Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Welcome to the Franimal House (Wish I made that up)

So, Iowa hired a new basketball coach on Sunday, in case you're living under a rock or Scott Dochterman's voyeuristic video camera stalker trip didn't pique your interests. And, despite the hot mid-major resume and professorial appearance, he couldn't be any more different from severed incumbent Todd Lickliter. Fran McCaffery, fresh off a "fran-tastic" three year run at Siena (upstate New York) where he guided the Saints to three straight NCAA tournaments, including first-round upsets over fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in 2008 and the Evan Turner-led Ohio State Buckeyes in 2009 (the game when Bill Raftery popularized "double onions!"), is our new head man. After his explosively perfect press conference on Monday, the bespectacled, stately gent know as "White Magic" for his street-wise playing days in urban Philadelphia has already won over the black-and-gold faithful in ways pretty boy Steve Alford and "systematic" Lick never could.

Fran is the only D1 coach to have guided three different teams from traditional one-bid leagues to the NCAA tournament, spearheading vast turnarounds at Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro, and of course Siena. The 49-year-old doesn't run a "system," per se, which should be refreshing to fans sick and tired of hearing Lickliter's favorite justification for success. During the presser, Fran said his teams will play up-tempo and switch up defenses based on match-ups, terms foreign and frightening to Lickliter. There will be obvious eyebrow raises concerned with the current roster's ability to run-and-gun (Cougill on the fastbreak is a scary thought), but Coach has reiterated that he will adapt to the strengths of his players. His teams at Siena shot an inordinately low amount of threes, directly contrasting with the previous regime, and were known for hardly ever fouling. Recruiting is a question mark, if only because McCaffery, a Digger Phelps assistant at Notre Dame during the '90s, hasn't been in the Midwest in quite some time. It will be interesting to see if he still decides to primarily recruit the East Coast, or strengthens pipelines in Chicago and the Twin Cities. His wife, Marge, a former All-American player herself at Notre Dame and Minnesota native, has a feisty reputation for dogging officials (she was kicked out of an '06 game) and baking apple pies for potential recruits. He has four young kids, and made sure they were on display throughout Monday's festivities.

Essentially, he's the anti-Lick.

The theme ran rampant during the press conference and continued into a meet-and-greet with Iowa students and the general public later in the evening: change is here. Fran emphasized the benefits of raising a family in Iowa City, community interaction, and getting fans back in the seats. He spoke of having relationships with players, inviting them to his home and making them feel like family. He wants recruits to feel safe, parents to trust their children to his hands. He talked about moving the student section behind the opponents' bench, telling anecdotes from his first visit to Carver in the '80s when his Lehigh team was crushed in front of a raucous sell-out crowd by George Raveling's primetime Hawkeyes. The interaction with the media was a night-and-day difference — Fran was smooth, poised, with a quick East Coast-drenched swagger in his voice. He told humorous tales about recruiting former Hawkeye greats Jess Settles and Kenyon Murray, delineating a knowledge of Hawkeye history that Lick could never grasp. He didn't inundate the media with tales of his successes at Siena: he knows this is Iowa, and made it clear this was his first job choice, a job he pursued instead of openings at Seton Hall and St. John's.

Fran clearly outlined a blueprint for improvement and keeping current players/recruiting class, discussed possibly nabbing a former Hawk player as an assistant on his staff, and even laughed politely when Barta made a joke about Mrs. McCaffery needing seat-belts on gameday. Talk rampaged of bringing the fans back with fast-break ball played "the right way," getting the arena "rockin' again" and making it impossible to buy tickets. Talk of practice facilities and renovations generated excitement, not excuses. It's undeniable — Fran said all the right things, and it was obvious he set out to portray himself as everything Lickliter wasn't. He was comfortable, the opposite of aloof, friendly, engaging, and told the fans everything they wanted to hear. Expect improvement year one, per Fran. How much? Nobody really knows, but I would pencil the Hawks in for 13-15 wins. Am I lost in the allure of a Fran-high? Maybe. But I am already more excited for basketball than I ever was under the Lickliter era, and my hardwood pulse is gradually thumping along again. That's an important aspect that cannot be overstated.

Step one is out of the way. Now comes the hard part. Can he recruit in the Big Ten? How will the current players adapt? How soon will the Hawks be back in the tournament? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. But here's one thing I'll guarantee — the fans have warmed up to Fran like no coach in the past decade, and the arena will be vastly more full next year. If Fran starts the non-conference slate with a good, winning record, watch out. The fans will come back. Now about that pep band...

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