Friendship on the sidelines: Two basketball coaches have connection on and off the court

For decades, head coach Fran McCaffery and assistant coach Billy Taylor have been close friends no matter where in their basketball careers they’ve been.


Emily Wangen

University of Iowa Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach Billy Taylor at the University of Illinois on Sunday, March 8, 2020, at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. The Hawkeyes lost to the Fighting Illini, 76-78.

On the Iowa sideline, head men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery yells and gestures, his fiery passion on display for all to see. In contrast to McCaffery’s spark, assistant coach Billy Taylor is the calm behind a storm, working quietly with his players before sending them back out to play.

Everyone has their roles to play on the sidelines, and McCaffery and Taylor are foils on the court. Off the court, they have been friends for decades.

McCaffery’s children call Billy “Uncle Billy,” and Taylor’s children call McCaffery “Uncle Fran.” Their families hang out often. Even though they’ve been apart for long periods of time, they’ve remained close.

“Our families are truly so intertwined because of all the years together,” Taylor said.

Throughout their careers, both coaches have combined their passions for family and basketball into one, creating a unique experience for their players and loved ones.

Family, friendship, and basketball

Life for college basketball coaches can be challenging. Coaches change jobs often, and the players they coach are typically away from home for the first time ever. Maintaining the balance between family and friendship versus basketball is difficult.

Fran and Billy have balanced their lives well.

In high school, Billy was a standout student athlete at West Aurora High School in Illinois. Fran, then an assistant coach at Notre Dame, helped recruit him to play for the Irish, where he became a four-year starter starting in 1991. Before he enrolled in college, the friendship was already there.

“You think about since high school, I’ve had a very close relationship [with Billy], even when we weren’t on staff together,” Fran said.

In college, Billy respected Fran, and vice versa. Billy looked up to Fran’s encouragement, positivity, and confidence in him, while Fran never had to repeat things to Billy. Under head coach John MacLeod, Billy was typically tasked with guarding their opponents’ best offensive player.

Graduation came in 1995. Billy went to Chicago, working at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. He got his CPA in 1998.

Fran thought he would become a CEO. Margaret said she thought that he would never leave the business world.

But the love of basketball was still there. MacLeod knew it. He called him in a conversation that Billy said he would never forget, and at the end, Billy became an assistant coach along with Fran at Notre Dame. Yet, Billy was still learning from Fran.

“I watched him, I studied him, how he did things, how he managed the coaching staff, how he was administratively with other people in the athletic department,” Billy said.

This was important because the following season, Fran got the head coaching job at North Carolina-Greensboro and brought Billy along as his top assistant coach. If Fran had a conflict and couldn’t run practice, Billy could do it.

“[This] was really good for me because when you become a coach after being an assistant, you want your staff to sort of hit the ground running with you,” Fran said. “We went down here together. We had a plan. We executed the plan.”

Unlike other coaches, Fran’s not a micromanager, Billy said. He lets his assistants contribute to his program in meaningful ways.

This was clear to Brett Reed, the director of basketball operations during the 1999-2000 season.

Iowa Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach Billy Taylor cheers from the side of the court during a game against the University of Illinois on Sunday, March 8, 2020, at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. The Hawkeyes lost to the Fighting Illini, 76-78.

“I think Billy helped Fran be the best head coach he could possibly be and Fran’s belief in Billy empowered and enabled him to really connect with the players and put his print on the program as an assistant,” Reed said.

Billy was an assistant coach with the program from 1999-2002. During this time, Fran and his wife, Margaret, had players come over to their house to eat and play games. Today, the players who came over to the house all those years ago still keep in contact with Fran.

“I always look for, like, where are our connections, where are our bonds, what are the things that bridge us together,” Billy said. “I try to be compassionate to the struggles and the challenges they face. I try to remember to listen and try to remember what it was like going through those challenges as a teenager 20 years ago.”

There are coaches in college basketball that cut corners and are in the profession for all the wrong reasons, Fran said. Not Billy, who, according to Fran, is the total package for people in the business.

When the friends were coaching together at Notre Dame, Billy’s wife, Avlon, had been brought into the picture. When she moved to South Bend, Indiana to be closer to Billy, Fran and Billy’s friendship expanded to include their families.

“We spent time together and she’s wonderful,” Margaret said. “So, I loved her immediately and Billy’s a great guy.”

On Memorial Day Weekend in 2000, Billy and Avlon married. Current Iowa basketball players Patrick McCaffery, who is Billy’s godson, and Connor McCaffery were in attendance. Connor was the ringbearer and Patrick was a couple of months old.

It was Margaret, said Avlon, who made the wedding day perfect.

“Margaret swooped in just brilliantly and planned the whole wedding because I had no idea of what I was doing,” Avlon said. “She stepped in, she organized everything, she told people where to be and helped just to smooth everything out so that actually on the day of the wedding things ran smoothly because she knows so much about everything.”

The next Valentine’s Day, Margaret sent out a picture to the Taylors with Patrick and Connor on it. To this day, Avlon carries it in her wallet.

Though faded and folded with age, it’s obvious the picture has been loved. In the photo, Patrick is seated in front of a heart that says “BE OURS,” while Connor is to the right of him smiling.

On the court, Fran and Billy improved the North Carolina-Greensboro Spartans. The season before they got there, the program was 7-20. In their first season, they went 15-13.

The next season, Billy and Fran made the NCAA Tournament together at North Carolina-Greensboro in 2001, making it the second program that Fran had taken to the NCAA Tournament since Lehigh in 1988. In 2002, Billy was hired as the head coach at Lehigh to take them back to the tournament for the first time since Fran was there.

Billy as a head coach

In 2004, after improving the program tremendously and winning Patriot League Coach of the Year twice, Billy and the Mountain Hawks won the conference and made the NCAA Tournament.

RELATED: Taylor returns to familiar job with Iowa basketball

When he did so, the coach that had helped Billy get the job and influence his coaching style was in attendance, along with his wife.

“Guys were running on the floor celebrating and it was overwhelming, and I don’t think I appreciated as much at that time how great of an accomplishment that was,” Billy said.

Just like Fran, Billy was able to achieve more with less.

“A large reason we went to the NCAA Tournament was because of Billy Taylor and his championship mindset,” said Mitch Gilfillan, a player on that team. “Despite taking us to the NCAA Tournament at such a young age, Billy Taylor had the coaching acumen and the professional approach to get the best out of his student-athletes.”

The McCafferys and Taylors didn’t see each other much during that time being so far apart. But Fran and Billy would still run into each other on recruiting trips.

“But there’s always a connection whether we talk with them every day or don’t see each other for months and months,” Margaret said.

With Billy proven successful in the Patriot League, he was ready to take the next step in his career and be a coach at a bigger program, at Ball State.

Gilfillan coached with him in some of those seasons and called it one of the toughest situations a coach should have to deal with. Though he did try to rebuild the program, Billy was fired in 2013 after failing to make the NCAA Tournament.

But like all things in Billy’s life, family came first, and Ball State did help with that.

“And that was unfortunate, but I still loved the experience because it afforded us the opportunity to be closer to family and to be closer to Chicago and at that stage of life, that was important for my parents to still be close to kind of see our kids as they were growing up,” Billy said.

In 2016, Billy had another chance to rebuild a program, this time at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. There, he improved the program from 10 wins in the 2016-17 season to 23 wins in the 2018-19 season.

But that isn’t why he or Fran are coaching college athletes. They want their students to succeed in the classroom and in life because basketball isn’t going to last forever.

Belmont Abbey Athletic Director Stephen Miss said Billy placed the formation of development in his students to the forefront academically, socially, and spiritually.

“The results that he gets are a byproduct of his focus on developing the whole person, which then enables the students to achieve even greater athletic heights than they might without those emphasis,” Miss said.

This type of culture has carried over to Iowa basketball, which is personal to Billy.

Billy coaching the McCaffery children

After Billy was fired from Ball State, he looked at several different coaching opportunities. But Fran called, and his persuasion and the respect Billy has for Fran got Billy once again. For the first time in 11 seasons they were on the same staff together at Iowa, and their families were overjoyed.

Billy became the director of basketball operations in 2013, though he only stayed at the university for three years before making another move when he accepted the head coaching position at Belmont Abbey.

Though they made the NCAA Tournament all three seasons, Billy and his family had a more important role in Iowa City than accomplishing that feat, largely because of Patrick.

In March 2014, doctors found a tumor in Patrick’s thyroid. They soon removed it, after which they realized it was cancerous, prompting another surgery to remove most of his lymph nodes.

“There’s no place where we would have rather been,” Avlon said in a soft, emotional voice. “You don’t know where life leads you or where you end up and I know where you find yourself is the combination of decisions and choices that you make. Then we made the decision to come here at Fran’s invitation. We had no idea of course. But we continue to look at that as God’s providence that we were meant to be here and not to say that our presence made a difference.

“But it made a difference for us to be here.”

He returned to Iowa as an asistant coach in May 2019, where he now coaches Connor and Patrick. Billy is able to connect to both Connor and Patrick on a new level.

Patrick was not available to the media at the time of publication. However, Fran did provide some insight.

“I think [Billy] can talk to [Patrick] on a different level,” Fran said. “He’s a coach, and he’s his godfather, and he’s known him since he was born. So that’s a different relationship than somebody we started recruiting a year ago or 18 months ago.”

Coaching Connor and Patrick is like family to Billy.

“My relationship with those two is just different than it is with obviously other players because we’re really like family, like we’ve known each other for such a long time,” Billy said. “Been there for birthdays, been there for special occasions, like we’ve just been in each other lives and having an opportunity to walk with them on their journey as college players is pretty neat.”

The first time Billy worked at Iowa, his family lived not far from the McCaffery’s. If Margaret needed help, Avlon would come over, and vice versa, just like it was in North Carolina.

Though they live farther apart now, the family friendship is still strong. The Taylors’ oldest daughter, Tamia, is a UI junior. Their youngest daughter, Gavielle, is a senior in high school. Gavielle is friends with Marit, the McCafferys’ daughter, who is in the same grade as her.

The Taylors’ youngest child, Savion, is friends with the McCafferys’ youngest child, Jack. Savion plays basketball in high school and Jack goes to the games just to watch him.

The first time the families were in Iowa City, the kids would play basketball together and the families would socialize a lot. This time around they don’t socialize as much due to the kids being older, but they still have moments outside basketball where they connect.

Connor, who called Billy ‘Ubi’ when he was little, said he enjoys playing under Billy after knowing him for so long.

“It’s just been better to be with him on a daily basis and talk basketball with him and stuff like that,” Connor said.

Connor has been playing well under Taylor this season. He boasts the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation at 4.5. Connor also leads the team in assists per game at 3.9. Connor’s exploits have helped guide Iowa to a 20-11 season and a probable NCAA Tournament berth.

Patrick’s currently out because of ‘residual health issues’ from a previous battle with his cancer. His family has supported him during this time, and so has Billy.

“It’s been good to have another person to be able to talk to about that, in addition to his dad,” Margaret said.

The plan is for Billy to become a head coach again at a different university, though Margaret joked that Fran might one day be on Billy’s staff instead of the other way around.

“I want to just stay focused in the present moment,” Billy said. “Look at the challenge ahead of me and our team and our family [and] pursue that with reckless abandon.”

The next challenge for McCafferys and the Taylors is the 2020 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament. Iowa plays Thursday in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a hunt for the conference crown.

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