By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Contrary to what some might think, Fran McCaffery never has been on the hot seat as the Iowa men’s basketball coach, nor should he have been.
McCaffery’s job never has been in jeopardy because his body of work hasn’t come close to creating that circumstance.
It was starting to maybe inch that way just a little bit last season when Iowa suffered a stunning collapse, finishing just 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall. But the Iowa program was also in shambles when McCaffery replaced Todd Lickliter as head coach in 2010, and that still matters when evaluating McCaffery's body of work, even nearly a decade later.
A lack of defense caused last season's collapse more than anything as Iowa allowed nearly 80 points per game.
It marked the first time in eight seasons under McCaffery that Iowa had regressed significantly. McCaffery had to fix things on defense in a hurry because a repeat of last season would have certainly ignited discussion about his job status, and deservedly so.
McCaffery made no excuses and showed a willingness to change by placing more emphasis on defense during the offseason and his players used last season’s humiliation as fuel for this season.
But it still came down to winning, and so far, McCaffery and his players have risen to the challenge.
Iowa upset No. 5 Michigan 74-59 this past Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and is 17-5 overall and 6-5 in the Big Ten heading into Thursday’s game at Indiana.
The Hawkeyes are well on their way to making the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the past six seasons under McCaffery.
The remaining schedule is favorable from a competitive standpoint, although, McCaffery would dismiss any such talk as nonsense and disrespectful to the opponent.
Some of his teams also have struggled down the stretch, so you can’t assume anything.
But what you can do is praise McCaffery for leading a resurgence, and his players and his assistant coaches for helping to make it happen under difficult circumstances.
Michigan coach John Beilein might have thought that Iowa was being overlooked and under-valued heading into this season.
But few shared his opinion. And, of course, Beilein now has hindsight to support his case, as he did following last Friday’s loss to Iowa.
"I saw it on film and I saw it coming last year as well, but I can see why they're 17-5 right now," Beilein said. "I was laughing at people going into this year when they weren't being ranked as one of the top teams in our league.
"I said, are you kidding me? They've got everybody back from a really good team. I mean who has everybody back, plus (Joe) Wieskamp. Iowa is just a really good team."
Iowa was mostly picked to finish in the lower half of the conference, and it was easy to see why after what had occurred last season when many of Iowa’s conference games weren’t even competitive.
The program was at a crossroads, and it was up to the 59-year old McCaffery to steer it back on the right path, but it hasn’t always been easy.
Iowa lost its first three Big Ten games, then won five in a row before losing back-to-back games against Michigan State and Minnesota.
Michigan State used a 24-2 scoring run in the second half to roll past Iowa on Jan. 24 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, while Minnesota scored 55 points in the first half of a 92-87 victory last Sunday in Minneapolis.
It was easy to assume after those two losses that Iowa was destined to be average at best, or headed for a repeat of last season.
“Michigan State, we thought we had them and we didn’t,” said junior forward Ryan Kriener. “We had that really bad run then everybody is saying last year’s team, last year’s team. And then we go and play Minnesota and we have a bad game defensively and everybody is saying last year’s team, last year’s team.
“And when everyone was saying that, that’s when we locked in and really committed to defense in the offseason. So we kind of got back to that mindset.”
Defense is hardly a strength for Iowa, but unlike last season, it’s not always a liability, either.
Michigan missed some open shots from the perimeter, but Iowa also made the Wolverines work hard for open looks on offense.
Iowa played with a sense of urgency on defense against Michigan because there was a sense of urgency in that game with Iowa having lost the previous two games.
The Iowa players are redeeming themselves with each victory, but the journey is far from over. There still are enough games left for Iowa to be special or just average.
The importance of Joe Wieskamp’s addition to the team can’t be understated. The 6-foot-6 freshman from Muscatine was expected to be a key contributor and has been since the first game.
Wieskamp has struggled with consistency at times, but that’s to be expected from a freshman. He scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had five steals against Michigan.
“I don’t know if I can say enough about that dude,” Kriener said of Wieskamp. “He’s been impressing everyone since day one since he got here.
"He’s just an animal. He’s a complete baller. That’s what he does.”
As for Fran McCaffery, he sometimes is described as being out-of-control because he loses his temper on occasion and does so in a fashion that stands out more than most head coaches.
But there is also a softer side to McCaffery that surfaced after the Michigan game.
McCaffery had just finished answering questions at his post-game press conference when he paid tribute to those who were participating in the annual UI Dance Marathon event.
“I want to commend our Dance Marathon group,” McCaffery said, his voice cracking with emotion. “A lot of those kids showed up tonight. They’re heading over there to dance. And it’s amazing what they do every year. I know some of you have been over to see it.
“But it’s truly one of the most incredible things we‘ve ever seen in all my years of coaching and being at an institution. I’ve been at a number of institutions. What they do just warms your heart.”
McCaffery lost both of his parents to cancer, and his son, future Iowa basketball player Patrick McCaffery, also had a malignant tumor removed from his thyroid in junior high.
McCaffery’s emotional tribute was a reminder that he is more than just a basketball coach who is trying to win on the biggest stage in college.
He would’ve done the exact same thing if Iowa had lost to Michigan because it means that much to him.
Even more than winning, and that's saying a lot.