Notre Dame men’s basketball: ND connection helped fuel career of Iowa’s McCaffery
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Everything was in place nearly two decades ago for someone considered a rising talent to have a long and successful stay as a college basketball head coach.
At 26, Fran McCaffery became the youngest head coach in Division I when he was hired in 1985 by Lehigh. Three years later, he had an afterthought of a program in the NCAA tournament. Following that dream season, McCaffery made a decision that forever altered his career course — he picked up the phone and dialed an Independent powerhouse in the Midwest.
Then-Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps was looking to fill two vacancies on his staff. Phelps was stunned, even a bit staggered, to hear that the Penn-educated McCaffery was willing to do something no first-time head coaches would dream of — step away to climb down a wrung on the coaching ladder and serve somewhere else as an assistant.
But McCaffery was looking five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road. He knew that in the long run, it was his only option. So he pressed Phelps to hire him at Notre Dame. He did.
“The reason I went there was to learn this profession at a different level,” McCaffery said by cell phone Monday morning. “When you’re at a place like Lehigh, back then, we had no resources. We didn’t recruit nationally. We didn’t play a big schedule.”
Notre Dame had all that and also had Phelps, who despite all his bluster and boastfulness was willing to mentor aspiring coaches on what it took to be a top guy at the top level. After 11 years at Notre Dame — three with Phelps and eight with former Irish coach John MacLeod — McCaffery was ready to again be a head coach.
He’s in his fourth year at No. 23 Iowa, which is poised to make a push to the top of what many believe could be the nation’s toughest conference.
“There’s no way you could compare where I was when I left Lehigh to where I was when I left Notre Dame,” McCaffery said. “I was blessed to be there for 11 years. I was able to accomplish everything I had hoped in terms of being ready for my next coaching job.
“I learned how to run a program with all the different things that come at you.”
A detail-oriented coach whose scouting sessions were lessons in how to pick apart an opponent, McCaffery also became an ace recruiter. Among the players that McCaffery delivered to Notre Dame were Matt Carroll, Pat Garrity, David Graves, Troy Murphy and Harold Swanagan. He also landed a left-handed swingman out of Aurora, Ill., who would become the ultimate glue guy during his Irish career.
When McCaffery needed to fill the role of director of basketball operations on his Iowa staff in late July, he had one name in mind — Billy Taylor, who was fired last spring after five seasons as a head coach at Ball State.
“What I’ve always admired about Fran is he’s going to shoot you straight,” Taylor said Monday afternoon from his office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “He’s going to tell you the absolute truth. He’s always been a terrific mentor, professionally and personally.
“It’s been awesome to be around him and learn from him.”
McCaffery also was the lead Irish recruiter for a point guard who shared his similar Philadelphia roots. Like with Taylor, the two cemented an instant connection that continues today.
That point guard is current Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby. His path crosses with McCaffery for the first time in a college game (they’ve seen one another plenty along the recruiting trail) since 1999 on Tuesday when Notre Dame (5-1) visits No. 23 Iowa (7-1) in the 15th-annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“He was one of the main reasons I came to Notre Dame,” Ingelsby said. “He was the point person on my recruitment. That was before cell phones (so) I spent a lot of time on my house phone talking with him.”
McCaffery counts Ingelsby and Swanagan among his favorites. But he’ll shelve that sentiment Tuesday for a few hours.
“There’s obviously feelings,” McCaffery said. “But the reality is we in this profession are able to compartmentalize every situation and it’s just the next game on the schedule.”
Ingelsby was a sophomore on a Notre Dame team that lost to Seton Hall in the first round of the 1999 Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. Five days later, and only hours after the coaching staff had mapped out their spring recruiting plan, MacLeod was asked by former Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth to resign.
When Wadsworth passed on the chance to hire McCaffery and instead chose Matt Doherty, the former Irish assistant embarked on a head-coaching journey that has taken him from North Carolina-Greensboro (90-87 in six seasons) to Siena (112-51 in five seasons) to Iowa (65-51).
McCaffery is the first college coach to take three schools — Lehigh, Greensboro, Siena — from one-bid leagues to the NCAA tournament. Many believe he’ll have the Hawkeyes back in the NCAA tournament at season’s end for the first time since 2006.
“He’s had great success,” Ingelsby said of the 54-year-old McCaffery. “As a former player (at Penn), he’s extremely passionate and intense. He gets the most out of his guys.
“He’s got a great basketball mind.”
One that often was challenged by Phelps, who groomed 12 former Irish assistants to become college head coaches by making sure they knew every aspect of his program and of every opponent, right down to the type of ball each preferred.
“The little things are so important,” Phelps said.
“He’s the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever known,” McCaffery said. “He let nothing go.”
Now it’s McCaffery who makes sure every base is covered. Late last year, McCaffery left Phelps a voice mail that said simply, “Nothing changes but the names.”
Seems Iowa was set to play at Michigan, but one of McCaffery’s assistants in charge of scouting the Wolverines failed to note their brand of basketball — the ultimate scouting report oversight under Phelps.
McCaffery fumed at his staff while Phelps chuckled.
“He got on them like I did, even cursed them out which is what I would do,” Phelps said. “I’m as proud of him as I am of any of the assistants that worked for me at Notre Dame. He’s got it going at Iowa.
“He’s always had this in him.”