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Harty: Right fit vital for coach, school

[ 0 ] April 3, 2013 |

One person doesn’t make a successful men’s college basketball program, but one person’s influence can be the difference between success and failure.

Iowa fans should know exactly what I mean by that.

Fran McCaffery has relied on the help of countless people to rebuild the Iowa men’s basketball program, which faces Baylor in the NIT championship game Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

From the players on the court to the coaches and trainers and student-managers sitting next to him on the bench, McCaffery has people assisting him on a daily basis in many different ways.

But so did his two predecessors at Iowa, and yet they both failed to deliver the goods, miserably in the case of Todd Lickliter, who held the Iowa job for just three historically bad seasons from 2007-10.

His predecessor, Steve Alford, wasn’t a bust like Lickliter, but rather a polarizing figure who won just enough games to stick around for eight seasons.

Alford has done well for himself since bolting from Iowa six years ago. He has gone from being one step ahead of Iowa Director of Athletics Gary Barta’s posse to now being the head coach at mighty UCLA, with a successful six-year reign as the head coach at New Mexico squeezed in between.

A person doesn’t rise to Alford’s level in his profession without knowing how to coach, the same for Lickliter and McCaffery. All three of them grew up around the game and loved it enough to make it their life’s work.

It’s just interesting that two of the three didn’t succeed at Iowa. That’s not to say that McCaffery’s rebuilding project is complete because as much fun as this NIT run has been, it’s still not college basketball’s premier event.

And some will argue that Alford did succeed at Iowa and he left only because Barta refused to give him a vote of confidence.

But it’s hard to argue against McCaffery being the best fit at Iowa among the three.

Even Mike Gatens would agree with that and he’s a huge Alford fan, and rightfully so. Alford was good to Mike and he thought enough of Mike’s son, Matt Gatens, to offer him a scholarship as a ninth grader.

I sort of put Mike on the spot Wednesday by asking him why McCaffery seems to fit better than his two predecessors did at Iowa. I chose Mike because he has a unique perspective as a former Iowa player whose son first committed to Alford and then played for both Lickliter and McCaffery at Iowa.

“I think Steve Alford was a good fit and was building a program here and for whatever reason he decided to leave,” Mike Gatens said. “With coach Lickliter, some things just don’t work, and it wasn’t working.

“I think Fran has got a personality that Iowa fans love and his players. Nothing against the other two, but his players love playing for him. He gets on them, and he loves them. Fran is a brilliant guy.”

Mike Gatens thinks it’s a case of McCaffery being a near-perfect fit at Iowa more than Alford was a terrible fit.

I say it’s more a case of Alford being his own worst enemy then and now. Once you got past the slick suits and the neatly groomed hair, Alford was a public relations nightmare at Iowa and nothing seems to have changed.

We were reminded of that by something Alford said this week at his introductory press conference for the UCLA job. Alford had just finished telling reporters that his values and ethics were shaped largely by the influence of former UCLA coach John Wooden when he was asked if Wooden would’ve handled the Pierre Pierce sexual assault scandal at Iowa differently.

Instead of showing compassion and concern and expressing his sympathy, Alford did what he so often does by tossing other people under the bus. In this case it was the Iowa administration, some of whom don’t work for the university anymore.

“Well, that was an instance that happened years ago at the University of Iowa, and I call tell you with that situation is I followed everything the University of Iowa administration and the lawyers that were hired, I did everything I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation,” Alford said. “I followed everything that I was supposed to do.”

That statement was vintage Alford and yet another example of why he didn’t succeed here. It also should make you appreciate McCaffery’s approach even more so.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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