By Chris Emma-
As part of a periodical series this summer, “A day with Coach,” CBSChicago.com college sports columnist Chris Emma spent an evening with Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery, attending a dinner event with the Davenport Quarterback Club in the Quad Cities.
DAVENPORT, Iowa (CBS) — Through 31 years of work in the game of basketball, a son of Philadelphia found home in America’s heartland.
The ever-changing, often-unstable road of a coach led Fran McCaffery to Iowa, a program with history but lacking in luster. In short time, he enriched it a Hawkeye gold. Iowa’s basketball team was back in the NCAA Tournament, and its future is promising.
At the Davenport Quarterback Club’s annual summer dinner, countless Iowa fans and alums approached their basketball coach with a handshake and gratitude.
“Thank you for bringing Iowa basketball back,” said one fan, a long-time season ticket holder who gave up his seats for several years before McCaffery arrived in Iowa City.
Such sentiments are a great reward for McCaffery, who took over the Hawkeyes in 2010. It’s everything he envisioned at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena: a rebuilt roster and exciting style of play would lead to a rebirth of the program that, until this past March, hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2006. A subsequent spurt in fan support would then follow.
It’s all part of the coach’s plan, which is coming to fruition.
“Guys came with their dads, and now they’re bringing their children,” McCaffery said. “They want to come, and they want that place rocking. They remember, for about a 20-year period of time, where every game was sold out. And we’re close.”
McCaffery is often regarded for his fiery demeanor on the Hawkeyes’ bench. He’s a tough, demanding coach, but he’s also a gentle, caring man.
Family is what matters most to him. Margaret, Fran’s wife, and their four children are a fixture with Iowa’s basketball team. Margaret is on her husband’s side after each game, and their kids are constants at practices and games.
In the difficult schedule a coach faces, family time is often minimal. McCaffery vowed that would never happen to him.
“I just want my family to be a part of this experience,” McCaffery said. “Because when your children grow up, that’s it — they’ve grown up, you’ve missed it. I’ve seen a lot of coaches come before me, and they missed it and regretted it.”
The challenge of balancing family and basketball was brought to an unfathomable nightmare this past March, with the Hawkeyes on the brink of the NCAA Tournament.
McCaffery’s 14-year-old son, Patrick, was found to have a tumor on his thyroid.
He would have surgery on the morning March 19, the day of Iowa’s first-round matchup with Tennessee. Fran would fly from Dayton to be at his son’s side in Iowa City, then return hours before the game to coach his team. Two days later, the tumor was found to be malignant.
The McCafferys weren’t alone in their fight. Overwhelming support spread from all over. Big Ten coaching rivals such as Tom Crean and Tom Izzo personally called with prayers and support. NBA star Chris Paul reached out to Patrick, later inviting him for basketball in Los Angeles.
Before the Hawkeyes’ first Big Ten Tournament game, players took the court wearing “Team Pat” on their chests — shirts created themselves to support their coach’s son, their brother.
“I had a hard time keeping it together, I really did,” McCaffery said. “I had a really hard time.”
Countless strangers shared their support with the McCaffery family, too. Constant gestures and simple messages lifted their spirits. Patrick is doing “very well” with his treatment, his father said, and a recent body scan showed no spreading of the cancer.
The care is constant from Iowa’s dedicated fan base. McCaffery is their own, and Patrick is their son. It’s something coach Fran will never forget.
“They just put their arms around him and made him feel so good — helped him through it, helped us through a very difficult time,” he said.
With his program flourishing, his family kept close and the warm compassion of so many, Fran McCaffery is at home in the Hawkeye State.
He’s one of their own.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.