IOWA CITY, Ia. - An early spring Sunday morning pretty quickly turned into a historical afternoon for Iowa athletics . We learned from the Albany Times-Union and later the U of I that Fran McCaffery would be the next coach of the Hawkeyes men's basketball program.
What followed were blogs and tweets and message board posts weighing in on the hire that came out of the blue. We learned about the coach's fiery wife, Marg McCaffery.
My story pursuit ended with a trip to the Eastern Iowa Airport to see the McCaffery's land at about 5:30 p.m. When it was obvious that we weren't going to get interviews there, we tailed them to the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in Iowa City. Again, we got shot down for interviews until Monday morning's 11 a.m. press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
I can tell you that Fran is tall. Marg is tall. They look charming from a distance.
Ironically, when I get to see them up close on Monday, there's still going to be distance. It's a guessing game on what they're like as people, and most importantly, how Fran works out as a coach leading a struggling Iowa program.
Smiles and optimism will rule Monday's gathering, just like three years ago when Todd Lickliter was introduced by Barta for the same position. Even the most positive Hawkeye fan proceeds with trepidation after the last two coaches were shown the door.
It's not a good scene here. Sorry. Attendance is at an all-time low while fan apathy sits at an all-time high. Three NCAA tournaments, one win in the dance and a whole lot of losing during the last 11 years will do that to folks.
Barta and McCaffery are smart men. They know what's ahead of them and advance with great determination. It doesn't mean they will succeed.
Really, we move forward with hope. Hope that McCaffery can translate his success at Siena to ascension up the Big Ten Standings. Hope that he can recruit. Hope that he can connect. Hope that the next coaching hire comes when he retires from the school…or at least until he‘s coached through half of his contract.
I will support and cover the Iowa men's basketball program just like I did with Tom Davis, Steve Alford and Lickliter. Yes, it's a job, but it's also a pleasure.
I smile thinking about covering games in Carver when it's rocking. I hold fond memories of us winning two Big Ten Tournament titles and watching our guys cut down the nets.
I go to the game, rain or shine, though. I'm not sure McCaffery brings back the casual fan, at least initially.
That's what makes this such a tall task for the new guy. Even though the fans will come back if he wins, he has to win with handicaps that sunk Alford and Lickliter. And McCaffery really is responsible for picking up the mess those guys left here.
Yes, it would take a Bruce Pearl, Jamie Dixon, Jay Wright, Scott Drew type hire to spark things from the get-go. We might find out if we had a shot at any of those guys when the University releases documents requested by the Freedom of Information Act. Right now, we have to assume, they weren't reachable targets or McCaffery stood out from that group.
This really was the likely scenario from the start of the search. Barta got a really good mid-major coach that comes with a different style and personality but a similar resume to that brought here by Lickliter.
It's fair to say that Lickliter didn't recruit the way he needed to recruit. He didn't retain players. He didn't connect with enough of the fan base.
It's said that McCaffery is strong where Lickliter was weak. He's going to need to be…and more.
Iowa is a good job. There's very good potential here with the Carver renovations and the practice facility on the way. But if you look up the word rebuild in the dictionary, there's a picture of our program looking like a shanty.
I like McCaffery on paper. He gets teams to the tournament in a one-bid league (three years in a row at Siena), he has mentors like Digger Phelps and Fran Dunphy as references and can say he served as the main recruiter at a BCS program in Notre Dame.
Now, we have to see if he can A) build a staff of good teachers and recruiters, B) Bring talent from the East or establish connections in the Midwest or both, C) Get a quick understanding for what it means to be Hawkeye, something the two people before him in this position failed to do.
I was impressed with Alford and Lickliter when they were hired. I'm impressed with McCaffery. This time, I've decided I need to see it as well.
And I would have felt the same way about B.J. Armstrong, Steve Forbes, Brian Gregory and all the other unproven, high-major candidates. I've been around this program long enough to know that it's a major project over which a dark cloud hovers. It didn't go away immediately with the hiring of McCaffery.