BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In the final minute of the final game of the Iowa basketball season Thursday night, Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery stepped back from his role for a quick second.
For a brief moment in the Hawkeyes' 83-75 loss to Auburn in the opening round of NCAA tournament play, Iowa's 13th-year coach was simply dad.
"Definitely dad mode," McCaffery said.
When his son, sixth-year senior Connor McCaffery, picked up his fifth foul with 17 seconds remaining in the game the Iowa coach embraced his son as he walked off the court in a Hawkeye uniform one final time.
In the moment, coach McCaffery said his mind was filled with memories.
"I think back to so many things, to the first time I took him to the Final Four, to taking him on road games, to a 2007 loss in a conference tournament (at Siena) when he was sitting on our bench crying his eyes out because we didn't make the tournament," McCaffery said.
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So many memories.
So many that extend beyond Connor McCaffery's contributions on the court for the Hawkeyes, well beyond him leading the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio as the glue to an Iowa team that finished a 19-14 season with the loss to Auburn.
"We're not here today if he didn't come back," McCaffery said, referencing his son's decision last spring to return for a sixth season.
"What he provided this team in leadership and versatility, it showed right until the end of the game."
McCaffery could see that and hear that as Iowa attempted to claw its way back from a 17-point deficit against the Tigers in the game's final 11 minutes.
"In the huddle, he never let this team's confidence waver," the Iowa coach said.
That extended well beyond the current season.
McCaffery pointed out that Iowa was "five for five" in NCAA appearances during the seasons the 6-foot-6 wing filled whatever role was needed, from running the point to posting up he did a little bit of everything while averaging 6.5 points, 4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
"He was a consistent winner in high school (at Iowa City West), so unselfish in the way he approached the game, doing whatever he needed to do," coach McCaffery said.
That included being a constant source of support for his teammates.
McCaffery saw that Thursday.
When the shots weren't falling in the first half for Kris Murray, it was Connor McCaffery who was constantly in the junior's ear during timeouts, talking him up.
"He was the guy who was doing that with every teammate whenever it was needed," McCaffery said. "He was huge with that, a real difference maker."
The Iowa coach said when things didn't look good for this Iowa team — when the Hawkeyes lost a 92-83 game to Eastern Illinois on Dec. 21 in a game McCaffery missed with a wrist injury — he continued to provide positive support to his teammates.
He was there when his brother and teammate, Patrick McCaffery, took a pause in his season to deal with anxiety issues.
"It's going to be so different next season when he isn't around every day," Patrick McCaffery said. "I love him. He's my brother and I know we'll talk every day like always but to not have him out there on the court, it's going to be so different."
That's why before going back to work to fill the one available scholarship Iowa has for its 2023 recruiting class and preparing his team for a summer foreign trip, Fran McCaffery stepped back and took time to appreciate a moment that will never come around again, thankful that his son gave him the chance.
"I didn't need to take that foul, but I wanted to come off the court one last time," Connor McCaffery said, saying the hug he received from his father is something that he will cherish forever.
"We have a special relationship and it meant a lot to me."
Connor McCaffery hopes to become a coach, but has said he wants an opportunity to work with a staff elsewhere to learn and expand his knowledge base, see how others do it as he builds his own foundation.
But at the core will be something he attempted to do from the first time he played for Iowa.
"I just tried to help our team win as many games as we could," Connor McCaffery said. "To me, that's what this has always been about."