I Suppose We Should Talk About Fran's Contract Extension

By RossWB on January 29, 2018 at 2:19 pm
© Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven't already heard, the Iowa athletic department has been in the news lately and the source of that discussion is familiar: buyouts in coaching contracts. You'll never believe this, but an Iowa coach has a pretty sizable buyout in his most recent contract! You're stunned, right? My apologies: I should have warned you to sit down first before dropping that bombshell on you.

Last week Scott Dochterman reported at Land of 10 that Fran McCaffery signed a contract extension on November 29, 2017. That was an interesting -- and insightful -- revelation because, uh, Iowa never announced the extension back in November. Dochterman acquired the information from the new contract itself, which was obtained via a request through Iowa's open records laws. 

The contract extension extended Fran's contract through 2023-24 and provided small increases in terms of compensation and incentives, but more than doubled the buyout amount that Iowa would owe McCaffery if he were fired before July 1, 2018. Instead of owing him $4.6 million, Iowa is now on the hook for $10.2 million. That number decreases to $9 million on or after July 1, 2018, to $7.6 million on or after July 1, 2019, to $6.2 million on or after July 1, 2010, and so on. Full terms of McCaffery's new contract are available in Dochterman's original post

Obviously, under Gary Barta, Iowa has a history of treating buyout terms like Monopoly money because they don't ever intend to make use of the terms. For the most part, Iowa's general approach has been to assume that coaches will continue to produce results at an acceptable level until they either see out their contract or simply retire. The notion that they might need to be fired for poor performance doesn't seem to enter the equation. One of Barta's most high-profile hires -- Todd Lickliter -- was fired for poor performance; that exception was the result of the program cratering and fans and players fleeing the team in droves. Of course, it was also easier to cut Lickliter loose after three years because his buyout terms weren't especially onerous (roughly $2.4 million). That won't be the case with McCaffery if Iowa's recent downturn continues. 

The relative size of McCaffery's buyout is somewhat dependent on your perspective, though. Obviously it's much larger than his previous buyout and, per Chad Leistikow at Hawk Central, it's larger than Tim Miles' buyout at Nebraska ($2.5 million) or Steve Prohm's buyout at Iowa State ($4.5 million). But it's far smaller than the buyouts for Mark Turgeon at Maryland ($15.8 million), Archie Miller at Indiana ($20.3 million), or Chris Holtmann at Ohio State ($21.5 million). Turgeon hasn't been significantly more successful at Maryland than Fran has been at Iowa -- in seven years he has three total NCAA Tournament appearances, three NCAA Tournament wins, and one Sweet 16 showing. Miller and Holtmann enjoyed a bit more success at their previous stops (Dayton and Butler, respectively). 

That said, coaches like Miller and Holtmann were also much more in demand -- they were considered bright, up-and-coming coaches and their names were fixtures in the coaching carousel moves each spring. That doesn't exactly apply to McCaffery, who's 58, in his eighth year at Iowa, and has a losing record in Big Ten play (66-70) during that time. He has three NCAA Tournament appearances and two wins in seven years (soon to be eight), as well as three NIT appearances, highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2013. He's done a good job at Iowa overall, especially considering the trash fire that he inherited, but it would be a stretch to say he's blown any doors off during his time here. He hasn't won a Big Ten regular season title or a Big Ten Tournament title (hell, he's yet to have an Iowa team play on Saturday at that event) and while he provided Iowa with its first NCAA Tournament win in almost 15 years, he hasn't been able to guide Iowa on any lengthy runs in the Big Dance, either.

So who exactly was Iowa worried about swooping in to lure him out of Iowa City? It seems like they were bidding against... themselves. I sincerely hope that Fran is able to turn things around at Iowa and achieve not just his former success but even exceed that in the next few seasons. But if he's not able to fix this roster -- or teach these players how to play consistent defense -- Iowa just voluntarily gave up leverage and made it a whole lot more difficult for them to try and change things up. That seems very foolish.

I also find the lack of transparency about the announcement just as troubling -- if not moreso -- even if it fits within long-established patterns of behavior with the Iowa athletic department. This is, after all, a department that regularly announces dumps news late on a Friday afternoon and that has a football program that severely limits access to assistant coaches and players (particularly freshmen). It's also a department that still hasn't announced any meaningful changes in the wake of the Griesbaum court decision. It's also not the first time that Iowa has failed to announce a significant contract extension -- Barta's own recent extension a few years ago wasn't formally announced, either. 

After Dochterman's story about the McCaffery contract extension was published, Barta released a statement explaining that the negotiations for the extension took place last summer but that Barta's treatment for prostate cancer put things on hold in the fall. The contract was finalized at the end of November. Of course, that was fresh off Iowa's miserable showing in the Cayman Islands and their ugly wipeout against Virginia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge -- not exactly an ideal time to announce a contract extension, especially one that more than doubled the buyout for a coach whose team was floundering badly.

But then they just... never bothered announcing the extension. My most charitable assumption is that they wanted to have the extension announcement occur at a time when things were going better for Iowa basketball on the court. Except... that did happen. After that dreadful stretch in late November and early December, Iowa rattled off five straight wins over the rest of the month and there was, briefly, some optimism about Iowa basketball again. (Oh, how young and foolish we were just a month ago...) Why not announce the extension then, perhaps after Iowa's thrilling win over Colorado in Sioux Falls? There would have been griping, to be sure -- the increased buyout would be a head-scratcher no matter what -- but the angst around Iowa basketball was lessened. Plus, it was a much busier time of the sports calendar for Iowa, so it would have fit in with the department's frequent M.O. of trying to bury or hide bad (or at least awkward) news; Iowa football was in the midst of Signing Day then, as well as in the middle of Pinstripe Bowl preparations. And there was a little thing called Christmas going on, too, which would have been another thing to deflect attention from the extension. 

Since then, of course, things have only gotten more miserable for Iowa basketball. The athletic department had to know that information about the extension was going to come out at some point -- McCaffery's contract is a matter of public record and there was going to be a request to see it at some point. Instead of getting ahead of the story (as much as possible), Iowa's approach seemed to be to bury its head in the sand. That's not surprising, given the department's past, but it's still disappointing. Iowa fans deserve better -- they deserve an athletic department that's transparent, forthright, and acts in their best interests. That's not the department we have, though, and it's not the department we're ever likely to get under the current leadership. 

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