Iowa Men's Basketball

Gary Dolphin, Fran McCaffery: Double serving of Hawkeye humble pie

Two suspensions, two apologies of varying degrees

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery at a press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Wednesday. (Mike Hlas/The Gazette)
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery at a press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Wednesday. (Mike Hlas/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Wednesday was one of the most extraordinary days in Iowa Hawkeye athletics, capping several days of tension and torment.

Last Friday, Learfield Sports and the UI athletics department announced its play-by-play announcer for football and men’s basketball was suspended for the rest of the season because he compared a Maryland basketball player from Angola to King Kong.

Then came zero public discussion about it from Athletics Director Gary Barta or anyone from Hawkeye Sports Properties until Wednesday morning, when it was announced Gary Dolphin will be reinstated starting with spring football.

Which was followed Wednesday afternoon by the news men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery was suspended for two games for berating a game official (reportedly Steve McJunkins) in a Value City Arena hallway after his team’s loss to Ohio State Tuesday night.

The words McCaffery used were profane, but more alarming, accusatory. He called the official a “cheating (expletive).” He got a public reprimand from the Big Ten Wednesday and Iowa was fined $10,000.

Barta couldn’t leave this incident to twist in the wind, not with news of it spreading nationally in no time flat. Scott Van Pelt discussed McCaffery on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Tuesday night.

So, first it was Barta with Dolphin at a Carver-Hawkeye Arena press conference Wednesday, then it was Barta with McCaffery. A double serving of humble pie.

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The takeaway: Dolphin couldn’t have been much more contrite. “I own this,” he said a few times, and he did own it. It may have been the most impressive he’s been in a public setting.

As for McCaffery, he seemed sorriest about the incident seeing the light of day. When you’re a public figure screaming at someone in a public place, you’re asking for trouble even if was done backstage.

First, Dolphin. Unlike so many people in Iowa and beyond who rallied to his defense because Dolphin meant the term “King Kong” only as praise for Maryland center Bruno Fernando, he said he understands why it offended others.

No, he meant no harm. But he didn’t use that as a crutch. Instead, he talked about conversations he had with people who care about him but didn’t let him totally off the hook.

“I have a lot of African American friends,” said Dolphin. “Current coaches, former players, community leaders. I worked for the Bears for 10 years and kept up relationships with folks in Chicago.

“To a person, they called to let me know they understood what I said, what I was trying to do. They still support me, like who I am. But several were disappointed in the analogy, the phraseology.”

Those people aren’t “politically correct” or “snowflakes,” derisive, tired terms thrown around in the last several days by people who couldn’t fathom why Dolphin’s words would offend anyone when the man meant it as high praise. Which he did.

Those people, of course, know no history of members of their race being called gorillas, have never had their grandparents or parents or even themselves compared to apes.

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Dolphin looked and sounded deeply sorry, and vowed to try to learn and grow. It’s how you would like to think you’d respond if you’d been in the same harsh spotlight.

McCaffery also apologized, also said he accepted full responsibility. “Last night was one of those nights when my emotions got the better of me,” he said.

“I regret my actions,” he said, “but I will never regret fighting for (his players) and they know that.”

Which is what you want. But what you don’t want is for your coach to track down a ref after the game, scream at him, and call him a cheater.

Asked if that was the way he felt or he had just used a poor word choice, McCaffery said “Maybe a little bit of both. I shouldn’t have said it, but I wasn’t feeling really good at that moment about what took place at all.

“I think the official in question has been a guy with integrity in the past. For that reason, I shouldn’t said it.”

He shouldn’t have said it for any reason. Complain to your boss about it. Complain to the conference office, sure. But this? Put McCaffery’s name in a Google News search today, and you’ll find nothing Iowa will include next month in its NCAA Tournament media guide.

McCaffery isn’t a madman. There are reasons his program didn’t have mass transfers after such a rough season a year ago. That his current team is 21-7 has been great fun for fans. What’s even better is he has assembled a group of intelligent, mature, hard-playing, good-natured players who are easy to like.

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But as I waited for Wednesday’s press conference to start, I saw a tweet promoting a college basketball podcast at CBSsports.com. Among the discussion topics in the tweet was “Fran McCaffery lost his mind again.”

In one of the lousiest weeks in Hawkeye sports in quite some time, McCaffery made it worse. Extraordinary.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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