Fran McCaffery should seriously consider hiring a former Hawkeye to replace Andrew Francis

Fran McCaffery and his assistants leave the floor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Fran McCaffery has gone nearly a decade without having to hire an assistant coach.

But that will soon change with Andrew Francis on the verge of leaving the Iowa staff to be an assistant coach for Cal-Berkeley.

It would make sense for McCaffery to act quickly because another live recruiting period starts later this month.

So that’s why I’m offering McCaffery some advice, which is to hire a former Iowa player, or at least seriously consider it.

Three names that immediately come to mind are Dean Oliver, Matt Gatens and Jeff Horner.

All three are coaching at the collegiate level, all three grew up in Iowa and were All-Big Ten guards for the Hawkeyes, and all three committed to Iowa before they were sophomores in high school.

So their love for the black and gold runs deep.

Oliver would seem to be an ideal fit because he already is an assistant coach for Wisconsin. It would be a lateral move for him to coach at Iowa except that he would be working for his alma mater.

Horner is currently the head coach for Division II Truman State, and was an assistant coach for North Dakota and the head coach for West Des Moines Valley High School before that.

Horner would have to give up being in charge of a team to come to Iowa, but that would seem like a small sacrifice for a chance to coach for your alma mater in the Big Ten.

Gatens is coming off his first season as the direction of operations for Drake and probably doesn’t have enough experience at this stage. He also was a graduate assistant coach for Bruce Pearl at Auburn in the 2017-18 season.

But if there is anybody who could offset a lack of experience with his reputation, popularity and knowledge of the game, it would be the 29-year old Gatens, who grew up in Iowa City and was a four-year starter at shooting guard for Iowa where he scored 1,635 career points, the sixth most in Iowa history.

Some are saying that McCaffery should hire a proven recruiter or a defensive specialist, and that certainly makes sense under the circumstances.

McCaffery has struggled at times to attract top talent to Iowa, while his teams have struggled at times on defense, especially in each of the past two seasons.

But who is to say that the 40-year old Oliver wouldn’t be an upgrade in both areas?

Oliver has much more to offer than just nostalgia. He has risen up the coaching ranks with previous stops at North Dakota and Illinois State. 

But nostalgia is certainly worth something because there are benefits to connecting with your past. 

Mike Krzyzewski has surrounded himself with former players at Duke because it helps to create a positive vibe and because they know the landscape and because the fans know them. 

One thing that could impact McCaffery’s choice is that Francis coached the post players at Iowa.

But on the other hand, basketball, even big-time college basketball, isn’t rocket science.

Speraw and Dillard have about 50 years of coaching experience between them, so there is nothing about coaching the game that should be beyond their capability.

McCaffery mostly has hired his guy when filling previous positions on his support staff at Iowa.

Iowa video coordinator Courtney Eldridge, for example, played point guard for McCaffery at North Carolina-Greensboro from 1998 to 2002.

McCaffery also hired former Notre Dame player Billy Taylor as his director of operations in 2013, a position that Taylor held for three years. Taylor played for Notre Dame when McCaffery was an assistant coach for the Irish, and Taylor also spent three seasons as an assistant coach for McCaffery at UNC-Greensboro.

Taylor is currently the head coach for Division II Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.

Comfort and fit are two big factors, and it makes sense that McCaffery would be more comfortable around people he knows personally.

I don’t just always say that the best option is to hire a former Hawkeye because that isn’t always the best option.

It just seems like the best option right now because of who might be available, most notably Oliver.

The Mason City native fits all of the boxes, from experience to reputation to familiarity with the Iowa program.

And there is something to be said for getting a former Hawkeye to leave a Big Ten rival.