Brown: McCaffery's crusade against cancer marches on

Rick Brown
Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery greets guests Friday before the Coaches vs. Cancer Kentucky Derby Gala in Des Moines.

Fran McCaffery was in the middle of a media scrum Friday evening. Nothing new there. It was the message that was different. Iowa's basketball coach wasn't talking X's and O's. The subject matter was cancer.

The Hawkeyes' leader, who was appearing at the American Cancer Society's Coaches vs. Cancer Kentucky Derby Gala Friday at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines, is on a crusade to fight this disease.

"For me, obviously, the fight is personal," McCaffery said.

McCaffery got involved in the Coaches vs. Cancer movement more than a decade ago. Both of his parents died from colon cancer. Last year brought another slap in the face. Doctors discovered that a tumor on the thyroid of his son, Patrick, was malignant. Less than a month after Patrick had surgery on his 14th birthday, there was more.

One of Patrick's friends and classmates at North Central Junior High, Austin Schroeder, was diagnosed with stage 3 T-lymphoblastic lymphoma. Patrick and Austin vowed to beat cancer together. Austin, 15, passed away Tuesday. His funeral was Friday.

"This is a very difficult time in Patrick's life, to understand how that's possible," McCaffery said. "Such an unbelievable young guy to get sick and pass. They were going to beat this thing together. It didn't happen that way. Patrick is committed with us to go after this thing until we win."

"Us" is McCaffery and his wife, Margaret. They are in this fight together, whether it's raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the University of Iowa's Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center or pushing the importance of getting a colonoscopy. They're also involved with a new adolescent and young adult program.

"You hear about pediatric cancer and adult cancer," McCaffery said. "But it's that group in the middle that responds differently to treatment, that has different needs and wants as they go through the process. So we're going to try and do some things in that area."

Friday wasn't about a photo op, or public relations spin. I've seen McCaffery's fiery eyes turn to tears several times when the subject is cancer. He's one of the most misunderstood men in his profession.

McCaffery coaches with a passion that doesn't always make a positive first impression. He gets in the face of his players. He kicks the scorer's table. He slams clipboards. We in the media call these "Wrath of Fran" moments.

Some members of the national media had a field day when McCaffery snapped "ask an intelligent question" after he was asked about another Adam Woodbury eye-poking incident after last season's game against Maryland. ESPN's Michael Wilbon called McCaffery "a bully and a jerk" on "Pardon the Interruption."

The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan tweeted: "If the Iowa AD and school president had any sense of decency, Fran McCaffery would be suspended for minimum of 3 games without pay."

They didn't mention the McCafferys being presented a Coaches vs. Cancer "Champions" award at the Final Four. An award given to a college coach who annually assists in fund-raising and education in the fight against cancer.

Maybe they should have been inside Austin Schroeder's hospital room one day, when doctors had delivered the family another dose of bad news. ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, at McCaffery's request, called to talk to Austin. Vitale was at his inspirational best. Austin smiled, for the first time in weeks. So did his parents. It was their one shining moment.

Do a Google search some time. Type in "McCaffery" and "cancer." You'll find plenty of stories that show a guy who has a passion for more than basketball.

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