IOWA CITY, Iowa – There seems to be two sides to how Fran McCaffery’s temper is perceived.
When the Iowa men’s basketball team is having success, McCaffery’s volatile personality is considered a strength and something the players rally behind.
His chair-throwing incident at Michigan State in 2012 is now viewed as a pivotal moment in the rebuilding process because that was McCaffery’s way of challenging his players to be tougher. He was upset at the officials, but even more upset at his players for allowing the Spartans to push them around in a game that was allowed to be physical.
There also have been many times over the past six seasons when fans have cheered loudly at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as McCaffery rips into an official. They appreciate that McCaffery fights for his players and that he refuses to allow his team to get the short end of the officiating stick.
But when Iowa isn’t having success, as is the case right now with the Hawkeyes limping into the NCAA Tournament after losing six of their last eight games, McCaffery’s temper is considered part of the problem. It supposedly wears on the players, causing a negative impact, especially during a prolonged losing skid.
It has been suggested that the Iowa players looked as if they didn’t even want to be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament, and that allowed No. 12 seed Illinois to pull off the 68-66 upset in the second round on Thursday.
That’s a powerful statement that paints a disturbing picture.
But it also seems a little presumptuous if you look at the big picture.
If McCaffery’s temper wears on his players, then why haven’t more of them transferred from Iowa to another school?
And why has Iowa achieved more in each season under McCaffery, progressing from a losing team to an NIT team to a team now poised to make the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season if his temper is such a problem?
The facts just don’t add up?
It became painfully obvious under previous head coach Todd Lickliter that there was a serious disconnect as players defected under him at an alarming rate. Iowa also suffered through three consecutive losing seasons under Lickliter and wasn’t even competitive in some games.
McCaffery, even with his temper, has made Iowa relevant after inheriting a mess.
The challenge now is to make Iowa elite again.
McCaffery was on the verge of doing that barely a month ago, but for reasons that defy explanation, Iowa has failed to deliver when it matters the most.
You can point to a lack of clutch shooting, a lack of depth in the backcourt, shabby defense and too many turnovers as reasons for Iowa’s skid.
How that all connects to McCaffery’s temper is beyond me.
McCaffery was successful in his previous three head coaching jobs at Siena, North Carolina-Greensboro and Lehigh despite his temper. So does that mean his players at Iowa are more thin-skinned and unable to handle McCaffery’s temper?
That seems unlikely.
I’ve had people close to the program say that McCaffery’s players would run through a wall for him. They say his players like that McCaffery is genuine and fair and they like knowing exactly where they stand.
McCaffery will scream at a player, and then seconds later, put his arm around that same player. Maybe that does bother some of his players. But again, why haven’t more transferred out of the program?
The few that have transferred were buried on the depth chart and not likely to contribute.
As far as the players’ body language against Illinois, losing has that effect.
But if the players didn’t want to be there, than how did Iowa erase an 11-point deficit in the final four minutes against Illinois? The Hawkeyes could’ve easily quit against Illinois, but they didn’t.
McCaffery deserves some credit for that.
He could’ve handled himself better in the post-game press conference when asked what play Iowa tried to run in the final seconds of the game instead of telling the reporting that it was none of his business.
The problem with dismissing what seemed like a fair question is that McCaffery’s temper now becomes part of the storyline again.
I read one column from a national writer who doesn’t cover Iowa who made it seem that the program was in disarray in the wake of the Illinois loss. The headline for the column said that Iowa was finger pointing at each other as free-fall continues.
I was in the same lockerroom talking to the same players and heard nothing close to finger pointing. What I saw and heard was dejection, sadness and confusion more than anything else.
Senior center Adam Woodbury was distraught over losing. He struggled just to answer questions because he was so devastated.
Senior guard Anthony Clemmons sympathized with McCaffery after the loss, saying the players let him down.
“I know coach expects a lot more out of us,” Clemmons said after being held scoreless and committing four turnovers against Illinois. “He’s going to get more out of us.
“We’re going to swallow this one and remember this pain.”
The writer seemed to think that senior forward Jarrod Uthoff was pointing at the coaches when asked what Iowa needs to reverse its skid and Uthoff said:
"I don’t know. That’s what coaches are for."
If you know anything about Uthoff’s personality, that isn’t finger pointing, but rather his way of saying he isn’t qualified to answer that question.
The 6-foot-9 Uthoff is long on talent, but short with his answers. Even if Uthoff had issues with the coaches, he is too smart and too loyal to share them publicly.
This isn’t to say that McCaffery is above criticism because a coach has to share some of the blame when a team with four senior starters melts down the stretch faster than ice cream in a sauna.
The fact that Iowa hasn’t won a game in the Big Ten Tournament in each of past three seasons despite playing three opponents seeded lower than 10th is another blemish on McCaffery’s record.
I’m just not willing to say that McCaffery’s temper is causing these shortcomings.
Iowa had a similar collapse two years ago, losing seven of the last eight games.
But then Iowa closed last season by winning seven of its final nine games, including a victory in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
So it’s premature to say that a disturbing pattern is developing under McCaffery in which Iowa unravels down the stretch.
It also is premature to bury this Iowa team.
The situation looks bleak right now. But that would change if Iowa makes a run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
Should that happen, McCaffery’s temper probably would be considered a strength again.