article by the Cedar Rapids Gazette this week that McCaffery created an environment in which there were no racial disparities within the basketball program.

To that point, McCaffery explained his approach by grasping the importance of a family dropping their freshman son off in early June. The car leaves, and the parents go home. But the son stays and becomes McCaffery’s responsibility for up to four or five years. He takes that seriously.

“Any time you recruit a student-athlete to play in your program, the most important thing we want as coaches is for that to be the best four years of their life,” McCaffery says. “Where they learn, they grow, they make lasting friendships. Let’s be honest, a lot of players you recruit, they meet their wife here. They meet the best man of their wedding here. You want that to be the best possible experience. And you surround yourself — I do, anyway — with a staff that’s going to help it become that way.”

Two of McCaffery’s three assistant coaches are Black. Sherman Dillard, who has been with McCaffery all 10-plus seasons at Iowa, has been active on social media in an effort to educate others on the realities of racism in America.

It may sound minor, but McCaffery has never restricted media access for true freshmen. It’s extremely rare that an interview request is denied; even injured players are given leeway to talk. From Day 1, players are free to express themselves. There are no social-media restrictions. But as most who closely follow this program know, players are expected to be “professional” in their approach to practices and games.

“The important thing is to know each and every person as an individual,” McCaffery says, “so you know how you can help them if they’re having a hard time.”

Unwavering support for his players is undoubtedly one of McCaffery's strengths as a coach. He has their backs, often going on offense against the media or outsiders (and, yes, referees) who may be against them. He is more than willing to make himself the target of backlash to address perceived wrongs against his athletes.

“I brought them here,” he says with conviction. “I’m your ally. I’m your advocate.”

Former Hawkeye star and Sudan-born Peter Jok told me Friday he never once heard McCaffery or any Iowa basketball coach say anything racist in four years.

"Coach Fran never saw us as Black and white," Jok says. "He treated us like family."

None of this is to say that McCaffery has it all figured out and handles things perfectly. There’s no doubt that there are different challenges in managing 85 scholarship players (in football) versus 13 (in basketball).

Most of McCaffery’s big recruiting wins have been with white players; there’s room for improvement in attracting top Black players into the program. McCaffery says stereotypes of Iowa being too white with cornfields are the biggest obstacles in recruiting.

“When recruits of color see our campus and see our community,” he says, “they’re pleasantly surprised and look at us favorably.”

This is a time of reflection across our country and among prominent coaches on the Iowa campus. The best way to learn is by listening.

Having open, authentic conversations about race — like McCaffery’s done here and will continue to with the Big Ten’s anti-hate coalition — can only help.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.