Leistikow: Can Fran McCaffery help Iowa basketball meet high expectations?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On Wednesday, Fran McCaffery will begin his 25th year as a Division I men’s basketball head coach with a game against North Carolina-Central. But it’ll be the first year that his two oldest sons, Connor and Patrick, regularly take the court for one of his teams.

What a story it would be if Fran McCaffery’s best coaching year comes at age 61 and happens with Connor, the selfless veteran, and Patrick, the cancer survivor, helping push Hawkeye basketball back to the promised land.

“It would mean the world,” Connor says. “That’s always been one of my dreams, making a deep tournament run. Maybe getting into the ‘One Shining Moment’ video.”

Connor and Patrick weren’t even teenagers in 2008 and 2009, when their father took Siena to consecutive second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. They were by Dad's side as those two Sweet 16 bids fell short. They’ve experienced three of their father's Iowa teams (in 2015, 2016 and 2019) reaching the round of 32. But each time, the Sweet 16 wasn’t in the cards.

Can this be the breakthrough year for the Hawkeyes? Their first Sweet 16 since 1999? Their first Final Four since 1980? Their first regular-season Big Ten Conference title since 1979?

Can Fran be the man to lead them?

Those skeptical can certainly point to some of the less-stellar pieces of Fran McCaffery's history:

  • He’s got an 89-95 (.484) record in Big Ten play and has never reached the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament's Final Four.
  • His Iowa coaching record is 20-25 in March, and that includes a troubling 11-19 mark over the past seven seasons with some of his better teams.
  • He’s 5-4 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but 0-5 in the second round.

To be fair, McCaffery’s never had a team like this, with preseason expectations like these. For the first time in 25 years, one of his teams is ranked in the preseason Associated Press top 25. And that ranking is No. 5, fueled by the returns of consensus all-American center Luka Garza, all-conference swingman Joe Wieskamp and the most prolific 3-point shooter in Iowa history, Jordan Bohannon.

“We're much deeper, substantially deeper,” Fran McCaffery says. “We've got veteran guys coming back who have produced at this level, but at the same time it won't change in terms of our ability to share the ball. It's a very unselfish group.”

Iowa center Luka Garza operates against second-teamers in the Hawkeyes preseason scrimmage on Nov. 7 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Garza believes Fran McCaffery can lead the Hawkeyes to the Final Four.

McCaffery is embracing the high expectations, rather than downplaying them.

"We know what's before us," he says, "but I think that's the fun of it."

His players (including his sons) confirm that he hasn’t made any coaching changes, other than maybe granting more trust their way.

“He approaches every single day the exact same,” Patrick McCaffery says. “He never gets too high or too low. He's let us know about the expectations and the talent that we have and how special of a season it could be.

“But in terms of how he coaches, no, he’s the exact same as he would be any other day of his entire coaching career. That's probably one of my favorite things about him, is just how even-keeled he can stay.”

Connor McCaffery concurs, but also emphasizes that his father won't go easy on a team with a top seven that has an average age of 21 years, 9 months.

“He’s still going to get on us if we’re not performing up to the level that we should be. And I think that’s what we want as well,” Connor says. “I don’t think anything is crazy-different, because of the expectations that we have. It’s pretty much been business as usual.”

If Iowa falls short of expectations, there’s no doubt Fran McCaffery will shoulder some blame.

But let’s also make sure to give him a lot of credit — that he has been the type of leader that can create a team-first mentality among so many talented individuals. It's because of McCaffery's eye for recruiting and developing players (Garza being the ultimate example), his continuous coaching fire and people skills that this program has reached a point of having such high expectations on a national level.

When McCaffery took over the program in 2010, Iowa was in a crater beneath a crater after three lifeless years under Todd Lickliter. Now, he’s got it positioned to shoot for the moon.

Garza, in his fourth year at Iowa, certainly believes McCaffery can lead this team to a national championship. That's why he returned to Iowa, rather than turning pro. Garza was a freshman when the Hawkeyes labored through a 14-19 campaign (including 4-14 in the Big Ten). It was fair then to wonder if McCaffery was losing his handle on the program.

But Garza's game grew. Wieskamp, the highest-rated signee of the McCaffery era, came aboard and stayed aboard. More recruiting hits such as Joe Toussaint and CJ Fredrick have been revealed. The progress is unmistakable.

"(McCaffery) turned (us) from a 14-19 team to one that was an overtime away from the Sweet 16 (against Tennessee, in 2019),” Garza says. “So, I think when you look at that, you can you can tell that he is the coach for this team to make a run. All the guys trust him, and he trusts us.”

Frankly, McCaffery’s best coaching job might already be done — getting the guys on this roster to return and band together for the most anticipated Iowa season in at least 15 years.

Now, he can turn them loose.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.