By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – We all have flaws and weaknesses that sometimes impact our lives in a negative way.
Fran McCaffery has a temper that when unleashed is like few others in the coaching profession.
He can be Bobby Knight during those brief moments of rage, but with one huge difference.
Knight was a bully and a jerk almost all of the time, whereas McCaffery away from the court is engaging, funny and friendly.
McCaffery’s weakness surfaces during the heat of competition when something doesn’t go his way on the court. A tantrum could be triggered by his players not performing well or by the performance of an official, as was the case this past Tuesday when McCaffery berated an official in the moments after Iowa’s 90-70 loss to Ohio State at Value City Arena in Columbus.
McCaffery called one of the officials a disgrace and a cheater, using f-bombs as an adjective.
It was a horrible look for McCaffery and for Iowa, and has since resulted in a two-game suspension, beginning with Saturday’s home finale against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
McCaffery apologized for his tirade during a press conference on Wednesday, with Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta seated next to him.
But McCaffery also made it clear why he lost his temper.
“I shouldn’t have said it, but I didn’t feel really good at that moment about what took place at all,” McCaffery said. “I think the official in question has been a guy of integrity in the past. So for that reason, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
McCaffery said his comments were meant to be heard in private, but that’s hard to accomplish when you’re screaming expletives and calling an official a disgrace and a cheater while reportedly chasing him down a hall in a large arena.
Kyle Rowland from the Toledo Blade happened to be within ear shot and heard what McCaffery said. Rowland then did what any responsible reporter would do and wrote about it.
“I said what I said back in the tunnel directly,” McCaffery said. “I didn’t want it to be public. I didn’t say it out on the floor in front of thousands of people. I said it directly to him, and somebody ended up hearing it. OK, that’s unfortunate. But that’s the reality of the situation.”
The problem with that comment, besides that it might give the impression that McCaffery is more upset about getting caught than apologetic, is that it also would be wrong to call an official a disgrace and a cheater in private.
It might not get you suspended if the official is the most understanding and tolerant person in the world.
But it still would be wrong.
This is the second time that McCaffery has been suspended in nearly nine seasons at Iowa. His first suspension came in 2014 at Wisconsin after he received consecutive technical fouls and bumped an official.
That outburst led to a $10,000 fine, as did this latest outburst.
McCaffery has agreed to pay the sum of the fine, according to Barta, as he should.
There are no plans for McCaffery to get anger counseling and Barta refused to say that another suspension would lead to McCaffery’s dismissal.
"One of the reasons I was excited to hire him is exactly because of that passion,” Barta said. “And we’ve talked about I don’t ever want you to lose that. I don’t ever want you to change that. There are certain things, and I won’t go into detail, where I want you to get better and he wants to get better.
“So I don’t have a number. What I would tell you is I love Fran’s coaching, I love his style. I love what he does. If and when he has an issue that I’m uncomfortable with, we talk about it. This one happened to be very public and we’ve dealt with it and he’s accepted it. And we’re moving forward.”
I have no real problem with Barta's position, but there is a risk involved anytime you’re dealing with somebody who is combustible and highly competitive.
“I just want to begin by saying I’m a very passionate person, I think everybody in this room knows and understands that,” McCaffery said at the start of his press conference on Wednesday. “I love my family and I love my players and we live in a very competitive environment.
“Last night was one of those nights where my emotions got the better of me. And I apologize for that and I regret that.”
I’m willing to give McCaffery the benefit of the doubt, because for one, I like him, and two, a huge majority of his players also like and respect him.
That’s obvious just from the few players that have transferred under his watch, and from how his former players defend him.
Former All-Big Ten guard Peter Jok posted this endorsement on Twitter after McCaffery was suspended.
“One thing I’ve always loved about coach McCaffery is he always had the players back no matter what and did whatever it took to protect us! I’d go to war with Coach and day and time!"
The players wouldn’t stick around and defend McCaffery if he lost his temper on a regular basis. He sometimes loses it during a timeout, but it’s never directed at one player, and the rage usually ends as soon as play resumes.
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McCaffery is on the verge of leading Iowa to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six seasons. His team is 21-7 overall after finishing just 14-19 last season.
They players bought into what McCaffery said during a pivotal offseason, and that wouldn't have happend if McCaffery was some raging monster who repeatedly loses his temper.
“I think I’m a pretty composed guy if you’re around me a lot,” McCaffery said.
Some might roll their eyes in response to that statement, but it’s true to a point.
McCaffery is a joy to speak with in a casual setting, as I’ve done many times before.
We often cross paths at West High basketball games where his son, Patrick McCaffery, is a 6-foot-8 star senior and a future Hawkeye, and where his oldest son, Connor McCaffery, used to be a star basketball player and a baseball player.
Fran is always friendly and engaging, and he loves to talk hoops.
He sometimes gets upset as a parent watching from the stands because of what he said about being passionate in a highly competitive environment.
The moment a game starts, whether he’s coaching or watching his son, McCaffery slips into his competitive mode and becomes vulnerable.
The father and coach are now overlapped with Connor McCaffery a reserve point guard for the Hawkeyes.
Fran McCaffery was called for a technical foul just 58 seconds after Connor had been whistled for a technical in the Ohio State game.
I asked Fran McCaffery on Wednesday if Connor being his son fueled his rage, but Fran immediately dismissed that theory.
What Fran McCaffery can’t dismiss is his reputation because it’s been built over time with each outburst.
I’m just pointing out that there is another side to 59-year old Fran McCaffery that is easy to ignore and overlook because of his temper.
It only takes one tantrum to overshadow a season filled mostly with good behavior. The technical against Ohio State was McCaffery’s first for the season.
An example of McCaffery’s softer side is that he reportedly has asked Iowa radio announcer Gary Dolphin to watch the Rutgers game with him in the locker room on Saturday since they’re both serving suspensions.
Dolphin was suspended for calling Maryland forward Bruno Fernando King Kong during his post-game radio show. Dolphin’s comment was considered insensitive since Fernando is black.
Some wondered if McCaffery was behind the suspension due to his relationship with Dolphin, which took a hit when Dolphin was heard on an open mic criticizing McCaffery’s recruiting during a commercial break against Pittsburgh on Nov. 27th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Dolphin also criticized the play of junior guard Maishe Dailey, and McCaffery called his comments inexcusable.
Dolphin was suspended for two games for his comments, and for what was described as “ongoing tensions” in the release.
McCaffery acknowledged that he and Dolphin have had issues, but to ask Dolphin to watch the Rutgers game with him is a major step in the right direction and shows that McCaffery has a softer side.
McCaffery can be surly with a reporter who asks a question that he doesn’t like, but he might see that same reporter five minutes later and act like nothing happened.
His ongoing mission to raise money for cancer awareness is also a side of McCaffery that gets overlooked because of his temper.
He lost both of his parents to colon cancer, and his son, Patrick, had a malignant tumor removed from his thyroid five years ago.
So fighting the disease is personal for the entire McCaffery family.
McCaffery shouldn’t be excused for what he did to the official on Tuesday. I would’ve had no problem if he had been suspended for the rest of the regular season because what he said was inappropriate and crossed the line.
My hope is that McCaffery learns from this latest controversy and grows from it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened again in the heat of the moment because McCaffery’s temper is his biggest weakness from my viewpoint.
But his temper is also a small part of who he is as a person.
McCaffery just makes it hard sometimes to realize that.