Why retire now? Longtime Iowa basketball assistant Kirk Speraw explains his decision
Kirk Speraw answered his cell phone late Wednesday night and sounded both emotionally exhausted and relieved. Speraw had just finished going through all of the day’s congratulatory text messages. (He hadn’t even gotten to the social-media posts.)
The outpouring of warm messages — such as six-year Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon saying he was “truly the best there is, on and off the court” — were starting to hit Speraw, 65, who earlier in the day announced his impending retirement as a college basketball coach.
Forty-three years of coaching are in the books, including 17 as the head coach at Central Florida and the last 12 as Fran McCaffery’s top assistant at Iowa.
Speraw was ready to move on, yes. But it also seemed like yesterday that he was a graduate assistant on Lute Olson’s 1980 Hawkeye basketball team that made a magical run to the Final Four.
“It flies by when you’re around good people and you’re at good institutions,” Speraw said.
On the outside, Speraw’s announcement was met with some surprise.
But this was a decision that was complicated and had been building, Speraw explained in an interview with the Des Moines Register.
“A lot of factors,” he said. “I’m not one to make snap decisions.”
Speraw spoke in specifics about three of those factors.
Factor No. 1, the ticking clock of life.
Six weeks after wife Tracy’s mother died, Speraw had returned home late one night after a recruiting trip. The next morning, Dec. 15, Speraw got a phone call that his mother had died unexpectedly.
“It came out of nowhere,” Speraw said. “She didn’t feel well one day and didn’t wake up the next morning.”
A planned family gathering four days later for his mom’s 95th birthday turned into a memorial and celebration of her life.
Factor No. 2, the changing world of college sports.
With the opening of immediate eligibility in the transfer market and athletes’ ability to make money off their name, image and likeness morphing into legalized pay-for-play acquisitions, the college game is in the midst of wildly uncertain times.
Year-round roster uncertainty is becoming the new normal for college coaches, who must be wondering how they'll ever get a day off. One of Speraw's mentors, legendary coach Lon Kruger, retired abruptly in 2021 amid the early stages of changes.
“That’s part of it,” Speraw said. “And I think that’s a part of it in a lot of people’s minds, quite honestly.
“With the transfer portal and NIL and everything that’s coming with that — which everybody can see, because there’s a new headline every so often — it’s like, ‘Do I want to battle that?’ I’m not sure I wanted to go down that path.”
Factor No. 3, the timing.
Speraw grew up in Sioux City and was a Hawkeye at heart. He played for Olson at Iowa, then coached for him.
Not lost on Speraw was the fact that the Hawkeyes had unforgettable seasons in his first and last seasons as a college coach. In his penultimate game as a 12-year assistant under McCaffery, Speraw helped cut down the nets in Indianapolis after Iowa’s run as a No. 5 seed to a Big Ten Conference tournament championship.
“I was pretty fortunate to get to start with Lute and beyond lucky to get to a Final Four in my first year of coaching,” Speraw said. “And to finish with a Big Ten championship on the way out the door, it just seemed that’s kind of a good time to do it.”
McCaffery has known about Speraw’s decision for nearly a month. Shortly after Iowa assistant Billy Taylor was named Elon University’s head coach in mid-April, Speraw told McCaffery he would be stepping away.
“He was going to have to rethink what he wanted to do with his entire staff,” Speraw said. “I wanted to give him time to try to figure out what he wanted to do.”
McCaffery promoted director of player development Courtney Eldridge to succeed Taylor last month. We know now that McCaffery has known for a while that he would have two assistant-coach openings. Eldridge was a natural and popular move; the second hire was going to be more complex. McCaffery has likely been working on a plan to replace Speraw.
What’s next for Speraw? Some golf, sure. But he’s on the clock until June 30. He’ll help get incoming freshmen like Josh Dix ox Council Bluffs transitioned to campus. There are camps in June. There’s still plenty to do.
As for the family? Speraw and his wife have four children and five grandchildren, with a sixth on the way.
“It’s time to go spend time with the grandkids,” he said.
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.