National Columnist

McCaffery showed empathy for Iowa fan before outpouring for son

Fran McCaffery poses with Matt and Melissa Starmer earlier this season.
Fran McCaffery poses with Matt and Melissa Starmer earlier this season. (Courtesy of Matt Starmer)

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DAYTON, Ohio -- Matt Starmer knows how hard Wednesday night was for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. The flight into Dayton that day. The game that night. The job he had to do, as if the job mattered when what really mattered was back in Iowa in a hospital bed, waiting for a doctor to say everything will be OK ...

Matt Starmer knows what Fran McCaffery was going through, this double life as a strong leader and helpless father. A few hours before McCaffery's Hawkeyes were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament -- a 78-65 overtime loss to Tennessee in the First Four at Dayton -- 13-year-old Patrick McCaffery underwent surgery in Iowa City, Iowa, to have a tumor removed from his thyroid. The father/coach was in both places: University of Iowa Hospital on Wednesday morning, UD Arena that night.

"It was a day that, needless to say, has been very difficult," McCaffery said. "We got up at 5 a.m., Patrick was at the hospital at 6, prepared for surgery on his neck to remove a tumor. You're talking about potential malignancy and you're saying to yourself, 'Wow, it puts wins and losses in perspective.' "

That was Iowa coach Fran McCaffery after the game Wednesday night. And who is Matt Starmer? Nobody you know. Nobody Fran McCaffery knew, either, until McCaffery learned in November that Starmer's son, Maddox, had a life-threatening condition. Maddox was born Oct. 15 with a heart defect, but doctors told Matt and Melissa Starmer they could probably treat the condition with a series of three surgeries. There was a 95 percent success rate, they were told.

"Maddox was the 5 percent that doesn't make it," Matt Starmer told me by phone Wednesday night, shortly before Iowa and Tennessee tipped off, from his home in Audubon, Iowa.

Three days after his birth, the first of three planned open-heart surgeries revealed that Maddox's coronary artery wasn't large enough to handle the blood flow needed to correct his condition and bypass his underdeveloped right ventricle. No more surgeries for Maddox. He needed a new heart.

Matt Starmer needed money to pay the bills, so the 39-year-old Hawkeyes fan wrote the Iowa athletic department, asking for a signed basketball from Fran McCaffery to auction at a fundraiser. This was November 2013. Starmer was hoping McCaffery's secretary would write him back.

"Fran called me the next morning," Starmer said.

McCaffery's a dad, too. He gets it. He has three sons and a daughter, and he could imagine what Starmer was going through -- so he invited Starmer to Iowa City to watch practice, tour the arena, visit and just ... escape.

"Just trying to get his mind away from things for a few hours," McCaffery told me as he walked toward the locker room. "Patrick has an issue here, but what that family went through for two months ... I can't even imagine it."

When the Starmers arrived at practice that day, McCaffery blew the whistle and stopped drills. He had his players meet Matt, Melissa and his parents, who also made the trip. As 6-foot-9 Iowa junior Aaron White reached Matt's mom and saw the pain on her face, he skipped the handshake, leaned down and gave her a hug.

"[McCaffery] showed his team that real life mattered, and what they're doing was just a game," Starmer said.

Three months later McCaffery was coaching a game, just a game, just the biggest game of his players' lives. On the same day that his son had undergone the most important medical procedure of his life.

"Once he came out of surgery and he was in good shape -- I talked to the physician and he felt really good -- I got on the plane and at that point my job was to focus on the game and to be there in every way I could be for my guys," McCaffery said.

That was Saturday night. But back in November, Matt Starmer -- a sergeant in the Audubon police department and a D.A.R.E. officer in the school district -- left McCaffery and went back to Des Moines to continue the hospital vigil with his son. McCaffery went back to coaching the Iowa basketball team.

Soon Maddox was on life support, surviving more than a month before dying on Dec. 19. Matt Starmer received a note from McCaffery offering his condolences, then another inviting the Starmers to the Hawkeyes' home finale against Illinois on March 8. A few hours before the game, McCaffery sat with Starmer on the Iowa bench and told him something that nobody outside the family knew:

Doctors had just found a tumor on Patrick's thyroid. Patrick needed surgery.

"The trust he showed me, one father to another, I'll never forget that," Starmer said.

A few days later McCaffery told his team (and then the public) about Patrick's surgery, breaking into tears but vowing to coach them if at all possible. The surgery was scheduled for March 19, and then Iowa was put into the First Four -- with a game on March 19. McCaffery flew to Dayton with the team on Tuesday, attended press conferences, then flew back to Iowa City that night.

The surgery was Wednesday morning, and McCaffery was outside the surgical room with his wife, Margaret. Doctors told them it went as well it could go. What they couldn't say, what they won't know until possibly Monday, is whether the tumor was malignant -- and if so, if the cancer spread before it was removed. A few hours later, Fran McCaffery got onto a plane and flew to Dayton.

That was the burden McCaffery coached with on Wednesday night. Known for a fiery temper that saw him get ejected against Wisconsin and suspended by the Big Ten for the next game, McCaffery was subdued on the sideline. He coached with his arms crossed or a hand on his chin or both, though the fire returned in the second half as Tennessee completed its comeback from an 11-point deficit. After a foul on Iowa center Adam Woodbury gave Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes two free throws for a 61-60 lead, McCaffery was red-faced and shouting, "That is not a foul!"

A few seconds later, Tennessee called timeout before -- or not before -- Vols forward Jeronne Maymon traveled. Now McCaffery was red-faced and raging, making the traveling signal and chewing out a referee at midcourt as assistant coach Andrew Francis tried to calm him down. In overtime the Vols outscored Iowa 14-1.

Afterward, Tennessee's players celebrated briefly and turned their attention to the other coach, hugging McCaffery and telling him they were thinking about him.

"Most kids want to run and jump on each other in the locker room," McCaffery said. "I was really impressed with those guys and the program that Cuonzo [Martin] has built there."

That's what McCaffery told the media after the game. He and I spoke alone -- minutes after a season-ending loss, minutes before heading to the airport to fly back to his son -- and when I brought up Matt Starmer, Fran McCaffery transformed from coach to dad. His demeanor changed, softened. He asked about Matt and Melissa, we talked some, and he ended it by saying they were "salt of the earth people, and I've been thinking about what they went through as we've been dealing with Patrick's situation."

I called Matt Starmer and told him that, might even have woken him up as Wednesday night was turning into Thursday morning, and he was speechless for a second. Hello?

"Yeah. Sorry. I'm here," he said. "You're bringing a huge smile to my face right now. To know that he has as much support as he has from all directions, and I'm not a big booster. I don't have thousands of dollars I contribute to the university. For him to think of me at a time like this ... it shows what a good man he is.

"And I wish the best for his son."

 
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