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July 22, 2010
Iowa's McCaffery relishes rebuilding role
In 2005, Iowa made its fifth consecutive postseason appearance while Siena went 6-24 to set a school record for losses.
Fast-forward five years. Iowa has endured three consecutive losing seasons since its last NCAA bid in 2006. Fran McCaffery has led Siena to three consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and a pair of NCAA tournament first-round victories.
So when Iowa fired Todd Lickliter in the wake of a 10-22 season that included a series of player departures, the Hawkeyes wasted no time hiring the latest king of rebuilding projects.
McCaffery, 51, already had engineered turnarounds at Lehigh and UNC Greensboro before Siena's first-round upsets of Vanderbilt in 2008 and Ohio State in 2009 allowed him to enter the national spotlight.
Of course, it's one thing to turn a doormat into a contender in the Patriot League, Southern Conference or MAAC. Pulling off a similar feat in one of the six major conferences typically takes much more time.
"The only difference is we're in the Big Ten," McCaffery said. "There are teams in our league that are in the top five in the country, whereas in the past I may have gone in and there are good teams but not necessarily in the top five in the country.
"It's a little more challenging, but I think we have a lot of things in place in terms of the tradition, our facilities."
Iowa clearly has the tradition. The Hawkeyes have reached the Final Four three times (1955, '56 and '80) and made 19 NCAA tournament appearances from 1979-2006. And the Hawkeyes are getting the facilities. Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena is undergoing a $47 million renovation project that should be completed by the summer of 2011.
McCaffery is counting on those factors to help him restore the pride to a program that steadily has declined since the glory years of the Lute Olson and Tom Davis regimes.
Iowa earned 13 NCAA tournament bids in a 15-year span from 1979-93, but the Hawkeyes have gone dancing just six times in the 17 years since. Iowa has posted a winning record in Big Ten competition just three times in the past 11 seasons. Iowa produced 11 first- or second-round NBA draft picks from 1987-99, but only one Hawkeye (second-round pick Adam Haluska in 2007) has been drafted since 2000.
"This is a monumental job here," Jess Settles, an All-Big Ten performer for Iowa in 1996, said at the time McCaffery was hired. "This program is at a low point, let's be real about that. He has a big mountain to climb, but he's going to get to the summit with one recruit at a time and one handshake at a time. You have to wear a lot of hats here and build a lot of relationships.
"There are not a lot of successful sports teams in the state right now, so he has a lot on the line and has to win a lot of the fans back. I really think that he can do it."
McCaffery understands the challenge. Even though his previous head-coaching stops were on the East Coast, he has Midwestern roots.
After a three-year stint at Lehigh -- where he took over as a 26-year-old in 1985 to become the youngest head coach in Division I -- McCaffery spent 11 seasons as a Notre Dame assistant. His wife, the former Margaret Nowlin, played basketball for the Irish from 1988-92 and began dating McCaffery while working as an assistant for the Irish women's team.
McCaffery mentioned his Midwest ties during his introductory news conference. He described his unsuccessful attempts to recruit Settles to Notre Dame. He mentioned sending his Lehigh team to Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the age of 26. He talked about how this job was the perfect fit even as he received overtures from Seton Hall and St. John's.
He consistently has shown his appreciation for this program's heritage while conducting a barnstorming tour of booster clubs across the state.
"I've been phenomenally impressed with the Hawkeye fans and their passion," McCaffery said. "I've been all over the state with I-Club functions. Everywhere I'd go, there would be sellout crowds wanting to talk about the team. These are alumni. They're students. But they're also just fans. They love the Hawkeyes. It's great to see."
Sure, they have passion. But do they have patience?
Iowa is 15-39 in Big Ten competition over the past three seasons and returns only one player (6-foot-5 junior guard Matt Gatens) who averaged at least 10 points last season. The only returning frontcourt player who averaged as much as 10 minutes last season is 6-7 senior forward Jarryd Cole. Most preseason prognostications will have Iowa finishing near or at the bottom of the Big Ten.
"Our immediate goals are to improve the program," McCaffery said. "It happened previously ... [and] we did it in short order, but it wasn't like I set a timetable. I don't think you can. You look at what you have, you coach the team to the best of your ability and hope to get better. Hopefully, it happens sooner rather than later."
Whether or not they win, the Hawkeyes should at least be more fun to watch. McCaffery plans to utilize the same up-tempo style that worked so well for him at Siena, which will represent a dramatic change from Lickliter's approach. Siena averaged at least 74.4 points in each of McCaffery's five seasons; Iowa never averaged more than 60.5 points during Lickliter's three seasons.
Siena led the MAAC in scoring in each of the past four seasons, while Iowa had the fewest points in the Big Ten two of the past three seasons.
"If you look back at Lute Olson's teams with Ronnie Lester, George Raveling's teams with B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble or Tom Davis' teams with Jess Settles and Ryan Bowen, they've always been running, pressing and attacking teams," McCaffery said. "That's how we're going to play."
That change should pay dividends on the recruiting trail, but it won't help Iowa in the short term unless the guys currently on the roster prove they can play this style. McCaffery believes they can make the transition.
"We had some players who needed to trim down a little bit to play this style, but beyond that, they pretty much to a man prefer this style because that's what they played in high school or in AAU," McCaffery said. "I think we just have to be a team that creates a little bit of offense with our defense."
McCaffery singled out Gatens and 6-5 guard Eric May for improving their conditioning to allow them to play at a faster pace. May weighed 220 pounds and Gatens was 225 last season. McCaffery wanted them to get to 210-215 to be able to run the floor and play a full-court style for 40 minutes.
The players are willing to make the changes. Even before McCaffery arrived, they knew about what he had done at Siena. They certainly took note of Siena's 2009 NCAA tournament upset of Ohio State, which has won six of its past seven meetings with the Hawkeyes. Upon his arrival, McCaffery won over the players with his enthusiasm. They look forward to the new pace.
"It's definitely going to be an adjustment, but with the team we've got and with the guys we have coming in, it will be a great advantage," sophomore guard Cully Payne said. "There will be a lot more scoring opportunities, a lot more open shots. He's bringing in some athletic guys. It can definitely be an advantage."
Iowa will need every advantage it can get to overcome its inexperience. Cole is the only senior on the roster. The Hawkeyes need immediate contributions from a four-man freshman class that features 6-5 guard Devyn Marble and 6-7 forward Melsahn Basabe. Marble is the son of Roy Marble, the Hawkeyes' leading career scorer. Basabe is a former Siena recruit who followed McCaffery to Iowa.
Perhaps the experience on Iowa's coaching staff will make up for the youth on the floor. Sherman Dillard and Kirk Speraw give McCaffery two assistants with a combined 27 seasons of head-coaching experience. Dillard coached Indiana State from 1994-97 and James Madison from 1997-2004, while Speraw -- an Iowa alum -- headed UCF's program from 1993-2010. McCaffery also brought Andrew Francis with him from Siena.
"I was looking for an experienced staff that had proven credibility and that would mesh together in terms of strengths, weaknesses and personalities," McCaffery said. "I really, really like my staff. This is as experienced a staff as I've ever had, and they're really good people who care about student-athletes and can help them reach their goals on and off the court. I couldn't be happier."
This isn't a good time to be rebuilding in the Big Ten. Michigan State has made consecutive Final Four appearances and returns its nucleus. Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore give Purdue arguably the nation's best trio of upperclassmen. Those schools headline what could be the nation's toughest conference this season.
Iowa fans understandably are feeling restless, but they've reacted to this latest hire with cautious optimism. They expressed their faith in McCaffery at each of those trips he made to I-Clubs across the state.
"I think overall they're realistic to a point," McCaffery said. "They recognize the quality of this conference and the quality of those teams, but they believe we can be great again.
"They're hanging in there. That's pretty much all you can ask."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.