IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s not unusual for 6-year-old children to leave class, head to the guidance office and call their parents.
But unlike many of his peers, Connor McCaffery had a unique reason to ring his father. He was neither homesick nor ill. He didn’t forget his Star Wars character on show-and-tell day.
It was all about basketball.
“I always tell the story when he was in kindergarten at the Greensboro Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina, he would walk down the hall and excuse himself from class,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, then the head coach at UNC-Greensboro. “There was a phone outside the guidance counselor’s office and he would dial the office number: ‘Dad, what time’s practice?’
“I would tell him. We’d go get him, he’d watch practice, and if I was watching film he’d watch film with me. We’d watch film with the players.”
Twelve years later, Connor McCaffery, a 6-foot-5 Iowa City West senior guard and an Iowa basketball commit, recalled that experience in much the same way.
“I’d call him and I’d just ask him what time practice is,” Connor said. “Then I’d say, ‘Could I come?’ Then he’d send one of his managers or one of his assistants to come get me. I went to practice pretty much every day.”
As a youth, Connor’s younger brother Patrick showed none of the same traits as his older brother. The 6-foot-9 Iowa City West sophomore forward had a passion for life — but not sports.
He wanted to be a superhero.
“I wore a lot of costumes,” Patrick said. “I wore a new costume like every day. I was always play-fighting with swords and didn’t really start to like sports until like third grade.”
“He just wanted to play and goof around and watch cartoons and pretend to be Batman and had no interest in athletics,” Fran McCaffery said. “I didn’t think he was going to be an athlete because he didn’t have any interest in it.”
Both players have blossomed into top college basketball prospects at Iowa City West, ranked No. 1 in Iowa’s largest class. Connor McCaffery also is a top baseball prospect. He has plans to play both sports at Iowa next year and could get drafted in June.
In a place like Iowa City, it’s easy to stand out when you’re as recognizable as the McCafferys. But the two mature teenagers have shown they have the talent to live up to the image and the composure to handle both the success and the challenges.
Growing up McCaffery
Both McCaffery boys — as well as younger sister Marit and younger brother Jack — have played competitive sports since elementary school. Both high schoolers have excelled on travel teams and in school-organized sports.
But when did Fran McCaffery know Connor was a Division I basketball talent? It was three years ago at Iowa City West.
“I could tell when he was a freshman — he was starting for West — that he was going to be a Division I player,” Fran McCaffery said. “He just had the mind for it. He had the size. His understanding of the game and his ability to translate that into success and help his teammates and his team be successful. The way he sees the game and the way he sees the next play is really special.”
Connor McCaffery, who is left-handed, leads the Trojans in scoring (19.6 points per game) and rebounding (4.6). He’s among the team leaders in assists and steals. He has twice as many 3-pointers (48) as any of his teammates. He was named a McDonald’s All-American nominee earlier in January.
In all three of Connor’s previous seasons, West finished in the top three in the state’s largest class. When he was a freshman, West won the state championship. Last year the Trojans finished second.
“He’s a really good passer,” Patrick said. “He always gets me the ball so I can score. It’s been a special two years. Hopefully this ends better than the last one.”
But Connor’s upside could lie in baseball. He started playing competitive baseball at age 5 in North Carolina. By the time he was 10 in Albany, N.Y., he played around 70 games a year on a travel team. He did the same once he moved to Iowa.
Last year Connor hit .407 with eight home runs for the Class 4A state runner-up. It’s rare for athletes to play multiple sports at Iowa, but he’s good enough to do both. It’s not farfetched that Connor could pick between playing college basketball next season for his father and, if he’s drafted, pro baseball this summer.
“What if they do put money on the table? Who knows?” Fran McCaffery said. “With his academic profile, I think college is important to him and I think he wants to play college basketball. I think if you asked him, he wants to play college basketball. But he also wants to play in the major leagues, which is hard to do.”
“I’d love to play in the major leagues,” Connor said. “I think baseball is something I’ve always loved. I’m definitely excited to play college basketball, but hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play college baseball, too.”
Patrick’s athletic prowess has grown along with his height. He stood barely 6-foot-1 as a seventh-grader, but he’s shot up 8 inches in three years. Like many active teenage boys, he’s had difficulty keeping on weight. That’s a consideration every day as he tries to fill out.
He also had to fight cancer. On the day of Iowa’s 2014 NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee, Patrick had a malignant tumor removed from his thyroid. He had another surgery later that spring, but three years later remains cancer-free.
“He’s been through a little bit of a different journey, obviously,” Fran McCaffery said. “His sophomore year was a big year for him. He had some big games (as a freshman) but he was up and down, he got pushed around. He was 158 pounds last year. The varsity level is not easy for a freshman, even if you’re talented or if you’re 6-5.
“So last summer was important and he went to work and he worked hard this fall, I thought. He assimilated well into that lineup and they’ve had a great year and he’s been really consistent. I think his confidence is high. We’re trying to put weight on him and this is a big summer for him as well. So we’re letting him go through that part of it and not worry about the next step.”
Patrick McCaffery is the Trojans’ second-leading scorer at 14.9 points and third-leading rebounder with 4.1 rebounds per game.
The McCaffery family is as close-knit and visible as any family in the region. Fran and his wife, Margaret, attend multiple games and charity events, sometimes on the same day. They show up to their children’s back-to-school nights. Every time there’s a double-take.
It’s the same situation for the boys, no matter where they go.
“You might not know who they are, but they know who you are,” Connor said. “That’s something that both of my parents have always said to me: ‘Don’t be doing anything you’ll regret later on when you’re out and about.’ I think Patrick has done a good job of that, too. We try to be mature and professional when it comes to people just coming up and talking to us. We want to put a good impression on people.”
“You really can’t act up because everybody knows who you are,” Patrick said. “So you’ve got to make sure what you’re doing, (that) you don’t get caught up doing bad stuff because everybody knows. Just a lot of pressure to be good at things and do the right thing, be a good person.”
Fran McCaffery knows the life of a coach is public. He also knows he and his players often are targets for criticism. He shut down his players’ Twitter accounts in 2014 when fans on social media attacked a senior who missed a last-second 3-point attempt in a loss to Wisconsin.
There’s the potential for social media to grow more intense next year with Connor McCaffery on the Iowa roster.
“(Connor has) seen that from afar,” Fran McCaffery said. “He’s seen how people respond to our players, good and bad. So why would it be any different for him? I think he looks at it as it will be the same. You have to perform at a certain level when you’re playing in the Big Ten. People are going to support you. They’re going to think you should play or not play depending on how well you’re doing. You’d like to think that it wouldn’t go any further than that. But who knows what people say?
“I’m a little different because half the time on the internet I don’t believe anything. You don’t have to be who you say you are. ‘I heard this. …’ I don’t pay attention to it. In his case, he would need to be off Twitter and social media completely and just go play, go to work, enjoy the system and help us win.”
Connor and Patrick are articulate and mature beyond their years. They know the routine and feel the spotlight. They also know the challenges of having a famous father and the criticisms leveled in his direction. That’s universal in major college sports programs, but sometimes it’s more intense at a place like Iowa.
“One of the things with my dad is people think he should take more timeouts,” Connor said. “Every coach does it differently. If you want to have a beef with him for that, go ahead. It’s not a big deal. A lot of things that people come up with are just stupid. So I don’t pay attention to it. I wouldn’t let some dumb person on Twitter really bother you. It’s a waste of time because they don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
“Criticism toward me and my brother and dad, I just brush it off,” Patrick said. “It doesn’t mean anything to any of us.”
Fran McCaffery prefers to remain in the bleachers during his sons’ games and not hover over their coaches. McCaffery and his sons discuss games and situations afterward, but he prefers to be a dad. With 521 wins and five state titles, Iowa City West coach Steve Bergman will be a hall-of-famer. West baseball coach Charlie Stumpff already is a hall-of-famer. The entire family is close with the Iowa Barnstormers AAU organization and especially coach Greg Stephen.
“This is an incredible statement,” McCaffery said. “You think of all the coaches that all four of my children have played for, I can think of very few … there was one situation that I was not happy with. I think they’ve been positive. I think they’re trying to teach. I think they’ve been supportive, I think they’re trying to be fair. They work at it. They love the kids.”
Ever since he was a toddler, Connor has attended practices and shot baskets with his father in the foreground. On Iowa road trips to venues such as Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center, he’d shoot his own baskets and launch half-court shots. Now he’s fewer than four months from summer basketball workouts at Iowa.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do ever I since I was little,” Connor said. “I’ve been talking about when I can play for my dad. It’s more realistic now. Senior year. The last home game is Friday. I’m excited, but I’m also nervous. There are going to be things that come with it that I’m going to have to handle.”
To get a complete picture of what it’s like to coach a son, Fran McCaffery spoke with some of his peers. He talked to Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Michigan coach John Beilein and New Mexico coach (and former Iowa assistant) Craig Neal about their experiences coaching their sons. All three were completely different.
Doug McDermott was an All-American and a first-round draft pick. Patrick Beilein had a nice career at West Virginia with 1,001 points. Cullen Neal was the target of intense criticism and transferred to Ole Miss.
“The guy that I spent the most time talking about it was John Beilein,” McCaffery said. “It’s probably a waste of time to talk to McDermott because if your son’s scoring 3,300 points, there’s not many issues. But even then, he had great some insight. His advice was more as his relationship with his son. He didn’t deal with any of the stuff around it.
“Beilein’s experience was different. Obviously Craig’s experience was completely different because his son ended up transferring because it got so difficult there. So they were all great. I thought they gave me valuable insight into what their experience was like, but more importantly what their son’s experience was like. What was good, what was bad.”
No matter how Conner performs at Iowa next year and into the future, the coach wants their bond to remain strong.
“I don’t want anything to ever change in my relationship with my son,” McCaffery said. “If he’s an All-American. If he’s coming off the bench. If your team wins 25 games. If your team doesn’t win as many games as you’d hoped. That stuff happens. But you never want to affect the relationship that you have with your son.
“We’ve been very close from day one because he always wanted to be with me in the gym. Those memories are special and those experiences are special. That was the one thing that Beilein said. He’s like, ‘Look, I got to see my son every day for four years.’ No matter what else happened, good things and bad, he looked at it as every day was a good day.”