This season, Penn basketball travels west to take on Iowa, which is coached by former Quakers standout Fran McCaffery. A player for Penn from 1979-82, McCaffery helped lead the Red and Blue to a pair of Ivy League titles and NCAA Tournament berths. Now in his fourth year coaching the Hawkeyes after making three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with Siena, we caught up with the old Penn standout:
Daily Pennsylvanian: How did you guys come to find Penn on your schedule this season?
Fran McCaffery: I think what had a lot to do with us playing Penn is that Dau Jok is on the Penn team, and his brother, Peter plays for us. So that kind of sibling matchup is how the game came to be.
DP: This being your first time facing Penn as Iowa’s head coach, how do you feel about facing your alma mater, and what are your expectations?
FM: First of all, my years at the University of Pennsylvania were some of the best years of my life. We had great teams, we had a phenomenal relationship with our coach [Bob Weinhauer]. I grew up in Philadelphia, going to the Palestra, so every time we got a chance to play at that venue, it was a privilege. And for me to coach against Penn, a team that I still have tremendous respect for, it’ll be a little different than any other game, that’s for sure. But I’m looking forward to it.
DP: What would you say is the highlight of your playing or coaching career at Penn?
FM: It would have to be my senior year. We had one of the strangest seasons in Penn basketball history because we started the year 3-0, we beat Stanford at their tournament and won the Stanford Invitational, then we lost nine games in a row. So we were 3-9, and it looked like it was going to be one of the more disastrous season in Penn basketball history. But we turned it around, won 14 straight games and went to the NCAA tournament. I’d say that when we clinched that year, remembering the roller coaster that it was, it was an amazing feeling for me to be the starting [point guard] on an NCAA tournament-bound team as a senior. To persevere the way we did was so special.
DP: What was it like arriving at Penn and coming to play as a sophomore instead of coming to Penn straight out of high school? (McCaffery transferred to Penn after playing one year at Wake Forest.)
FM: When I was being recruited, if I had gone to Penn out of high school, I would have had to play on the freshman team. Although the NCAA began allowing freshman athletes to play on varsity teams starting in 1973, the Ivy League was a few years behind that. So one of the reasons I went to Wake Forest was because I didn’t want to play freshman ball. I went to Wake, played varsity ball, played in the ACC and then when I decided to leave, I had wanted to go to Penn in the first place, so to be able to go there and play there, I felt like we were on the same level at Penn. I never felt like I was giving anything up.
DP: Coming to Penn, what were your expectations like as an individual and as a team overall?
FM: We were a team that expected to go to the NCAA tournament every year at Penn. We expected to be competitive in the Big 5, and expected to be able to compete on a national level. My first year at Penn, while I was sitting out, we went to the Final Four. So being around that team and those guys was a lot of fun, but it was also an incredible learning experience. Without a doubt, that was the toughest-minded group I’ve ever been around, and I consistently try to make sure as a coach that my teams play with the same level of mental toughness.
DP: In the years that have passed since you left Penn, how closely do you continue to follow Penn basketball?
FM: Once you play at a place, you hold it with you forever, because that place is important to you. When you are coaching somewhere else, it’s impossible to be involved as much as you’d like to be because your team is always playing or practicing or traveling. In terms of Penn, I wish I could go to more games, be at the Palestra more, but I can’t. I’m somewhere else. I do my best to stay in touch with guys I played with, and I talk to [Director of Athletics] Steve Bilsky a lot. We both wore the Red and Blue, and have always wanted the program to be successful.
DP: What kind of advice would you give Jerome Allen right now after a difficult season last year?
FM: I’ve watched Jerome for a while and remembering when he took over in mid-season, I think it’s a very difficult thing to do and I think he handled that transition very well. He relates nicely to his players in recruiting, he relates well to the alumni, to the faculty, he’s someone who has a tremendous amount of respect for the industry, so you look at him and you’re confident that he understands and knows the direction where he wants to take the program. He’s recruited well, he and his staff work extremely hard, they’re really good coaches, and that’s the only way to do it. You work hard in recruiting and then coach them up to where you want them in practice. He clearly knows what he’s doing, he played for Fran Dunphy, played in the NBA, he knows the game and I know he’ll get that thing rolling. He’s got a terrific [director of athletics] behind him in Steve Bilsky, so I think it’s just a matter of time.
DP: Since taking over at Iowa, you guys have seen a lot of improvement. What is your outlook for this season?
FM: I’ve learned quite a bit since starting here. The Big Ten is without question the toughest conference in the nation on a regular basis. The coaching in the league is great, the talent is tremendous, so for us to have steadily built ourselves up is huge. We’ve improved our talent and our depth, and we’ve recruited to our style of play. We play fast and we push the ball, and our fans love it. We have an incredibly passionate group of fans that really support the program. Every time we take the floor, our arena is sold out, and I’m sure it’ll be the same way with the game against Penn. Overall, I have a very positive outlook for the season and really can’t wait to get started.
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