In two years at Iowa, Fran McCaffery's overall record is 29-37. His Big Ten record is 12-24. His only postseason appearance to speak of is the NIT. Yet Tuesday, Iowa announced it had signed McCaffery to a major contract extension, extending the coach's deal by seven years and increasing his salary to a minimum average of $1.66 million per season.
That's a lot of money for a coach with a sub-.500 record. It might give rise to the question: Why?
A better question would be: Why not?
McCaffery inherited an utter mess when he left Siena for the Hawkeyes in 2010, thanks to the residue of Steve Alford's flame-out and, more importantly, former coach Todd Lickliter's failed tenure. Lickliter damaged the Hawkeyes not only on the floor, but at will call, where already blasé Iowa fans were turned off by ugly, slow-paced basketball that came with no payoff. McCaffery has taken the program in the complete opposite direction. He realized early that even if his teams couldn't match up piece for piece, they would play hard, and they would play fast, and they would refuse to sit back and let the Big Ten's slogging behemoths dictate the style of the game. That style has kept McCaffery's teams competitive despite often being outmatched, and more importantly it has given Iowa fans something exciting to cheer for again.
Of course, the past two seasons were just about foundation, about constructing the program's parameters and goals. Now, as he approaches Year 3, a next step -- a move out of the Big Ten cellar, into real competition for an NCAA tournament bid -- is within reach. McCaffery will lose two starters from last season's team, Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright, but retains the rest of a young, developing squad. Melsahn Basabe was a beast in the paint as a freshman before suffering a drop-off as a sophomore in 2011; if he reverts to form as a junior, a big year could await. Aaron White was a promising forward presence as a freshman last season. Freshman guard Josh Oglesby posted a 114.5 offensive rating, with a squeaky-clean 8.5 percent turnover rate, in his first year with the team. There is some talent here -- raw but intriguing, and most importantly young.
Even better, the Hawkeyes are adding some legitimate in-state talent to the roster this season. Sioux City, Iowa native Adam Woodbury is the No. 10-ranked center in the class of 2012, and he's joined by the No. 13-ranked point guard, Mike Gesell, a native of the Nebraska side of Sioux City (a detail which I, as an Iowa native, am required to distinguish). Both players are capable of getting big minutes -- and delivering contributions, if not star turns -- as freshmen. Perhaps most important is their origin: Every fan base wants to recruit and cheer for its provincial homegrown talent, and Iowa fans are no different. McCaffery's proven his ability to lure such players, and that no doubt had much to do with the big contract boost Iowa negotiated for its coach this week.
McCaffery's new deal puts him among the top half of salaries in the Big Ten. That little fact tells you all you need to know about Iowa's basketballing ambitions. The Hawkeyes don't expect a Big Ten title every year. They just want to be in the mix.
Thus far, with the possible exception of extreme chair abuse, the former Siena coach has done nothing but hint that he's the man to get them there. Indeed, the best is yet to come.