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IOWA CITY — Three years ago, Matt Gatens phoned Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery as a favor to a friend.
Gatens had someone to recommend to McCaffery as a candidate to replace departing assistant coach Andrew Francis.
“He’s like ‘Matt, just so you know, I would hire you before that guy,’” Gatens recounted Wednesday.
Gatens said that opened his eyes that maybe a job with his former head coach might be something to pursue one day. That day came recently after 12-year assistant Kirk Speraw announced his retirement from the Iowa staff.
McCaffery is replacing former Hawkeye player Speraw with former Hawkeye player Gatens, an Iowa City native who was a terrific player at Iowa (1,635 points) from 2009-2012 and was a member of McCaffery’s first two Iowa teams.
Gatens had been at Drake, two years as director of men’s basketball operations followed by two years as an assistant coach. Darian DeVries’ Bulldogs won 20-plus games all four seasons, and were 51-16 over the last two.
To say Iowa City is where Gatens belongs may be overselling it. He knows it, saying, “This business is crazy. You never know year to year.”
But here’s the born-and-raised Iowa Citian, the son of former Hawkeye/current Iowa City businessman Mike Gatens, the guy who stayed and played on struggling Iowa teams when he would have been welcomed in a lot of winning programs near and far.
Some things just fit, and they fit even better when the person involved has credibility with current Hawkeyes not only as someone who played professionally in five countries, but who walked the walk they’re walking at Iowa under McCaffery.
“I just think it’s being someone that knows Coach McCaffery, knows how he wants to play, knows how he wants to recruit,” said Gatens. “I obviously haven’t been here in 10 years, but I’ve watched games, I’ve stayed in touch with him and the coaches.
“I have a pretty good understanding of what they expect, who they want to recruit, how they want to recruit, what type of players.”
If you followed Hawkeye basketball 10 years ago, you surely remember how well Gatens performed in the latter part of the 2011-12 season. He averaged 21.6 points that February for an 18-17 team, and made a program-record 12 straight 3-point tries.
Assistant coaches wear a dozen or more hats, but you know Gatens has to be involved in teaching the art of shooting.
“That’s kind of the natural thing my mind maybe as a coach has gone through is helping guys with shooting, wings and guards,” Gatens said. “It’s what I know as a player.
“I’ve wanted to expand my growth as a coach and work with point guards and everybody. But naturally, shooting is something that I kind of go to.”
Iowa player Payton Sandfort had no hesitation launching 3-pointers last season as a freshman, making 34 of 93 for a respectable 36.6 percent. He’s the Hawkeyes’ heir apparent to Jordan Bohannon from beyond the arc.
“Obviously, I really liked the hire (of Gatens),” Sandfort said. “I’m super-excited to get to work with him, especially with the career he had here.”
So, Gatens brings both something old and something new to the Hawkeyes. His description of taking this job at Iowa is succinct, and as on the mark for him as any of the 239 3-pointers he made for the Hawkeyes.
“It’s pretty special and cool.”
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