After playing one year at Wake Forest, Fran McCaffery transferred to Penn in 1978. In University City, his play earned him the nickname of “White Magic.” After graduating Wharton in 1982, McCaffery stayed at Penn for one more season as an assistant coach.
From there, McCaffery decided to take an assistant position at Lehigh. In 1985, he became Division 1’s youngest head coach when he was promoted. After Lehigh, McCaffery took stops at Notre Dame, UNC Greensboro, and Siena before settling at Iowa. McCaffery is now preparing to enter his eighth year as Iowa’s head coach.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with McCaffery to get a sense for how his time at Penn has shaped his career. The conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Just kind of generally, when you look back, are you happy that you transferred from Wake Forest to Penn and finished your playing career there?
Fran McCaffery: Absolutely. It was a phenomenal experience for me in so many different ways. I’ve got so many great memories — I was on really good teams, I played for a great coach, I maintained a very close relationship with coach [Bob] Weinhauer — he texts me after every game that I coach at Iowa.
But the ride we had my senior year was so unique-- we won our first three games, we beat Stanford in the Stanford Invitational Tournament to win the championship out there, so we go 3-0, then we lost 9 straight games to go 3-9, and then we won our last 14 games to go to the NCAA Tournament. So very few teams have that kind of a rollercoaster, but I remember that season well, because I remember how high we were after we beat Stanford, how low we were after we lost our 9th game in a row wondering if we’d ever win again, and then we couldn’t lose. And how our team endured through that adversity was really an amazing experience for me — and my teammates most importantly, we fought through it together. But you know, playing in the Big 5, playing in the Palestra, growing up in Philadelphia, to be truthful, I really kind of wanted to go to Penn all along. One of the things that I wasn’t excited about at the time was freshmen were not eligible, and so I played my freshman year at Wake, then transferred to Penn and finished my career there. Of course in ‘79, I was a redshirt member of the team that went to the Final Four, which was an incredible journey in so many ways.
DP: And had you always wanted to go into coaching or was there something specific about the situation at Penn — what was the thought process behind taking that original job?
FM: You know, truthfully, when I decided to go to Penn, I didn’t have coaching in mind at all. I just figured I would go into business, something like that, work on Wall Street.
You know, coaching at that time, none of us made any money, it was kind of just like you did it if you loved it. Essentially what happened was when my career ended, I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally, I just wasn’t ready to walk away from the game. One of the great things about that one year at Penn was we still had the JV program, and I got to coach the JV teams. So not only was I coaching on the varsity, I was essentially the head coach of the JV team, which was a phenomenal experience. You know, we’d travel, you’d have to plan all of the practices, talk to the team before the game, halftime, timeouts, I think that’s how you grow as a coach. You know you make decisions, you make mistakes, you make adjustments, and you learn from it.
So I was very thankful that coach [Craig] Littlepage gave me that opportunity to work there, and then also coach the JV team there, and then when coach [Tom] Schneider, who was his top assistant, got the Lehigh job, I went with him.
DP: And I imagine you’re happy at Iowa right now, but was there any ever thought about trying to return to Penn later in your career?
FM: Well, you know, I think they’ve got a great coach at penn right now, I really do, and I think the program is really in a good place. You know and I love the fact that the Ivy League now has a tournament and the tournament is in the Palestra, I think that’s great. It gets them on TV during Championship Week and so forth, I think Steve [Donahue] is doing a great job. So I’m pretty happy here, getting ready to start my 8th year, you know my children have grown up here, they play high school locally, two of my sons are going to play for me, so pretty happy here.
DP: You mentioned that you think Penn is in a good situation, do you still follow them closely?
FM: I do. I follow them closely, and then obviously as the season got to the end, and they were right there, I was really interested to see how that would transpire, and who do they sign and so forth. You can see the progress being made and I think this coming season could be a big one for the Quakers, and I'm really pulling for coach [Steve] Donahue and his staff and his players. You know, I went to one of their practices last year, and I was really impressed with their talent level. I think the quality and the depth that he’s been able to attract is terrific.
DP: And I’m interested, do you think outside of everything you learned on the court at Penn, both playing and coaching, do you think anything you learned at Wharton or in your classes still helps you as a coach?
FM: There’s no question, because essentially, when you become a head coach at this level, you’re essentially a CEO of the basketball program. So the Wharton background is just an integral part of what I do on a daily basis — how do you motivate staff, how do you hire staff, how do you communicate with your players, how do you teach, how do you prepare, the sophistication of our of scouting reports and how we prepare and how we present to our players, and how we manage not just the season, but the whole calendar year. How we handle strength and conditioning, its being able to handle the administrative side, the public relations side, the financial side, and then the marketing and sales, and the recruiting side. It all fits together and those are all concepts that are ingrained in me through my experience with Wharton.
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