Notre Dame still special place for Iowa's Fran McCaffery

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

On an early Sunday afternoon in late February 1999, following a Big East home game against Boston College in the old Joyce Center, Fran McCaffery walked up an arena tunnel to the locker room for the final time as a Notre Dame assistant men’s basketball coach.

In the coming weeks, head coach John MacLeod would be pressured to resign. McCaffery, who had been a Division I head coach when he took Lehigh to the 1988 NCAA tournament, longed to get back to running his own program. After spending a then-record 11 seasons as an Irish assistant, he embarked on a head coaching journey with stops at three schools, directing 323 career wins and counting. He’s taken each one — North Carolina Greensboro, Siena and now Iowa — to the NCAA tournament.

On Tuesday, the 57-year-old McCaffery walks back on the floor of what is now Purcell Pavilion for the first time since 1999 when Iowa (3-3) visits Notre Dame (6-0) as part of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge (9 p.m., ESPN2).

McCaffery will treat it as just another game, just another business trip for a young team trying to figure it all out. But in many ways, it just won’t be.

“I’ve been gone a long time, so it’s not that big of a deal in that sense,” McCaffery said by phone Sunday morning from his office in Iowa City. “But I loved my time there. There’s a great affinity there for me.”

Notre Dame remains a constant in McCaffery’s life.

McCaffery has kept a close eye on what close friend Mike Brey has built, in part because he knows how hard it is to recruit to Notre Dame, win at Notre Dame and sustain success at Notre Dame.

“It’s a lot harder than he’s made it look,” McCaffery said. “But he stays true to his philosophy and his beliefs, and he recruits really good players who are really good people and they win.

“There are very few coaches in this business that I respect more than Mike Brey.”

The feeling is mutual. Brey admits that he wouldn’t have had such immediate success when he arrived without the help of McCaffery, who helped recruit the core of that 2000-01 team in Matt Carroll, David Graves, Martin Ingelsby, Troy Murphy and Harold Swanagan.

“I’ve always thanked him for the cupboard not being bare when I got here,” Brey said. “It will be neat to have Fran back here.”

McCaffery’s wife, the former Margaret Nowlin, has undergraduate and law degrees from Notre Dame. She was a three-year starter for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw. When the McCafferys carve out some time during offseasons and get back to South Bend, they often stay at McGraw’s home.

McCaffery attended McGraw’s going-away party when she was set to leave Lehigh for Notre Dame in 1987.

“I didn’t know that I’d be going there one year later,” he said.

McCaffery sought out South Bend to specifically work for coach Digger Phelps after going 21-10 and getting to the NCAA tournament in his final year at Lehigh.

“He calls me up and says he wants to come here,” Phelps recalled Monday. “I said, ‘What?’ He said he wanted to see what the next level was like.”

McCaffery remains thankful for the opportunity to spend three years with Phelps, but is even more grateful for the friendship his old boss offered decades later during the darkest time in McCaffery’s life.

When the McCaffery’s second son, Patrick, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014, Phelps was there to help. He sent the teen two medals – the Lady on the Dome and St. Jude – both blessed by the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh.

Phelps still lights a candle every Tuesday for McCaffery’s son at the Grotto.

“Row 7, bottom row in the back,” Phelps said.

Phelps also says a prayer for him at the Hidden Crucifix on campus.

When the McCafferys visited South Bend two summers ago, Phelps took Patrick, who beat the cancer, to his special spots.

“It meant a lot to him, because he didn’t know Digger that well,” McCaffery said. “He was really, really good to him.”

In July, when Phelps’ family threw him a surprise 75th birthday party on campus, McCaffery had to get there, even if it was during the busiest recruiting period on the calendar for college coaches. With Iowa’s help, McCaffery got a private plane and got to town long enough for the event, which also included Brey. He spent a few hours in the arena sharing stories and laughs with his old boss before hustling back to the airport and a flight east to his next AAU stop in Washington.

“How about that?” Phelps said. “That was wild.”

McCaffery took his team Monday to his favorite spot – Parisi’s – for dinner. Phelps also planned to swing by and address the team.

On Tuesday, the former Irish head coach will be in his usual baseline seat along press row to watch his former assistant.

“I’m sure he’ll have my team figured out for me,” McCaffery said. “I’ll appreciate that because I’m still working on it myself.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Fran McCaffery spent 11 seasons as an assistant coach at Notre Dame. He returns for the first time Tuesday to coach since leaving in 1999. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

ACC/Big Ten Challenge

WHO: Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Iowa (3-3).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: Senior swingman Peter Jok scored 42 points on 11-of-16 from the floor, 12-of-12 from the free throw line and eight 3-pointers Saturday in a 100-92 loss to Memphis in the third-place game of the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla. The Hawkeyes allowed 54 points in the paint, 22 second-chance points and 21 points off 18 turnovers. … Iowa lost to No. 6 Virginia in Friday’s semifinals. … The Hawkeyes have lost three of their last four, including a home loss to Seton Hall in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. … This is Iowa’s first true road game. … One starter returns off an Iowa team that finished 22-11 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for a third straight year before losing in the second round to eventual national champion Villanova. … Jok is averaging a team-high 25.3 points. Freshman forward Tyler Cook is the only other double-figure scorer (13.7). … Iowa averages 86.3 points and allows 81.7. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 9-6…… The Irish are 2-1 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with two straight wins (Michigan State, Illinois). The Hawkeyes are 5-10 with three straight wins. Iowa has not lost a challenge contest since 2012 at Virginia Tech. … The ACC is 10-5-2 all-time in the Challenge.

QUOTING: “I am tired of Iowa and (Fran McCaffery’s) tired of Notre Dame, I’m sure (but) we’ll laugh about it. This is all driven by TV. We sure have seen a lot of Iowa.”

• Irish coach Mike Brey on playing Iowa for the third time in four years, including twice in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.