Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery during the second half of their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa on Sunday, December 11, 2022. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)
Jerry Price, who has spent the better part of the last four decades in the Princeton University office of athletic communication, knows a good coach when he sees one. And why wouldn’t he? Price has worked side by side with Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Carril and five-time NCAA lacrosse champion Bill Tierney to name just two.
Back in 1982 when Price was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania and on a work-study program, he shared office space with then Quakers graduate assistant basketball coach Fran McCaffery.
“We had this room in a basement and we had to use the same copy machine. And this was 1982 when copy machines weren’t what they are today,’’ Price said. “We got to spend a lot of time together making copies.’’
An aside: Price’s friendship with McCaffery led him to meet Fran’s brother Jack, a long-time Philadelphia sportswriter, who got Price a job as a sportswriter which eventually led to his job at Princeton.
Back in that copy room, 40-some years ago, Price saw what Big 10 coaches have seen for the past 14 years, and what coaches in the East Coast Conference, Southern Conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference have seen as well.
“I’m not surprised at all at how well Fran has done as a coach and how he has moved up the ranks,’’ Price said. “He had that same fiery nature. He was very driven and very competitive. If it took us 45 minutes to make copies one day, he would say, ‘Let’s do it in 40 minutes today.’ And he loved basketball. He knew more about basketball than anyone I had ever met.’’
McCaffery, who grew up in Philadelphia where he was nicknamed “White Magic’’ on the city schoolyards, began his 41st year as a basketball coach this season. This is his 14th year at the University of Iowa where he started the season just 11 wins shy of becoming the school’s all-time winningest head coach.
Iowa City is a long way from Philadelphia and not just geographically. But, after 13 years, McCaffery has fit in rather well. He’s actually become a bit of an icon to Iowans. That will happen when you win 261 games and take the school to seven NCAA Tournaments.
“I’ve lived in New York, lived in North Carolina, lived in Indiana and now Iowa. It’s kind of what coaches do. If you want to move up in the industry, you have to be able to move,’’ McCaffery said. “I haven’t lived in Philly in a long time, a very long time. It’s still home in a lot of ways. because I have a lot of family and friends there.’’
Iowa has been home for 14 years. His three sons were raised there and two — Connor and Patrick — played for the Hawkeyes. Very soon, if not already, he will become the school’s all-time winningest coach, passing Tom Davis, who won 271 games.
“You think of the coaches who have been here, Bucky O’Connor, Ralph Miller, Tom Davis, George Raveling, Lute Olson,’’ McCaffery rattled off the names. “It’s quite an honor. When I came here, I looked at this as a destination job. You get to the Big 10, it’s hard to get there. I was also keenly aware of the history of Iowa basketball, great players, great coaches. It’s something I take great pride in, because it’s very important to the people in this state. It’s not like cities back East, we don’t have professional sports. The atmosphere at an Iowa football game is the same as it is for an Eagles game.’’
In the three years before McCaffery arrived at Iowa, the Hawkeyes went 13-19, 15-17 and 10-22 overall and were a combined 15-39 in the Big 10. McCaffery had a losing record his first year (2010-11) and just one since. He’s won 20, or more, games eight times and had two 19-win seasons. When he won the Big 10 Tournament in 2022, he joined Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins, Eddie Sutton and Lefty Driesell as the only coaches to win four conference titles with four different schools. He’s the only head coach to take three schools from “one-bid’’ conferences to the tournament.
It started at Lehigh University, where McCaffery first went as an assistant to Tom Schneider after his one year at Penn as a grad assistant. He took over for Schneider in 1985 when he was just 26 years old and won the ECC in 1988. His draw that year was No. 1-ranked Temple and Lehigh gave the Owls all they could handle for more than a half.
He then made an interesting career choice. He left his head coaching job at Lehigh to become an assistant at Notre Dame, first under Digger Phelps and then under the late John MacLeod.
“It was a no-brainer,’’ McCaffery said. “It was not a hard decision for me. And in no way is that a knock at Lehigh. But to go to Notre Dame, I mean my second game we’re playing Kentucky in front of 32,000 at the Hoosier Dome. I’m preparing scouting reports to go against Bobby Knight, Coach K, Dean Smith… you’re not doing that in the ECC.
“From a selfish standpoint, I could say I had coach Phelps and MacLeod pushing me. [But] what was best for me? What was really best for me was I became a better coach. I went there not as a stepping stone, but to learn from the best and coach against the best. I would be better prepared when I got the opportunity to be a head coach again. And I was a substantially better basketball coach when I left Notre Dame than when I left Lehigh.’’
He spent 11 years in South Bend, met his wife Margaret there, started his family, and then took over as the head coach of UNC-Greensboro in 1999-2000. He won the Southern Conference in his second season and took his second school to the NCAAs.
From there it was on to Sienna of the MAAC where he won three straight conference titles, made three NCAA appearances and won two opening-round NCAA games.
“Fantastic program, great institution, small school but a special place with a great basketball tradition going back to the ‘50s,’’ McCaffery said of Siena. “Very few schools that have 2,900 students can play in an NBA arena and draw 8-9,000 fans every night.’’
The Saints, who run a big-time program in a mid-major conference, have their own TV station, radio station and back then newspapers that traveled everywhere with the team. It prepared McCaffery well for the real big time in the Big 10.
“People say, ‘What’s the best conference in the country?’’’ McCaffery said. “We send the most teams to the tournament every year, so I think that answers that.’’
McCaffery has thrived at a school that wasn’t even in the Top 10 in the Big 10 when he got there. He’s also had to adapt. Between Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal, the college game has changed. Coaches have had to as well.
“I never thought we would see the day where players were getting paid,’’ McCaffery said. “The opportunity for our athletes from their name, image and likeness is something we should have allowed a long time ago. What you’re doing is connecting your athletes with the business community, which was never allowed before. Why do you go to college? To network, to make connections, to learn, to grow, do internships, figure out what life is like after college. These guys now have the opportunity to do that.’’
He is not so much in favor of the transfer rules.
“The transfer portal rule should never have been instituted,’’ McCaffery said. “It’s the biggest mistake the NCAA has ever made. What it’s done is made it pay-for-play. It wasn’t supposed to be pay-for-play. Every player is a free agent every year.’’