Fran McCaffery has turned Iowa into a nationally ranked Big Ten contender since his arrival in 2010. It’s another highlight in a coaching tenure that has spanned more than 30 years. During that time, McCaffery became the youngest head coach in the country in 1985 when he was hired to run Lehigh’s program at just 26 years. McCaffery recently spoke with ESPN.com about the link between those early coaching experiences and his current post.
ESPN: Could you envision your team progressing this way during the offseason?
McCaffery: I felt like it was really coming together at the end of last year. I thought the timing of our foreign trip (Paris and London) was really good because we could bring all those guys together in August. [Jarrod Uthoff] would be eligible to play. We only had one freshman in Peter Jok. He could play. So we could practice, we could play six games overseas, we could travel, be together. Practice started earlier and we just got going. What we have is a very good blend of pieces. We complement each other well. Most importantly, when you play a lot of guys like I am, it’s important that they all be unselfish and that they understand why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it and that they all buy in. And they have.
ESPN: Tough loss at Iowa State just over a week ago. What positives did you take away from that defeat?
McCaffery: You tend to, in a tough loss, focus more on the negative. I try not to. When you’re in that type of environment, the important thing is to get off to a good start. … You know they’re going to make a run. They’re too good. [Fred Hoiberg] does a good job with them. When the runs come, weather it and stay consistent with the game plan and keep playing. At no time did we get tentative. At no time did we try to run the clock down, we just kept playing our style of game and we kept scoring. And that’s not easy to do on the road. I was really pleased with that.
ESPN: Josh Oglesby is back after missing six weeks with a foot injury. How will you fit him into a rotation that already features 10 players?
McCaffery: I think, to be honest with you, it’s going to be more complicated. It’s hard to play 10. But it’s a heck of a lot easier to play 10 than it is to play 11. We kind of rotate all 10 guys through. There have been games where unique combinations of those 10 guys have ended up on the floor. Now, we’re going to add Josh. The reason I like him coming back to the team is he’s another experienced guy who can make a play, and he can score the ball and he can shoot the ball from 3.
So that’s going to be a big help to our team. He’s not a mistake guy. He’s a terrific passer. When you have a guy that can shoot and he can also pass, he’s a weapon. The negative side is that somebody is going to play less than they did before. … I’m pretty lucky in the sense that game by game I can push different buttons that help this team win.
ESPN: In past years, your team was the underdog. Now the Hawkeyes are ranked and viewed as a contender in the Big Ten. How have your players handled that change?
McCaffery: I think, so far, they’ve handled it very well. I think the key will be when we get into league play, it might be a little different because we’re going to get everybody’s best. But so far, we’ve taken care of business at home against teams we should’ve beaten, we’ve got some really good neutral site wins, we’ve played well in our one true road game. … So I think what you’re seeing is a mature team that understands what it takes. We kind of got it two years ago. We were better last year. I think what you’re seeing now is a much more mature team that has been through so much more.
ESPN: You’ve been on the sideline for 30 years. What’s the key to longevity in coaching and being able to do this at the highest levels over time?
McCaffery: I think you have to relate to your players in a way that works for them. I think a lot of people tell you that everything has changed. There have been some changes, but not everything has changed. If you recruit good kids, which we do, with character, they’re going to try to do what you ask them to do. And I think you have to be demanding but reasonable. You have to support them. You have to know each and every individual you have on your team. And understand how to coach that person and how to communicate to that person, how to get him to understand the big picture and what we’re trying to do and how he fits into that picture and how it can work for him and how he can be successful. And ultimately, this has to be fun.
You can never lose sight of the fact you’re coaching somebody else’s child and you have to be fair and honest with that person. And I want them to work incredibly hard and to maximize their talent. At the same time, I want them to enjoy the ride. It can’t be such a grind that everybody’s miserable and the season seems like it takes five years. … And I want to do the same. And it’s hard because it’s our livelihood. Our jobs are on the line every day. I want all of us to enjoy the ride together.
ESPN: You were the head coach at Lehigh when you were 26. How do you prepare for a job like that at such a young age?
McCaffery: It was a great opportunity because I had been at Lehigh for two years, so I had a very good relationship with the players. But there’s nothing like moving over one chair. All of a sudden, now you go from being the recruiting coordinator and having some scouting assignments to dealing with the media, talking to alumni groups, being the lead guy in recruiting, the guy that has to close the deal, coach the team, prepare practice. Every decision that we make when we’re traveling is mine. .. It’s not often that you get that opportunity because most administrations won’t trust a young guy to kind of learn on the go. I’m not going to lie to you. That’s what I did. You go from making suggestions to making decisions very quickly.
And sometimes, those decisions don’t work. I was fortunate that I learned from some very good people. … I just recruited and I coached like I wanted to be recruited and coached. I had been through the recruiting process, I had played for a couple different coaches, and I remembered some things I didn’t like. It’s kind of like, you get the chance now, your name is on the letterhead, you can do it your way. You’re not going to make every perfect decision. But what you’re going to do is bring a work ethic every day that your players will say, ‘This guy is doing everything he can to help us win.’