Virtual Voices
Coach Fran McCaffery hugs his son after a University of Iowa basketball game
Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall
Coach Fran McCaffery hugs his son after a University of Iowa basketball game

Dad first, coach second

Sports

For the next two weeks , you will see more vein-popping, foot-stomping, jaw-jutting, teeth clenching, expectorating, clip-board-chucking temper tantrums from grown men in tailored suits than you care to imagine. The NCAA tournament’s chaotic opening weekend is in full swing, and all the coaches are pouring themselves into these games because when they lose, they go home.

College basketball coaches are an intense bunch with a reputation for obsessive game study and borderline insane work habits. The pressures of high expectations and a collective competitive nature means most will stop at nothing to lead their team to victory. We often don’t get to see the other side of these basketball generals.

In 2010, Fran McCaffery took the head coaching position at the University of Iowa. The team was struggling; in his first season they only won 11 games. In the years since, though, McCaffery has led the Hawkeyes to increasing success, culminating in an appearance in the NCAA tournament this year. Earlier this week, he and the team traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to prepare for Wednesday night’s play-in game versus the University of Tennessee.

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But McCaffery and his family faced a greater challenge than a tournament game. On Wednesday morning, game day, his 13-year-old son, Patrick, had surgery in Iowa City to remove a tumor from his thyroid. This game was the highest point in McCaffery’s career. What if there were complications that forced him to miss the game? What if bad weather blew in to delay his travels? But there he was, with his wife, at Patrick’s side. Surgery went smoothly. Wednesday afternoon, McCaffery flew back to Dayton for the game. Iowa lost to Tennessee in overtime with a score of 78-65.

This story is extraordinary for its rarity and purity. A man in a position of prestige, under great pressure, facing the greatest challenge and opportunity of his professional career, made a choice to risk all that for the sake of his son and family. In the end it worked out, but what if he had missed the game? How much criticism might he have faced? What if the team lost without him? How much regret would he have felt for not being there to lead them?

Yes, he did exactly the right thing, and what we all hope any man would do. But many wouldn’t. Many of us put our careers above our family and abdicate responsibility to our wives. We can’t miss opportunities to advance our success, so instead we miss opportunities to love those who really need us. McCaffery acted like a dad. He made the counter-cultural choice to do what was obviously right but clearly not easy. That sort of heroism is worth far more than any career achievement.

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