Brown: March Madness returns to normal for McCafferys

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Basketball is Fran McCaffery's occupation. It's also his passion, something he shares with his wife, Margaret, and their four hoops-crazy children.

But it is a game. Not life or death, as much as we make it out to be sometimes. The unpredictability of life has a way of tapping us on the shoulder and reminding us.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014. A day when the McCafferys' zest for the game of basketball had a collision course with personal crisis.

Two weeks earlier, doctors had discovered a tumor on Patrick McCaffery's thyroid. Surgery was scheduled for March 19. Iowa's basketball team would lose six of their last seven games, but appeared to be in good shape for the school's first NCAA bid since 2006.

It arrived on Selection Sunday. With a twist. Iowa drew Tennessee in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio. The game would be played March 19.

"I just remember standing here on Selection Sunday last year thinking, 'That's the day of Patrick's surgery, and we have to play? How are we going to do this' " Margaret said. "Then you just kind of say, 'OK, here we go.' And we survived."

March 19 lasted just 24 hours. But it was one of the longest days of Fran McCaffery's life.

"Well, yeah," McCaffery said. "It was different. I was able to compartmentalize everything."

McCaffery was in Dayton, Ohio, with his team on March 18, conducting practice. He then flew back to Iowa City that night. Fran and Margaret woke Patrick up early the morning of March 19, and they headed to University Hospitals for surgery to remove the tumor.

After consulting with doctors, who told him surgery had gone well, Fran told Patrick and Margaret goodbye. Patrick, who turned 14 the next day, told his dad he wanted a victory for his birthday present. McCaffery flew back to Dayton. Tennessee won in overtime. Fran flew home.

The trip to Dayton also broke a bond between husband and wife. Margaret had been to every NCAA game Fran had coached since they got married in 1997. Instead, she watched the game with Patrick in his hospital room, 475 miles away.

"After the game, knowing that we couldn't be near Fran, that was really hard," Margaret said.

Basketball had been a thread of normalcy in the face of life's unraveling. And now there were no more games.

"There was the sense that, 'Oh my gosh, it's over, now all we have is dealing with this right here in front of us,' " Margaret said. "Because we just hadn't stopped to think about what an emotional thing we were going through as a family."

Two days after the Tennessee game, the McCafferys were at their Coralville home when Patrick's biopsy results came in. The tumor was malignant. Had Iowa won that game two days earlier, the coach would have been in Raleigh, N.C., preparing his team for a game with Massachusetts. It almost felt like fate put him where he needed to be.

"We've thought about that and talked about that," McCaffery said. "That would have been really difficult, to get that news when I would have been in North Carolina. But something tells me he would have been at that game. Margaret would have pulled that off."

So here we are, a year later. Iowa is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for a Friday game with Davidson in Seattle, Wash. Patrick is cancer-free. And the whole family will be on hand to cheer for dad's team.

"It's a totally different feeling in the room, and in every aspect of life, than it was a year ago," Margaret said.

One more thing. Friday is Patrick's 15th birthday.

"This will be a way better birthday," Margaret said.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.