Leistikow: Where will Fran McCaffery turn after after losing top Iowa basketball assistant Kirk Speraw?
Those that thought Wednesday would become a day of settling for the Iowa basketball program were sorely mistaken.
The morning after news broke that Kris Murray would be declining an NBA Combine invitation, his father told Hawk Central that the forward’s return to Iowa is not a forgone conclusion … and that his stay-or-go decision could go all the way up to the June 1 deadline.
A few hours later, another Hawkeye basketball bombshell hit: That assistant coach Kirk Speraw would be retiring.
A program institution that bridged the Lute Olson era (as a walk-on player from Sioux City and a graduate assistant coach on the 1980 Final Four team) to the Fran McCaffery era (serving as the head coach’s top lieutenant for the past 12 years) was moving on, effective June 30.
To dismiss the value of Speraw’s departure would be a mistake. He commanded immediate respect in the locker room. A former head coach at Central Florida for 17 years, Speraw’s was known as the Hawkeyes’ “Shot Doctor” and could quickly identify flaws in a shooting stroke and fix them. Iowa is annually one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Speraw, with 43 years of coaching experience, has had a huge role in that.
Additionally, he was not only McCaffery's right-hand man for 12 years, he was a staff workhorse. Speraw would scout 15 games of opponent film … then go over those same 15 games again. His loss as a basketball tactician will be missed. (Not to mention the postgame chest bumps he famously doled out after big wins.)
Couple Speraw’s departure with the recent loss of valuable assistant coach Billy Taylor (who in mid-April accepted the head-coaching job at Elon), and McCaffery’s staff is experiencing some rare instability.
Until Andrew Francis left in the spring of 2019, McCaffery’s three core assistants had been with him since he was hired at Iowa in 2010. Now, only Sherman Dillard remains from McCaffery's original staff.
Taylor was a major loss, too. Players loved him and trusted him as a resource. Taylor aptly handled the acting head coach position when McCaffery was sidelined with COVID-19 during the past season. His calming influence helped get the team on track for a season-ending flurry that resulted in a Big Ten Conference tournament championship.
And now, a second veteran voice is gone.
McCaffery filled the Taylor loss by promoting Courtney Eldridge, a former player of his at UNC-Greensboro and the team’s director of player development, to the staff. Eldridge is known as a good recruiter and is a trusted McCaffery ally but doesn’t have as much experience as a bench coach. That’s why McCaffery’s next hire becomes extremely important.
The usual names of ex-Hawkeye players now in the coaching business were immediately floated: Dean Oliver (a five-year Wisconsin assistant), Jeff Horner (head coach at Division II Truman State) and Matt Gatens. Of the three, Gatens — who has spent the last three years on staff under Darian DeVries at Drake — makes a lot of mutual sense. Gatens is an Iowa City kid; a player who helped keep Iowa’s early teams under McCaffery afloat; a masterful shooter and offensive player; and someone who understands the value of in-state recruiting.
At the same time, though, McCaffery has an opportunity here to go outside the box. The calls for a defensive guru are also already out there, but I don’t see McCaffery — who turns 63 on May 23 — going that route. He’s an offensive-minded coach and always will be.
He also wasn’t caught off-guard by Speraw’s announcement. Long before the press-release emerged at 10:47 a.m. Wednesday, McCaffery likely already had a short list of replacements in his mind.
For now, McCaffery’s comments are limited to that news release, and no public clues were offered about what’s next. A media appearance at a Coaches vs. Cancer event Friday night could shed more light on his thought process.
“Kirk was well-respected by the players and was one of the key components of rebuilding the program,” McCaffery said in the release. “His knowledge of the game and relationships that he developed with the players, families and fans will be greatly missed. It has been an honor to work alongside Kirk all these years."
In Speraw's final year as a Hawkeye player, Iowa shared the regular-season Big Ten championship in 1979. And now in his final season as a Hawkeye coach, he leaves as a Big Ten Tournament champion.
Given the shadow that Speraw leaves behind in combination with the loss of Taylor … make no mistake, McCaffery’s next hire has become a big one.
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.