By Andy Staples
March 21, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. -- The men's assistant poked his head in the door of the office shared by the Notre Dame women's basketball assistants one day in 1995. He approached the tall brunette who had starred in the post for the Fighting Irish a few years earlier. He spoke.

"All right," Fran McCaffery told Margaret Nowlin, "diagram power game."

"So I did," Margaret McCaffery said Thursday. "Like a dummy."

Pick-up line, meet pick-and-roll.

A first date drawing plays led to a second date at an NBA exhibition at Notre Dame's Joyce Center. At least Fran didn't go completely cliché and propose at a basketball game. "No. No," he said. "It was after one."

After almost 11 years of marriage, the McCafferys remain the hottest couple on the hardwood. Margaret ranks 12th on Notre Dame's career scoring list (1,312 points). Fran was better known in the Philly prep hoops community as "White Magic." He played at Penn and in 1985 became America's youngest Division I head coach when Lehigh hired him at age 26. Friday, the third-year Siena coach will lead the 13th-seeded Saints against Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Margaret understands when Fran comes home grumbling about 2-3 zones and ball screens. She knows how much it meant for Fran and the Saints to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. After all, how many coaches' wives have coached in the NCAA tournament? "You hope for your husband or for anybody that you love -- and that includes the players -- that they can have that experience," Margaret said.

Knowing as much as she knows can be a curse, too. Margaret can tell when the refs are being too picky about hand checks. She understands the fine line between a block and a charge. Sometimes, Margaret wants to jump out of her skin. At least once, she couldn't hold her tongue.

After a Siena overtime loss to Loyola on Feb. 16, Margaret walked into the postgame interview room and offered an unsolicited suggestion to an Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union beat writer. "Here's your headline," she said. "We got hosed." She went on to call official Will Bush "horrendous." Later, after Fran declined to criticize the officiating, Margaret began to speak again before Fran said, "Marg, that's enough."

Two years ago at Hofstra, the McCafferys pulled off a rare double. After officials ejected Fran for arguing, they ran Margaret, who got too close to the court while trying to reach her husband. In a way, the Hofstra incident is kind of romantic. Remember that old saying? "The couple that gets tossed together..."

Thursday, Margaret declined to elaborate on her Loyola postgame comments, and she didn't see the romance in the double ejection. But she did admit that the transition from player and coach to dutiful coach's wife creates an entirely new sensation at the gym. "What's hard is that as a player and as a coach, I never got nervous before a game because you have some control over it," Margaret said as she cradled 1-year-old son Jack in her right arm and 5-year-old daughter Marit in her left. "As a coach's wife, it's a lot harder because you can't do anything about anything."

Fran considers his wife's hoops IQ a blessing. "I find it very helpful," he said. "Because no matter how hard you try to totally separate what happens at work from what happens at home -- and I think I do a pretty good job of that -- there's always going to be some spillover. You have to have somebody there that understand and that you can talk things through with. She really knows the game. She really knows our team."

Margaret ducked the toughest question, though. Who would win a one-on-one game between her and her husband?

"You can't compare. It's totally different," she said. "He was a point guard. I was a center and a power forward. I would have benefited from his passing.

"But I did score a lot more points."

Saints players weren't touching the question either. "I don't know," forward Josh Duell said. "I don't want to get in trouble." Guard Tay Fisher also waffled. "I see her shooting around a little bit," he said. "Her form looks nice. But at the same time we see coach showing us some little moves he doesn't even realize he's doing. That's definitely a basketball family. They've got some young ones coming up, too."

Connor (9), Patrick (7) and Marit round out the McCaffery starting five alongside mom and dad. For the moment, Jack is the sixth man. "Jack is going to be a big boy," Fisher said. "I've got my money on little Jack. I don't need to see him touch a ball or shoot."

Margaret has a law degree from Notre Dame, but for now she's a full-time mom. The Saints rave about her homemade brownies with made-from-scratch icing. But even after seeing her in full mom mode, it's obvious she would give her husband the run of his life on the court.

"I'm a little quicker," Fran said. "She was a much better shooter, though. She only scored 1,000 more points than I did. I told her she took a lot more shots. She said 'It's because you weren't allowed to shoot.'"

But would Fran, in the interest of matrimonial harmony, let his wife win?

"I'd shut her out if I could," he said. "There's only one way to play."

He might even use some of those plays she drew that night in 1995 to beat her.

"There was definitely a plan there," he said of his visit to the women's hoops office. "And it wasn't to learn about the power game."

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