Leistikow: Connor McCaffery's two-sport Iowa journey didn't go as planned. He's stayed positive anyway

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Connor McCaffery arrived at the University of Iowa in 2017 with the ambitious plan of becoming a two-sport star in basketball and baseball. The Iowa City West product and son of Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery had always been a high achiever, in athletics and in the classroom. For those that know him, the plan seemed completely doable.

Now nearly 23½ years old and in his fifth December finals week, Connor McCaffery can see some of those dreams coming to an end. Or, maybe more accurately, he can see how they've been recalibrated.

Saying with a laugh that, “I’m too old,” McCaffery — once a tantalizing power hitter on major-league radars — has come to grips with the idea that a professional career will not happen in baseball. It's possible he might not play competitive baseball again. Thanks to cruel misfortune, he’s only been able to play in one of four Hawkeye baseball seasons.

As a true freshman, a case of mononucleosis followed by a misdiagnosed case of strep throat followed by a tonsillectomy limited his first basketball season to just four games. Months of lost training and conditioning led to an easy decision to redshirt in baseball, with the hopes of coming back stronger as a redshirt freshman. He did, in fact, play in 32 baseball games in the spring of 2019. In 84 at-bats, he batted .238 with one homer and five RBIs. After that season, McCaffery was draft-eligible because of his age (21) and received multiple professional offers. But he had unfinished business in basketball and he wanted a chance to play with his younger brother, Patrick.

"That tells you right there the type of potential he had (in baseball)," Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller said this week. "It’s just really hard for a guy to play Power Five basketball in the Big Ten, where it’s physical and you get beat up, then have to show up 20 games into the baseball season and be ready to go."

As a redshirt sophomore, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NCAA to abruptly cancel all spring sports. And last year, spring surgeries on McCaffery’s left and right hips after Iowa's historic basketball season wiped out yet another baseball season.

And now, back on the basketball court after the hip surgeries for his fifth-year senior season, McCaffery is dealing with another issue: back pain.

Anyone young or old who has dealt with back pain knows that it can be a fickle and annoying thing. McCaffery played just 8 minutes in last Thursday’s 73-53 loss to Iowa State, the second-lowest total of his 110-game career. (The only time he played fewer minutes was when he sprained an ankle 3 minutes into a game at Rutgers last season.)

Connor McCaffery (30) gathers the attention of his teammates earlier this season against Western Michigan. The fifth-year senior has 64 career starts in 110 games but is coming off the bench this season.

“Maybe some lagging effects from (the hip surgeries) have taken a toll on my back,” McCaffery said Tuesday. “I’m all right. It’s not ideal.”

More:As Big Ten play looms, Iowa basketball tries to get back on track

He’s been working with trainer Brad Floy on treatment. He’s not practicing much, if at all. But whether in games or behind the scenes, McCaffery can be seen clapping for his teammates or putting his arm around someone to offer a veteran's wisdom.

“It’s been a different kind of season for me so far. The thing that I’ve really tried to do is be a leader, be a voice for the younger guys, to try to pick us up at times when we’re down,” McCaffery said. “Speak up. Never been afraid to speak up. Try to help out guys like Filip (Rebraca), like Kris and Keegan (Murray), guys that we’re going to need in terms of their confidence, (trying) to build them up at all times.”

It’s easy from the outside to focus on McCaffery’s poor shooting numbers (11 points in 10 games) and forget what he means to this team … and what he might be going through as his playing time declines. A program fixture that averaged 30 minutes a game as a redshirt sophomore is playing half that or less now.

“It’s kind of hard seeing him battle through this,” said graduate transfer Rebraca, who befriended McCaffery as two of the team’s elder statesmen. “But he supports us, and we support him. I just look forward to him getting healthy finally.”

Connor McCaffery has been asked to do a little of everything during his Iowa career, including guarding Illinois 7-footer Kofi Cockburn recently for a few possessions.

For the first time since his redshirt freshman year, McCaffery is coming off his father’s bench. That’s been an adjustment for someone with 64 career starts, but one he’s learned to embrace. While he is seated in a folding chair, he’ll carefully analyze what adjustments might be needed — just like a coach would. (Imagine that.)

Coming off the bench was something that the 6-foot-5 McCaffery (who can play all five positions on the court) suggested to his father, long before the back pain surfaced.

“All I really want to do is win. … I could play zero minutes, it really wouldn’t matter to me,” McCaffery said. “I’ll still try to affect our team and be somebody (teammates) can come to with questions.”

More:Iowa men's basketball: Backcourt rebounding a primary focus entering Utah State matchup

Normally, fall and winter are a crucial time for baseball players to get swings in the batting cages. McCaffery is currently doing zero baseball work, which is understandable considering he can’t do much in his in-season sport of basketball. The baseball door is open from Heller if McCaffery’s back improves, but time will tell what's realistic.

“If I continue to deal with some of this stuff … the back is pretty important in baseball,” McCaffery said. “The plan is still to play.”

On Saturday, the Iowa basketball team returns to the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Hawkeyes face Utah State (8-3) in an 8:10 p.m. tip-off on the Big Ten Network. It was at the Pentagon that McCaffery got some of his only action in his true-freshman season, an 80-73 win against Colorado in a raucous, pro-Hawkeye environment. He converted a 3-point play in the first half of that 2017 game. But those would be the final points he scored that season. Five days later, he was rushed to the hospital for an emergency tonsillectomy — the first of many major setbacks to come.

"He pretty much did everything he could to make it work," Heller said. "He just hasn’t caught a break."

Looking back, as Iowa heads to the Pentagon with fans for the first time since his true freshman year, is a reminder that McCaffery’s personal accomplishments in sports have taken a lot of detours.

But it’s also worth pointing out that McCaffery has played in two NCAA basketball tournaments. His selfless on-court play — 368 career assists to just 107 turnovers (a 3.44 ratio) — was a valuable factor in center Luka Garza becoming a two-time consensus all-American and national consensus player of the year. He’s grabbed 300 rebounds. With a GPA around 3.75, he is on track to graduate from Iowa in May with a double major in finance and political science, something that should open lots of professional doors.

McCaffery will see what opportunities transpire — perhaps even in coaching — this spring before completely ruling out a return for a sixth year of athletics eligibility that is available to him due to COVID-19.

But as McCaffery’s path at Iowa shows: Life rarely goes as planned. Finding joy and your place in the journey — while continuing to show love to others — is what it’s all about.

"I knew it was going to be hard. That was kind of the point of it. That’s also what made it so valuable,” McCaffery said. “I never expected anything to go perfectly as planned."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.