3 factors in Iowa basketball's rise

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and untold stories about the Iowa men’s basketball program has been in plain sight for six years.

Iowa assistant coaches Kirk Speraw, from left, Andrew Francis and Sherman Dillard watch the Hawkeyes face Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2015

But that’s the essence of what Kirk Speraw, Sherman Dillard and Andrew Francis have brought to the gym since the spring of 2010, when Fran McCaffery hired them to be his primary assistant coaches. They’ve been by his side since, a picture of stability in an often-fluid profession.

Bringing the three of them together was one of the savviest things McCaffery did to set the groundwork in transition Hawkeye hoops from dormant to, now, dominant. The Hawkeyes are in the nation's top five and are among the front-runners for the program's first Big Ten Conference regular-season championship in 37 years.

“There was a method to his madness,” Dillard says. “Fran doesn’t do anything by the seat of his pants.”

McCaffery was 51, with 14 years of Division I head-coaching experience when Iowa brought him in from Siena to inject energy into a program that became lifeless after three years of Todd Lickliter. With so much experience himself, the natural thought may have been for McCaffery to acquire young, hungry coaches.

McCaffery took the opposite approach.

“You can’t (say) I’m going to get three young guys because they’ll work hard. Well, old guys work hard, too,” McCaffery says. “And sometimes they work smart, because they have experience.”

Iowa is tied with Michigan as having the most stable staff in the Big Ten Conference — six straight years of the head coach and the top three assistants together. And when you add director of operations Billy Taylor and video coordinator Al Seibert, Iowa has 67 years of head-coaching experience on staff.

This is a story of how they came together; how they’ve stuck together; and why it’s worked.

Starting with Francis

McCaffery patiently spent more than six weeks assembling his core staff after being introduced as Iowa’s coach. But the first of three spots went quickly.

McCaffery was introduced at Iowa on March 28, 2010. Francis, a three-year member of McCaffery's staff at Siena, remembers it was a Sunday. The head coach never called on Sunday.

When Francis saw who was calling, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native and life-long East Coaster thought McCaffery might be taking the open job at Seton Hall in nearby New Jersey.

“When he said Iowa, I was just dumbfounded,” Francis says, “I’m holding the phone speechless, because Iowa wasn’t even one of the schools anyone talked about.”

Francis’ only memory of this state had been a Bracket Buster game earlier that season at Northern Iowa. On the drive from the Cedar Rapids airport to Cedar Falls, he remembers seeing abandoned cars along Interstate-380 after a big snowstorm.

“I remember calling a buddy of mine who I played college basketball with, I told him, I could never see myself living out there,” Francis says. “Little did I know, 5 months later, I’d be living in Iowa. Never say never. Six years later, here I am.”

McCaffery retained longtime director of operations Jerry Strom on staff, so with things on stable footing in Iowa City, he and Francis would beat the streets in early recruiting efforts – including retaining the commitment of Roy Devyn Marble, a key program building block who would become Iowa’s No. 6 all-time leading scorer.

Francis, the youngest of the three assistants, says his coaching style has evolved from fiery to more mellow. He’s had chances to leave the program for other opportunities, but a deep respect for McCaffery has kept him here for now.

“As the years go on, and I evolve as a coach as a person, I value certain things about life even more,” Francis says. “My drive and determination is, I want to be better. I don’t want to chase a position and then I don’t get that position, and then what? I just want to continue to be the best I can be. If my next step is to get a head coaching job, I’m still going to push to be the best I can be as a coach.”

Adding an Iowan in Speraw

McCaffery, a Philadelphia native, wanted at least one assistant coach with Iowa roots. He hit a home run with Speraw.

Speraw knows where the program has been, and knew where it could go. The son of a coach played for Lute Olson on the Hawkeyes’ most recent Big Ten regular-season title team of 1978-79 and was a graduate assistant for the 1980 Final Four team.

The native of Sioux City couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot after being fired from his post of 17 years as Central Florida’s head coach a month earlier. Speraw’s wife, Tracy, is an Iowa City native.

Speraw was proactive in hunting down McCaffery at the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis to express his interest in working at Iowa. A few weeks later, on April 23, he was hired.

“It’s been a great fit for me,” Speraw says.

The feeling is mutual. He’s been instrumental in the unlikely rise of walk-on Nicholas Baer, who deemed Speraw his “Shot Doctor.” Peter Jok recently credited Speraw for his work in the film room. Center Adam Woodbury was a 51-percent free-throw shooter as a freshman; he’s at 79 percent as a senior. Speraw could take his share of the credit for these things, but he doesn’t.

“We all work with the guys on shooting,” Speraw says. “That’s the thing about Fran; we’re all involved with all aspects of the program.”

Speraw has McCaffery’s ear during games as his right-hand man. You’ll often see the two of them hashing out strategy. Speraw’s been through the battles himself, having taken Central Florida to four NCAA Tournaments. But he remains humble in his role, checking his ego at the door to take things off McCaffery’s plate.

“I know what he has to go through on the daily basis in making tough decisions,” Speraw says. “I’ve got to get him thinking about this decision he’s got to be making in three days.”

A crucial piece in Dillard

Dillard thought his coaching days might be over. He was in pursuit of a job in commercial real estate (really) when his wife, Dena, encouraged him to attend the 2010 Final Four and put out feelers for a return to the coaching profession.

It was there that McCaffery was surprised to see an old acquaintance, Dillard, in a hotel lobby. The two have known each other since the late 1970s when they were camp counselors under then-Maryland coach Lefty Driesell.

Dillard told McCaffery he wanted to coach again. And on May 12, 2010, McCaffery officially completed his well-crafted staff with the well-rounded Dillard – who along with his impressive closet of stylish suits packed 10 years of head coaching experience (three at Indiana State, seven at alma mater James Madison) to bring to Iowa.

Dillard had spent his previous six years as a Global Camp Director with Nike, basically presiding over a who’s-who of prospects and their handlers. The Nike job gave Dillard a key connection that would help Iowa’s recruiting reach.

“I told Fran, I can’t promise you that I’ll get every player that comes from this certain program,” Dillard says. “But at least I can make that phone call and get a return phone call and get us in the door.”

Dillard is much more than the sharpest-dressed man on Iowa’s sidelines. He does it all, including being the lead recruiter in Iowa signing top-100 Class of 2016 prospect Tyler Cook out of St. Louis.

He says his experience as a head coach, which included one Colonial Athletic Association title at James Madison, helped him become a better assistant.

“The six years I’ve been with Fran have been the best,” Dillard says. “… I don’t think I could ask for a better situation, considering where I was in my career at the time.”

The importance of continuity

These guys have been together from the lows to now the highs. It was at the very end of their first season together that a breakthrough occurred. In Iowa’s final regular-season game, it upset No. 6 Purdue, 67-65, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to finish 4-14 in the Big Ten and prevent the Boilermakers from a regular-season title.

“That gave us some credibility and some hope, if you will, that we can get this thing turned around,” Dillard says.

They’ve been on a steady climb since. NIT the next year, NIT championship game the next. Now the program is on the verge of a third consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991-93.

One of the important aspects of McCaffery’s staff structure is that each coach does a lot of everything. Scouting reports are divvied up, so are I-Club events. There’s not a main recruiting guy or a main film-study guy.

Opponent scouting reports have become streamlined. McCaffery assigns them before the season, but Big Ten teams stay consistent year over year for each coach. For example, Speraw has had the Michigan State scout for six years – and helped orchestrate this year’s sweep of the Spartans.

“Sherm knows Michigan inside and out. Andrew knows Purdue, inside and out,” Speraw says. “It’s something just to have that stability and knowledge of what worked in this game two years ago, ‘Well, that might work well. Didn’t work last year, but it might work now.’”

McCaffery likes splitting the duties that way, in recruiting, too. If one coach sees a player he likes, another coach moves in to put a new set of eyes on the prospect.

“We all recruit. No territories. We just communicate,” Francis says. “It takes an unselfishness. A lot of staffs, what you’ll have, is everyone pushes their own recruit. It’s an ego battle, an ego trip. I don’t care about ego.”

McCaffery knows that with Iowa experiencing so much success this year, his coaches could get plucked for a head-coaching job elsewhere. He takes comfort in knowing he's given them enough responsibility that they’re well-prepared for the next opportunity.

But as long as they’re at Iowa, they have a voice in the program – even if the outside world doesn’t see it.

“One of the reasons why they’ve stayed is they realize they have input,” McCaffery says. “Their opinions are valued. Their expertise is valued and respected.”

It's been a well-designed harmony.

“We all three bring different things to the table,” Dillard says. “But at the end of the day we’re all singing from the same hymnal.”

Coaching staff longevity by school

Team – Head coach in bold; assistant coaches (consecutive years in position; associate head coaches, if applicable, listed first)

Illinois – John Groce (4th season), Dustin Ford (4), Jamall Walker (4), Paris Parham (4)

Indiana – Tom Crean (8th season), Tim Buckley (8), Chuck Martin (2), Rob Judson (1)

Iowa – Fran McCaffery (6th season), Kirk Speraw (6), Sherman Dillard (6), Andrew Francis (6)

Maryland – Mark Turgeon (5th season), Bino Ranson (5), Dustin Clark (3), Cliff Warren (2)

Michigan – John Beilein (9th season), Jeff Meyer (6), Bacari Alexander (6), LaVall Jordan (6)

Michigan State – Tom Izzo (21st season), Dwayne Stephens (13), Mike Garland (9), Dane Fife (5)

Minnesota – Richard Pitino (3rd season), Ben Johnson (3), Kimani Young (3), Nate Pomeday (2)

Nebraska – Tim Miles (4th season), Kenya Hunter (3), Jim Molinari (2), Phil Beckner (1)

Ohio State – Thad Matta (11th season), Dave Dickerson (6), Jeff Boals (7), Greg Paulus (3)

Penn State – Pat Chambers (5th season), Keith Urgo (5), Dwayne Anderson (3), Ross Condon (1)

Purdue – Matt Painter (11th season), Jack Owens (8), Greg Gary (5), Brandon Brantley (3)

Northwestern – Chris Collins (3rd season), Patrick Baldwin (3), Brian James (3), Armon Gates (3)

Rutgers – Eddie Jordan (3rd season), Van Macon (6), Greg Vetrone (2), Dalip Bhatia (1)

Wisconsin – Greg Gard (1st season), Gary Close (13), Lamont Paris (6), Howard Moore (1)


Who: No. 3 Iowa (16-4, 7-1 Big Ten) vs. Northwestern (15-7, 3-6)

When, where: 2 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network.

Tickets: A third straight sellout is expected. As of Thursday, only 150 standing-room-only tickets were available.

Game notes: Iowa beat Northwestern, 69-52, at  Carver-Hawkeye last year on Senior Day. ... The Wildcats have hit hard times after a great start to the season, having lost four in a row. The last two losses (at Indiana, home vs. Michigan State) have come by 30-plus points. Northwestern shot 20.7 percent (12-for-58) against the Spartans. ... Iowa bench sparkplug Nicholas Baer has shot 4-for-15 in Iowa's last six games. ... Hawkeye senior guard Anthony Clemmons had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists vs. Maryland. It's the first time in Clemmons'  career that he's scored in double figures in three straight games. ... At 8:30 p.m. CT Sunday, Big Ten Network's BTN Journey show will profile Iowa guard Peter Jok's path from Sudan to Iowa.