Fran McCaffery: "I didn't put our team in a position that benefited them." (Michael Hickey/Getty)
First Fran McCaffery’s head and shoulders lunged in front of the rest of him, with said head spewing like a blast furnace. Then came the angry shuffle to his left, followed by a roundhouse right, followed by a fist-to-palm exclamation point. This earned Iowa’s coach a technical foul on Sunday night. Which was in its own way OK, since a technical foul is precisely what McCaffery was after.
The rest? Well, the first step is admitting you have a problem. In the light of day Monday, McCaffery did just that. He conceded that continuing his cloudburst of rage with another air-punch, a bump of an official and an objection probably wasn’t a good idea. Especially not when it turned into five made free throws and a lead Wisconsin wouldn’t relinquish in a 75-71 win for the Badgers.
For that, Iowa’s athletic director issued a statement supporting his coach while acknowledging McCaffery “crossed a line.” For that, McCaffery offered formal and informal apologies Monday, a coach betrayed by his temper, a veteran who simply should know better.
“The first technical I think was expected, no question about that,” McCaffery said during the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Monday. “I really wish I hadn’t gotten second one. You have to be able to assess things that happen. That’s what we ask players do – you’ve got to be able to that yourself. I didn’t put our team in a position that benefited them. I’ve got to be man enough to admit that and say I regret that.”
It wasn’t entirely a selfish moment. McCaffery watched a double-digit lead at the Kohl Center winnow to two points and thought to use a debatable foul call as a rallying point. As some coaches are wont to do in this way, he stood up for his club. But when the histrionics took over, it became a sideshow, McCaffery venting for his own benefit. And beyond any civility component to it, the Big Ten this season just doesn’t allow for self-indulgent melodrama, especially not for a team with a legitimate shot to contend that deserves better.
Thus did McCaffery “apologize for my emotional reaction” in a statement Monday. Thus did Iowa athletic director Gary Barta meet with McCaffery and issue a statement saying his coach “crossed a line of acceptable behavior and accepts responsibility for his actions.” Barta added McCaffery has his “full support moving forward." McCaffery sounded sincere in his regret for potentially embarrassing the university.
It’s part of the deal with McCaffery, the occasional bury-the-needle outrage. He's slammed chairs and whacked clipboards. And it’s part of the deal with coaching, tiptoeing between making a point and not knowing when to say when. “I had not seen the footage, I heard about it this morning,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of McCaffery, a friend who was an Irish assistant before Brey arrived. “Certainly he is an amazingly competitive guy and an intense guy, but it is fragile, very, very fragile, what you can actually get away with. Hopefully I’m always careful about knowing when I’m getting close to the line. I was pretty close to the line on Saturday (against Duke) and a veteran official, Ray Natili, said, ‘Why are you making all those hand signals? Just talk to me.’ I said, that’s a good point.”
To that end: McCaffery didn’t really even give officials a chance to save him from himself. “In a perfect world, you say your piece, you get banged, you hope that will jumpstart things a bit,” the Hawkeyes coach said. “Your assistants come get you, pull you away and you move on and they get some free throws and we’re done with it. It was unfortunate in that situation because I was venting and it was bang-bang. But you have to be able to walk away when the first one hits. It’s that simple.”
Very simple. McCaffery had his moment. Maybe more than his share, actually, already. No more can follow anytime soon, or it wouldn’t be much of an overreaction for Barta to do more than issue tut-tut statements. Iowa is too good for this this year. Its coach can feel the competitive rage swell, but he’d do well to remember not to forget himself again.