By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — OTTUMWA — His first trip to Southeast Iowa came after his first year as head coach of the Iowa men’s basketball program.
Even with one full season under his belt, that first time Southeast Iowa I-Club Tailgate still felt like an introduction to a fan base for Fran McCaffery.
It was safe to say on that on Friday, no one needed an introduction to McCaffery in his second visit to the annual Ottawa event. Fans of the black and gold from all around the area not only know who’s in charge of Iowa men’s basketball, but just what he’s capable of doing.
And many of those fans wanted to shake his hand for bringing the level of expectations back up to a program with so much winning tradition. McCaffery enjoyed meeting and greeting all the area fans that packed into the Tom Arnold Net Center Friday for the annual event hosted by the 75-year-old SE Iowa I-Club.
OTTUMWA — “I’ve been spending a lot of time interacting with all the Hawkeye fans around the state. It’s been so much fun to talk to everyone. Everyone has been so positive about the team and what we are capable of next season,” McCaffery said. “That’s what you want as a coach. You want that excitement level to be high from your fan base. You want them to know the players and want to come out to Carver Hawkeye Arena and see us play.”
“The first time I was here, I hadn’t been here that long. Now that I’ve been here for a few years, I think people know what they can expect from me and our basketball program.”
McCaffery was the featured guest of Friday’s event, which also saw fans meet and hear from Iowa football offensive coordinator Greg Davis about the hopes for Kirk Ferentz’s squad after a disappointing 4-8 season. With offensive struggles being the main culprit behind a season-ending six-game losing streak, Davis at least showed he could have a sense of humor when addressing the room full of Iowa fans on Friday.
“(Women’s) assistant (basketball) coach Jan Jensen and I were on the way down here and they gave us cards to tell us what to talk about when we were up here to speak,” Davis said. “On the back of hers, it said talk about last season and your expectations for next year. On the back of mine, it said ‘Score some more points!’
“Last season didn’t go so well. Moving on to next season, then,” Davis joked.
For the most part on Friday, the mood around the tailgate event was once again one of optimism. For the first time in quite a while, however, it was because of the basketball program after Iowa finished its third season under McCaffery with the second-most wins in a single season.
The 25-13 season saw the Hawkeyes play their way into consideration for an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2006. Iowa only added to expectation levels in the postseason, advancing all the way to the NIT championship game in New York City at Madison Square Garden before falling to Baylor in the first NIT title game for a Hawkeye men’s basketball team.
“It wasn’t just that they beat teams in the NIT, they beat some really good teams and beat them decisively. They beat a team in Indiana State with quality wins over Miami and San Diego State. Then they went to Virginia where Duke had lost and dominated there and they did the same thing to a good Maryland team in New York,” Hawkeye football and men’s basketball play-by-play voice Gary Dolphin said Friday. Dolphin served as emcee of the event and has had a front row view to the growth of Iowa basketball under McCaffery.
“The difference in where the program is now to where it was a few years ago is night and day,” Dolphin said. “We knew when he got here that he could coach. He’s coached and won at schools like Lehigh, Greensboro and Siena. His style is the biggest selling point. Kids want to get out and run and his style suits the way they want to play.”
McCaffery talked about seeing the growth of his program over his third season at Iowa. The Hawkeyes made amazing strides to make their way into NCAA Tournament contention, finishing 9-9 in the nationally top-rated Big Ten Conference.
“We played so well down the stretch of last season. We just kept gaining confidence as the season was going along,” McCaffery said. “The fun thing about it is we have so many guys that are still coming back, but we kept getting better as a team throughout last year.”
“I think the program’s at a place that it was at going into 2005 when the team last won 25 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s right about where the excitement level is at for the program right now. I think there’s the belief that this team can make it to the NCAA Tournament and make a deep run once they get there,” Dolphin added.
Having such a young team capture the attention and excitement of the Hawkeye fanbase is exactly what McCaffery wants to see as the head coach of a program with a very promising future. Having accomplished so much with so much talent returning next year, McCaffery fully expects to see just as much enthusiasm filling into Carver Hawkeye Arena from the very first game next season.
“I know the fans want us to get better. They want to see the program develop and we want to give them the kind of team they can always be excited about,” McCaffery said. “Our guys got a taste of the success last season. They want to get better and they’re working hard to get better every day. I know they’re excited. Hopefully the fans are just as excited to see us keep getting better.”