Commentary

Another rebuilding job for McCaffery

After turning Siena into a mid-major player, 'East Coast guy' sets his sights on Iowa

Originally Published: June 30, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The friend, a long-standing member of the college basketball fraternity, called Fran McCaffery and said what more than a few people were thinking.

"He just screamed, 'Are you crazy?'" McCaffery said of his unfiltered friend, whom he preferred not to name.

In five years, McCaffery had remade Siena from mid-major doormat to mid-major power, building the Saints into a sort of Butler in training. Siena won the past three MAAC titles, and used those NCAA tournament tickets to punch out Vanderbilit and Ohio State in the first round and give Purdue a scare in 2010.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIn five years, Fran McCaffery remade Siena from also-ran to mid-major power. Iowa noticed.

As often is the case in these sorts of things, those victories parlayed themselves nicely for McCaffery. As the Saints were flying home from Spokane, Wash., after losing to the Boilermakers in March, the coach already had one job offer on the table and the promise of another interview, both at high-profile universities on the East Coast.

And then Iowa called.

"This was the place I wanted to be,'' McCaffery said.

Hence the "Are you crazy?" query. The Hawkeyes are five years removed from a sniff of success and have spent the past four going the wrong way in the win column, especially within the confines of the Big Ten -- from nine league victories in 2007 to six in '08, five in '09 and just four this past season.

The backward fall was enough to turn Todd Lickliter from national coach of the year and hotshot mid-major coach (a la McCaffery) into unemployed in just three seasons.

But McCaffery looked at the lemon and saw the lemonade. He saw tradition, the run of good seasons Steve Alford enjoyed and back farther, to the heyday of Dr. Tom Davis. He saw a university that plunged a much-needed $47 million into renovating Carver-Hawkeye Arena, putting its money where its mouth was to show its support of basketball, and a fan base that was eager -- if not altogether desperate -- to rally around its Hawkeyes again.

"This was on a very short list of schools that I would leave Siena for,'' McCaffery said. "But I also come here with my eyes wide open. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of work. Anybody who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves.''

Indeed, before there can be a rebirth of tradition, there has to be a rebirth of relevance and a restocking of the roster.

In Lickliter's tenure, 10 players left the program for varying reasons, leaving a roster not just short on names but flat-out short. Last season's team boasted just two players taller than 6-foot-7 -- little-used freshman Brennan Cougill and sophomore Andrew Brommer, both of whom came in at 6-foot-9. And Cougill was recently ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season.

McCaffery has three scholarships to give for each of the next two seasons, but wants to be smart with each of them. He'd love to have some one-and-done kid walk in and say he wants to rebuild the program, but knows that's about as likely to happen as LeBron walking through his door.

Instead, McCaffery will go with what he knows and what served him well in stops at both Siena and UNC Greensboro -- he'll look for kids who are good now but have the potential to be great.

"If we can't get a [Jared] Sullinger [Ohio State recruit], can we get a kid who is hungry and wants to compete against him?'' McCaffery said. "We've always been able to do that, whether it was with Kenny Hasbrouck at Siena or Kyle Hines [at UNC-Greensboro] or even Pat Garrity at Notre Dame.''

One way McCaffery will make the Hawkeyes more attractive to potential recruits: He's upping the tempo. Lickliter brought his methodical game to Iowa City, and unfortunately, what worked at Butler did little to win games or woo fans at Iowa.

The Hawkeyes averaged just 60.5 points per game last season and six times failed to reach 20 by halftime.

Conversely, McCaffery's Saints, with their full-court and 3/4-court trap, averaged 75 points per game en route to a 27-win season.

Certainly McCaffery wasn't hired on his style of play, but there is no denying it is an added bonus.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMcCaffery says Iowa has a lot of work to do, but he's happy with his decision to join the Hawkeyes.

In Iowa, up-tempo translates to one thing -- Davis and the Hawkeyes' glory years in the late 1980s and early 90s that saw Iowa make nine NCAA tournament appearances, an Elite Eight berth and a No. 1 ranking during the 1986-87 season.

"You might beat us, but we're going to attack you,'' McCaffery said of his philosophy. "We might lose some games, but I think fans are more tolerant if you lose that way. When you squeeze the air out of the ball, people aren't happy. That worked for a few people -- guys like John Chaney and Pete Carril, Hall of Famers. If you're going to be playing games at 52-50, you better have a lot of 52.''

Right now at Iowa, winning back the populace is every bit as vital as winning ballgames.

Since 2006, attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena has steadily declined, from a peak of 12,196 per game in 2007 to only 9,550 this past season. Those 2,646 lost fans a night represented lost support, but more importantly lost dollars and a cash drain the Iowa administration could no longer tolerate.

"Todd Lickliter is a good man and a good coach, but it just didn't work here,'' athletic director Gary Barta said. "Coaching changes are never easy, but you have to look at everything. From a financial standpoint, our revenues for ticket sales were down significantly. People were disappointed. It was a hard decision to make, but in the end, it was the right decision.''

Barta won't say why he thinks Lickliter, a man with a history of success, failed at Iowa. He prefers to talk about what he needs to do to make McCaffery succeed.

He points to the cranes, construction workers and sounds of power tools in Carver-Hawkeye as evidence. The building was in desperate need of a makeover, and when it emerges from its bandages next season, it will not just feature a revamped playing court, but will include a practice court, new offices, and a strength and conditioning facility that jumps from 1,800 square feet to 11,000.

It is the sound of rebuilding, a sound McCaffery is more than familiar with. In just one season, he turned struggling UNCG into a 15-game winner, and by the time he left Greensboro after six seasons, he had led the team to the NCAA tournament and its first SoCon title.

He then headed to Albany, N.Y., and resurrected Siena. When he arrived, the Saints had just finished in the league basement at 4-14 (6-24 overall) and were picked to finish last in the conference again. By the time he left, no one dared pick against them.

So now it is on to Iowa, a Midwestern school that still appeals to this Philadelphia native.

"I know how to do this; I know how much work it takes,'' said McCaffery, a master program rebuilder. "This is different than rebuilding in the SoCon or the MAAC in that we're playing Ohio State and Michigan State twice a year, but the basic rules still apply. We have the resources. We have the tradition. We have the fan base. If you have that, it can happen.''

And if it happens, well, who's crazy now?

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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