IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fran McCaffery’s 35 years as a men’s basketball coach has included thousands of recruiting trips — hundreds that were successful and a few that were memorable.
But none rank as personally important or as challenging as the one in his own house. McCaffery, Iowa’s coach since 2010, sees a 4-star senior talent almost every day.
His son, Connor McCaffery, a 6-foot-5 point guard, led Iowa City West — the premier basketball program in the state — to a pair of championships in his four years as a starter. Connor also is one of the state’s top baseball prospects, an outfielder/first baseman with speed who can hit for both power and average. The pull of each sport was so strong that he struggled to choose between the two.
Originally, it was all basketball for Connor. He committed to Iowa on Aug. 30, 2014, and appeared down that path. Then baseball became more than a hobby. The pull of both sports intensified.
“He’s always wanted to play for his dad,” said Connor’s mother and Fran’s wife, Margaret McCaffery, who scored more than 1,000 points as a women’s basketball player at Notre Dame in the 1990s. “But he loves playing both sports.
“He knows he could be better at either sport if he quit playing one or the other, but he’s never wanted to. So we helped him navigate that.”
Coaches often drift between their job and surrogate father-figure status, and McCaffery frequently serves that role. But this was different. As a kindergartner in Greensboro, N.C., Connor would call his father and ask for someone to pick him up so he could attend basketball practice. He has been a fixture at games and practices in his father’s seven-plus years at Iowa.
In the meantime, Connor led the Iowa City West Trojans with 19.6 points per game. If anyone was born to play college basketball for his father, it’s Connor McCaffery.
Concurrent with his basketball experiences, Connor McCaffery was a baseball prodigy. He played on high-level travel leagues in North Carolina and upstate New York before doing the same in eastern Iowa. Last summer with Iowa City West, Connor hit .407 (second on the team to incoming Michigan wide receiver Oliver Martin) but his slugging percentage was .748. Of his 50 base hits, Connor smacked 10 doubles, 4 triples and 8 home runs. The Trojans have played in the state finals in each of the three past seasons.
In early March when Iowa City West approached the state basketball tournament, Fran McCaffery told Land of 10 he thought Connor wanted to play college basketball and pro baseball. That’s not a natural confluence for athletes in today’s world. As a father, Fran McCaffery had to sort between what was best for his program and what was best for his son. Iowa should contend for an upper-division Big Ten finish next season and a likely NCAA Tournament berth. Connor McCaffery is good enough to at least crack the rotation. But a Major League Baseball team also could draft him as early as this June or three years down the road.
So as a family, the McCafferys investigated the best way for Connor to compete collegiately in both sports. With his 4.0 grade-point average, they looked into Ivy League schools. They considered sending him to a prep school. The options were many and — like all parents of students selecting colleges — so were the stresses.
“As we went through that process, we looked at it as if you want to do this at the highest level, if you want to play in the Big Ten, if you want to play for your dad, if you want to play baseball at a higher level, one of the coaches maybe needs to be your dad,” Margaret McCaffery said. “Because he’s going to work with someone else a little more easily than two coaches who both have claim to you.
“Fran said, ‘Listen, I want you to play for me, you’re good enough. I want you with us, you’re going to help us. But I love you and if you decided baseball is [your] thing, that’s OK, too.’ I think Connor felt comforted by that.”
When it came to Connor’s decision, Fran McCaffery’s instincts came as a parent rather than a coach.
“The hardest thing for me throughout the process is I think in some ways he wanted me to recruit him and make sure I wanted him, which I clearly did,” Fran McCaffery said. “But I didn’t want to influence (him). I didn’t want to make him feel pressure that he’s got to come in and compete and help us. I wanted him to sort out what he wanted to do.
“I think he’s really good in baseball. I think he’s really good in basketball. A lot of times you feel like, ‘I’ve got to go out and pick one.’ He’s not ready to do that. I think we can make it work.
“I think I tried probably harder to be a father than I did (to be) a coach throughout this process.”
Family always has come first for the McCafferys. As Connor announced his decision, the family was in an Atlanta hotel preparing to watch Connor’s younger brother, Patrick — a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward ranked as the nation’s 23rd-best player in the Class of 2019 by Rivals — play. Three years ago, doctors discovered a tumor near Patrick’s thyroid gland late in the college basketball season. A surgery was scheduled for the morning of Iowa’s 2014 NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee.
Coach McCaffery, whose personal appearance that week reflected the stress and gravity of the situation, accompanied his team to Dayton, Ohio, for the NCAA Tournament. He then flew back to Iowa City the night before Patrick’s early morning surgery. Hours after Patrick was in recovery, Fran returned to Dayton for the Hawkeyes’ first NCAA Tournament game in eight years.
While Connor’s decision was stressful, it was nothing like the one that impacted his brother.
“These are good problems to have,” Margaret McCaffery said. “We’ve been through some other challenging situations as a family that potentially had more disastrous outcomes. This one, at least, it never felt like there was a bad choice. It was just hard to make a choice.”
For high school seniors, these moments define your life. Discussion about Connor’s future swirled in this metro area of about 110,000. Would he stick with basketball? Would he play for Rick Heller’s surging Iowa baseball program? Ultimately, he decided to do both. Connor will practice with both squads but redshirt during the basketball season. He will consider both sports a priority, but he will play baseball next year. Basketball’s full scholarship allotment relegates him to walk-on status, but Connor will gain one once one becomes available.
As exciting of a decision as it was for the McCaffery family, it’s equally relieving.
“It’s definitely been on your mind,” Connor McCaffery said. “People have been speculating about what you’re going to do. You kind of just want to get it over with and kind of answer everybody’s questions. It just got to be time. I’m kind of relieved today to get it out of the way and now finally everybody knows and I know and it’s off my chest.
“I think for both sports it worked out the best.”