MADISON, Wis. -- He defended the costly, ill-timed tirade. That’s what players do.
The leader knew what he was doing, he said.
The coach just wanted to change the vibe, he said.
The man on our sideline is always right, he said.
“It got us riled up,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “Got us excited as a team. I wouldn’t say it was a negative thing or anything like that. We all trust in Fran. We all trust in what he’s doing. And we know that everything he does is for the best.”
He’s wrong. That wasn’t best for the team.
Fran McCaffery’s outburst and subsequent ejection in No. 22 Iowa’s 75-71 loss at No. 4 Wisconsin on Sunday night disrupted the Hawkeyes as they pursued the best win of their head coach’s tenure.
After the game, McCaffery implied that the first technical foul was a deliberate attempt to jolt his program. But his team had the lead against an undefeated Badgers team when he decided to lose it.
He could’ve used that energy to outcoach Bo Ryan -- he did that in a first half that ended with Iowa leading by 11 -- down the stretch. Instead, McCaffery unleashed a soon-to-be-viral wrath of anger that led to a pair of technical fouls and an ejection midway through the second half.
Wisconsin made five of its six free throws -- four attempts for the two technical fouls, two for a foul against Gabriel Olaseni -- and seized an advantage that it never relinquished.
McCaffery denied that he had made contact with an official and did not expound on the incident in his postgame news conference. But Big Ten officials in Chicago will have the final word on that.
The tantrum after the tantrum was even worse than the initial eruption. Earning the first technical foul might have been a scripted attempt to energize his team. But the display that resulted in the second technical foul was an exorcism.
An uncontrollable McCaffery had to be restrained by assistant Andrew Francis as he charged toward officials multiple times before he ultimately left the floor.
After the game, McCaffery expressed some remorse, although he refused to discuss specifics.
“I can’t address that, as much as I would like to,” he said.
“I think what I feel bad about is getting a second one. I think the first one, I think it’s safe to say that I kind of went after that one a little bit. The second one, I’m not so sure about that.”
Iowa didn’t need that.
McCaffery has worked hard to mold this program since his arrival in 2010. The Hawkeyes have the pieces to contend for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in years. He has an 11-man rotation.
Former Wisconsin forward Jarrod Uthoff, a double-digit scorer most nights, comes off his bench. Peter Jok, the top recruit in the state of Iowa last year per RecruitingNation, didn’t even play against the Badgers.
There were no guarantees that Iowa would have left Madison with a win if McCaffery had managed to avoid an ejection. But we’ll never know.
And that’s not fair to Iowa or Wisconsin.
The Badgers deserve praise for their second-half turnaround. The same team that registered 24 points in the first half and began the game with a 1-for-13 clip, somehow outscored the Hawkeyes 51-36 after halftime. The Badgers won by four, even though they were outscored 36-12 in the paint. They went 6-for-9 from the 3-point line in the second half. And Iowa couldn’t stop Ben Brust, who scored all 19 of his points after halftime.
This resilient bunch might be the best squad in the Big Ten.
But McCaffery’s temper wouldn’t allow the Hawkeyes to prove that they’re contenders, too.
It was not the first time that McCaffery’s emotions had been problematic. He slammed a chair during a loss to Michigan State in 2012. As Siena’s coach, he was ejected from a game against Hofstra in 2006. His wife, Margaret, was kicked out of the game, too.
If 100 is the emotional threshold that warrants a technical foul, McCaffery certainly coaches in the 90s most games. And he’s not alone in that.
Fiery coaches are plentiful throughout college basketball. And sometimes the nose-to-nose, technical-foul worthy productions are viewed as necessary tactics that inspire players.
That’s part of the problem.
Coaches are called strategic when they draw technical fouls. Players are immature when they do the same thing.
If McCaffery were a significant Iowa player who’d been ejected with his team holding the lead in a crucial Big Ten road game, he’d be called a hothead. He’d be blamed. And probably disciplined.
Maybe he’d be benched by his head coach. Maybe he’d have to wake up early and run laps.
But what recourse does a player have when his coach deserves the scolding and punishment?
“It helped us out, so I’m not complaining,” guard Josh Gasser said after the game.
In the final seconds, Gesell dribbled into Wisconsin’s web and nearly lost the ball.
He seemed rushed and uncertain. But he recovered.
The Hawkeyes were down by four points then. And Gesell missed an unnecessary 3-pointer from the corner with 1:15 to play.
Sam Dekker drew a foul and scored -- Iowa failed to sprint to the other side of the floor -- and stretched Wisconsin’s lead to seven points.
Somewhere in the bowels of the Kohl Center, McCaffery found a TV and watched his best Iowa team fall short on the road.
He had coached his players to play smart basketball.
He had instructed them to stay tough on the road against a talented, relentless team.
They had obviously listened. They had the unblemished Badgers on the ropes. They had won the first nine rounds of this Big Ten bout.
But then, McCaffery left the floor.
He didn’t invigorate the Hawkeyes, though.
He abandoned them.