Fran McCaffery was 28 years old when he took Lehigh to the 1988 NCAA Tournament in his third season as coach. His reward was a professional slap in the face.
McCaffery interviewed for vacancies at Southern Methodist and Massachusetts after the season. Interviewed well, too. And he didn’t get either job.
“Both were very reluctant to pull the trigger,” McCaffery said, “with my experience both on a national level in terms of recruiting and coaching.”
So McCaffery decided to do something about that. He accepted an assistant’s job at Notre Dame under Digger Phelps. Rarely do head coaches take a step back, without getting fired first. McCaffery has never had second thoughts.
“To me, it was really a no-brainer,” McCaffery said. “It was something I wanted to do, an experience I wanted to try.”
That decision was invaluable on a career path that took McCaffery to North Carolina-Greensboro, Siena and now Iowa. And Tuesday, his fourth Hawkeye team meets Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at 8:15 p.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I would say that my ability to be successful at Greensboro, Siena and ultimately Iowa is the result of the experiences I had at Notre Dame,” McCaffery said.
No. 23 Iowa, 7-1, is coming off an 88-83 overtime loss to Villanova in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis Saturday.
“I feel like we competed,” McCaffery said. “You always look back and say, ‘Boy, I wish we could have done this or that better.’ But ultimately I was very pleased with the professionalism in which we approached the tournament.”
Notre Dame, 5-1, has a team that is 21st nationally in 3-point shooting at 42.6 percent and second in assists per game at 21.0. Coach Mike Brey has four players scoring in double figures, led by senior guard Jerian Grant (19.5 points a game).
“They typify a team you have to beat, because they won’t beat themselves,” McCaffery said. “They take care of the ball, they move the ball and they take open shots. And typically, they make them. So it’s really going to test our defense.”
This will be the first time Iowa and Notre Dame have met since 1990, when the Irish won a second-round NIT game in South Bend, Ind., 77-68. McCaffery was an Irish assistant, taking advantage of the opportunity to expand his coaching resume under Phelps and later John MacLeod.
It didn’t take long to accelerate that growth curve once he arrived.
“The third game I coached, there were 37,000 people in the Indiana Hoosier Dome when we played Kentucky,” McCaffery said. “Here we are, my first year, and I’m preparing scouting reports to coach against Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino. Those kinds of games we were preparing for regularly. There was no better way to prepare me to ultimately be where I am now than to be in those types of games, where you had to prepare for teams of that caliber and then actually go through the game itself.”
McCaffery’s decision paid other benefits. Margaret Nowlin, who scored 1,312 points and added 826 rebounds while playing for the Irish from 1988 to 1992, was on the Irish women’s coaching staff when Fran first asked her for a date. She said no the first time, yes the second.
Their first date was to watch an NBA exhibition game involving Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Married on the Fourth of July in 1997, they now have four children.
“She had a great experience at Notre Dame,” McCaffery said. “She loves that institution. She’s still very close with Coach (Muffet) McGraw and the women’s program there .<TH>.<TH>. But she’s a Hawkeye, through and through.”
Today’s game is another segment in a “This Is Your Life” season for McCaffery.
“It has been an interesting year from that perspective,” McCaffery said.
He coached the Hawkeyes to an 86-55 victory over his alma mater, Penn, on Nov. 22. Now Notre Dame, an 11-year chapter of his coaching resume.
McCaffery is good friends with Brey — the two share the same agent — and he recruited Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby and director of basketball operations Harold Swanagan to South Bend.
“I have a lot of memories there,” McCaffery said. “That won’t affect our preparation in any way, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter during tonight’s game: @ByRickBrown
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball