DAYTON, Ohio -- The NCAA tournament is just beginning to roll, but it will likely not have any more days like this. For anyone.
Wednesday started in Iowa City at 5 a.m. for Fran McCaffery and did not end until midnight in Dayton. As a father, it had been a scary day. As a coach, a frustrating one,
“It was a day that, needless to say, has been very difficult,” he would say when it was over.He had his son at the hospital back in Iowa by 6 a.m. for the surgery to remove a tumor from his thyroid. By 1 p.m. -- Patrick McCaffery having come through surgery fine -- he was headed for the airport. By 3:30 p.m., he had landed in Dayton. And by midnight, his Iowa team had just lost 78-65 in overtime to Tennessee in the First Four. The Volunteer players hugged him as they shook hands afterward, telling him they were thinking about him.
How could that not touch him, even in defeat?
“Most kids,” he said later. “just want to run in and jump on top of each other in the locker room.”
For McCaffery, this day was more than victory or defeat, or advancing one spot on a bracket. March is so important to a coach, but life occasionally intervenes. Such as the day a son is going into surgery, and nobody can guarantee his vocal chords will be still be working exactly right when he comes back out. And the doctors have been looking for cancer.
“You’re talking about potential malignancy and things of that nature,” McCaffery said. “Wow, it puts wins and losses in perspective.”
The first bright moment for Fran McCaffery on Wednesday morning came when doctors told him the surgery went fine. The next bright moment came when Patrick spoke to him.
“I talked with the physician. He was great. We felt really good. I got on a plane, and at that point, my job was to focus on the game and to be there in every way that I could be for my guys,” he said.
McCaffery said his own focus was no problem Wednesday night. Tennessee’s offense was the problem. The Volunteers kept coming.
Later, standing in a hallway, he tried to go over the previous days.
“What I did was I recognized that when your son’s going to have surgery, you have to be there,” he said. “So that’s where you start.”So he came to Dayton with the Hawkeyes, watched film, held meetings, led practice. “Then I’ve got to go home,” he said. So he returned to Iowa, to prepare for the trying Wednesday to come.
“Had there been complications, I would have remained home,” he said. “Once everything went smoothly -- as smoothly as surgery can go -- then the plane was there and I was locked in, trying to help us win a game.”
Back home, Patrick stayed in the hospital Wednesday night with a drain in his neck. He turns 14 on Thursday and had asked for one birthday gift most of all. A win against Tennessee.
That didn’t turn out, but the whole family could get an even better gift if the tests come back with good news.
It had been, indeed, a long 48 hours.
“Yes, it was,” said Fran McCaffery, as he walked back toward the locker room. It would soon be time to fly home to Iowa.