IOWA CITY, Ia. – Fran McCaffery was just 26 years old when he got the head coaching job at Lehigh in 1985.
The youngest Division I head coach at the time, McCaffery took over a team that had been 12-19 the previous season. McCaffery vividly remembers conducting a practice that first season when there was a burst of noise.
Members of a fraternity stormed into the arena looking for one of their pledges, who just happened to be on McCaffery’s team. McCaffery told them, in no uncertain terms, to get out.
Three seasons later, McCaffery coached the Engineers to a 21-10 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament after winning the East Coast Conference Tournament title.
On Sunday, McCaffery’s rebuilding efforts were rewarded for the fourth time in his career when Iowa received its 23rd NCAA Tournament bid and first since 2006. He also turned around programs in similar fashion at North Carolina-Greensboro and Siena.
Only Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has taken more schools to the NCAA Tournament, with five.
Iowa (20-12) will face Tennessee (21-12) in a first-round NCAA game at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. The winner faces Massachusetts (24-8) at 1:45 p.m. Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
McCaffery considers this rebuilding job more significant than the other three.
“To have been through this league and what it’s like to build a program in this league, it’s very difficult to do at this level,” McCaffery said. “This is different than the other three. They’re all unique in their own way, and I guess they’re all difficult. But at this level, it’s very hard to build a team that can win 20 games in back-to-back years, so I’m very proud of my guys.”
McCaffery inherited a 10-win program in the spring of 2010, won 11 games the next season and then 18, 25 and 20.
Three seniors — Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe — bridge McCaffery’s rebuilding job at Iowa.
“That freshman class (in 2010-11) is very special to me,” McCaffery said.
And three more players no longer on the roster deserve equal billing according to their coach.
“I was blessed, when I got here, with a couple of things,” McCaffery said. “I had great leadership. We didn’t have a lot of bodies, but Jarryd Cole and Matt Gatens and Eric May, they were huge. Those three guys were spectacular, and I hope that they feel very much a part of what happened (Sunday), I really do.”
Those three players never got a chance to experience the NCAA Tournament.
“I wish that every player that I coached had an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament,” McCaffery said. “It’s truly about them. In terms of my professional accomplishment, obviously I’m proud of what we accomplished, my staff and I. But it’s not about that. I think this particular journey has been unique and it’s been rewarding, because in the beginning it seemed some days were insurmountable. And we just kept plugging, and we stayed positive.”
After leaving Lehigh to become an assistant coach at Notre Dame for 11 seasons, McCaffery took the job at North Carolina-Greensboro and inherited a 7-20 team. Two seasons later, his 19-12 team won the Southern Conference Tournament and got an NCAA berth.
McCaffery left for Siena in 2005, taking over a program coming off a 6-24 season.
“They had actually won an NCAA game, so there was a different expectation there,” McCaffery said. “But they were at the lowest and worst they had ever been.”
McCaffery got the Saints to the first of three straight NCAA appearances in 2008, a streak that saw his teams go 23-11, 27-8 and 27-7. Siena beat Vanderbilt in a first-round game in 2008 and Ohio State in a first-round game in 2009.
But the Iowa rebuild, McCaffery said, stands alone.
“Winning on the road at Ohio State is a little different than some of the other conferences I’ve coached in,” McCaffery said.