By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery was answering questions from reporters as part of media day on Monday when news broke that Louisville had officially fired Rick Pitino.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at the timing because McCaffery spent part of his press conference talking about the FBI investigation that exposed a bribery scandal that ultimately cost Pitino his job and forever tarnished his once-proud legacy.
“Any time the game is cleaned up, it's better for all of us,” McCaffery said. “We do things the right way. We do things a certain way. We have a certain expectation here as to how we're going to react day in and day out and how my staff is going to function.
“So hopefully, moving forward they'll find whoever was guilty of those transgressions and react accordingly. We're just going to be business as usual here. Nothing changes for us.”
McCaffery spoke like somebody who has nothing to hide in that he was sure and strong.
He had two points of emphasis as he discussed the bribery scandal, which led to the recent arrests of four college assistant coaches. McCaffery called the cases isolated incidents and he tried to distance himself from the scandal by saying that Iowa operates within the rules.
McCaffery wanted fans to know that there is nothing to worry about with his program because he does things the right way and because the University of Iowa does things the right way.
He praised Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and previous UI President Sally Mason, and her successor Bruce Harreld, for creating an environment in which cheating isn’t tolerated.
“If you surround yourself with really good people that have the same outlook on things that you do and the directive comes from Gary Barta, and it was Sally Mason, Bruce Harreld, it's pretty clear,” McCaffery said. “We have a very involved compliance office here. They're on top of everything. You know, that's just business as usual.
“Everybody seems to think that a couple weeks ago the whole college basketball landscape has been rocked. No, not for us. We do things a certain way, and that's it, and we'll just keep doing it that way.”
McCaffery didn’t give any specifics, but he told reporters on Monday that he has turned in programs before for cheating and would do it again if necessary.
“What you can do is when you know something is going on, turn that team in,” McCaffery said. “Who does that? Not a lot of people do that. I do it. I've turned programs in, and I'll continue to do that when I know that there's stuff going on.
“But a lot of times you don't know what's going on. Can you police yourselves? Only if you know something is going on, but even then it's hard for the NCAA to do something.”
The biggest criticism McCaffery has faced since coming to Iowa in 2010 is that he has a quick fuse and sometimes overreacts during the heat of the moment.
If that’s the worst thing you can say about McCaffery, then Iowa should consider itself lucky.
Losing your temper during the heat of the moment is one thing. Bribing players to attend your school is another.
McCaffery has rebuilt the Iowa program by using mostly unheralded recruits.
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook and freshman center Luka Garza are exceptions as former four-star recruits.
But the current Iowa roster is filled mostly with players who were ignored by the programs linked to the bribery scandal.
That’s why it took McCaffery some time to get Iowa over the hump because he didn’t have four and five-star recruits lining up to play for him and because he wouldn't bend the rules in order to get them. McCaffery had to find some hidden gems like Aaron White and current point guard Jordan Bohannon, but that takes time.
McCaffery’s first team at Iowa finished with a losing record, while his second team finished just one game above .500.
Iowa now has played in six consecutive postseason tournaments under McCaffery, including the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons.
Nobody ever would mistake Iowa’s success under McCaffery for what Pitino accomplished at Louisville. But being pretty good and honest sure beats being really good and dishonest, especially when the FBI is investigating with its subpeona power.
The NCAA can only do so much when trying to expose a scandal, whereas the FBI has power that is far-reaching and intimidating.
"They're interested in getting to the bottom of it," McCaffery said of the NCAA. "But they can't wiretap your phone. They can't run a sting operation. They can't have insiders. So maybe this is a game changer with regard to the FBI's involvement."
The first paragraph in Pitino’s life story will focus on scandal and corruption as much or more than on his success. And he only has himself to blame for that.
Pitino’s defense is that he was unaware of the violations that occurred under his watch. He apparently didn’t know that one of his former assistants was using prostitutes to entice recruits to sign with Louisville, or that one of his staff members supposedly paid a top prospect a large sum of money to sign with the Cardinals.
I find it hard to believe that Pitino was unaware of the cheating. And apparently, so does Louisville.
McCaffery isn’t with his assistant coaches all the time, so he has to trust that they will resist the temptation to cheat.
“It could always happen,” McCaffery said. “I don't see that happening. I really don't. We talk regularly, we meet regularly. We know who we're recruiting. We know who we're close to getting. We know who we can't get. We know who's visiting. And whenever that's the case, then you know their families and their coach and the AAU coach and who's involved and who were the decision makers in the process.”
McCaffery gave a short, two-word answer when asked if he ever veers away from certain recruits because of the risk of scandal.
“Every day,” he said.
That approach probably has cost McCaffery some talented players, but it won’t cost him his job and reputation or bring shame to his employer.