Former Wolves player and exec Fred Hoiberg has revived Iowa State basketball in his hometown.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
AMES, Iowa – The water rushed in, through the windowpanes and doorframes, down the stairs and hallways, seeping and flowing and wreaking silent havoc.
It was early August 2010, and the Skunk River in Ames had swelled past the confines of its banks. It was early August 2010, and Hilton Coliseum, famous for its home-court advantage dubbed "Hilton Magic," was coming up on 40 years old, a concrete monolith plopped on the floodplain and surrounded, it appeared, by a placid moat.
It was August 2010, and Iowa State had hired its new basketball coach not even four months before.
Within days, the floodwaters receded and the 10 feet of water was eventually pumped out, but not before it made the building appear more natatorium than home of a Big 12 basketball program. The floor was replaced, as was the lowest bowl of seats, and much of the bowels of the arena was refurbished. It was a disaster, but there was something almost biblical about the thing, the floodwaters rushing in and erasing those four consecutive losing seasons in Ames and their bitter taste. After everything was cleaned and replaced, Hilton turned out better than before, the Cyclones faithful say, shiny, new and ready.
Ready, that is, for Fred Hoiberg. Ready for Iowa State's savior, the anointed one, the Mayor. That's whom the school had hired those months before: the little boy who grew up five blocks from Hilton Coliseum on Donald Street, who has no memories from before he moved to Ames at age 2, who walked to every game he attended as a child. Hoiberg served as ball boy for the Cyclones basketball and football teams before leading Ames High to a basketball state championship in 1991. He's a former Iowa State star, a retired NBA player whose jerseys are the most popular wall décor at most sports bars in Ames. It was an inherent PR boost for a struggling program, but in the hire, both Iowa State and Hoiberg took a massive risk.
If he failed, Hoiberg would lose the devotion of a town and a school. If he failed, Iowa State would see tarnished its greatest sports success story, the man who before his freshman year of college was nicknamed "the Mayor" by outgoing senior basketball player Doug Collins. "Fred is Ames," Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard says, and to fail would have been to renegotiate that identity.
When a coach is hired, no one thinks about failing; it's all future, promise, vague notions of success. Now, in Hoiberg's third season, with a surprising NCAA tournament run last March in the books and a winning record again this year, failure is again out of the equation. The Cyclones hold a 22-game winning streak at Hilton Coliseum, good for the third-longest current streak in the NCAA. They're projected as a tournament team again this year, fans are back in force, and the Mayor is pacing the sideline.
Things are as they should be in Ames, and the Fred Hoiberg narrative remains darn near close to perfect. It's a small-town fairytale, built as much on risk as it is on one man's sheer refusal to do wrong by the place he loves most, and to say it's unfolded quickly is to ignore the years of planning that went into this, Hoiberg's greatest project.
The story begins with two phone calls.
Hoiberg made the first, in March 2006, having retired the year before from the NBA after 10 seasons split among the Pacers,
Bulls and Timberwolves. Doctors had discovered an aortic root aneurysm, and he'd undergone open-heart surgery in the summer of 2005 to correct it. He was still contemplating an NBA comeback, but when he heard the Iowa State job was open, he had to make the call.
Pollard gave Hoiberg a quick no, offering to submit his name for consideration as an assistant. Hoiberg countered with a no of his own, and that was that. He hadn't coached before, hadn't done much of anything since retiring, and after all, Pollard remembers thinking, doesn't every former player think he'll be the next great coach?
The second call, four years later, was Pollard's.
Greg McDermott, the coach Pollard hired in 2006, was on his way to Creighton, and a new search was on. At that point, Hoiberg had nearly four years of experience as an assistant general manager in the Timberwolves' front office, and he'd been quietly nuzzling his way closer to the Cyclones program, traveling to Ames to talk to the team and attending games when Iowa State visited Minneapolis to play the Gophers. He was doing all the things a smart person would do if he wanted the job, Pollard said, and it had garnered notice.
It had garnered enough notice, in fact, for Pollard to get almost blind permission from Iowa State president Gregory Geoffroy to make a job offer. No matter that Hoiberg still had no coaching experience, that the school hadn't contacted any other candidates, that Pollard was prepared to shut down the coaching search after a mere 48 hours — the athletics director had a gut feeling, and it unfolded as simply as he could have imagined. Pollard called Hoiberg on a Sunday afternoon, drove north to his home in Chaska on Monday, offered him the job Monday night, and by Tuesday afternoon the two were back in Ames for the formal introduction.
"You talk about a surreal moment," Hoiberg said. "Pretty life-changing."
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State Cyclones men's basketball coach. Four years after having the audacity to tell him no, Pollard had the audacity to say yes to one of the more unorthodox hires in recent history.
Of the 345 NCAA D-I men's basketball coaches, 17 played in the NBA. That's 4.9 percent, putting Hoiberg in a very small demographic, and of those 17, not one landed a head coaching job as his first gig. There were bouts as assistants, managers, D-III positions and international jobs, years of experience that built toward the head coaching spot. Even Kansas star Danny Manning, the former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and a Lawrence legend had to put in time as a Jayhawks team manager and assistant (he's now Tulsa's head coach), and somehow, Hoiberg, 1995's 52nd pick, landed his dream on his first realistic try.
But Hoiberg had put in the work. He may not have been coaching, but he was building contacts among the NBA fraternity of general managers, securing relationships that would help his future players move on from college. He was talking shop with Kevin McHale, then the Timberwolves' coach, attending Minnesota's practices and watching with a keen eye. He was keeping even closer tabs on the Iowa State situation, such that when Pollard arrived in Chaska that day, the future coach had a plan to present.
Hoiberg had identified his weak spot, recruiting, and proposed retaining one assistant from McDermott's staff, T.J. Otzelberger, to help. He said he wanted a former head coach, too, on his bench, and so they brought in Bobby Lutz. Hoiberg had already conceived of an early version of his plan to inject the program with talent quickly, through transfers if necessary, and that philosophy has colored his early coaching career. It was a lot for a man who'd just learned of his interview the day before, but Hoiberg had been waiting.
It's hardly surprising. The man is as self-possessed as they come, and he wanted the job too badly to approach the proposition casually. His plan was so much more than the approach Pollard had worried he might fall into — "I'm Fred Hoiberg," the athletic director intones in a robot voice. "Come play for me." — and Hoiberg knew that his name alone would hardly get him the recruits he prized.
Hoiberg sowed the seed with his name, but he won the job because he planned as if he were anything but the program's most treasured alum.
The day before Iowa State's Feb. 16 game against TCU — an 87-53 win — the table in Hoiberg's office is littered with small square papers, their edges rimmed in Cyclones cardinal and gold. The man is a planner, a thinker, and once he fixated on his goal of coaching Iowa State, well, that was it. He was going to do it, no matter how many notepads he'd have to tear through, no matter what convention would dictate.
If you've never been to Ames or met Hoiberg, it might seem like he deviated from a cushy path, that he gave up a clear route in the NBA to revive the Cyclones program. But Ames has been the center of Hoiberg's world, even during those 15 years away, and when he got to come back, there was no part of it he could call a sacrifice.
"I loved my experience in the front office," Hoiberg said. "I really did. Would I have ever made it to be in charge? Would I have been a GM? I don't know. The opportunity came to be a head coach, and I jumped at it."
Those questions of what could have been don't faze him in the slightest, and that security in his choices is no different than what Hoiberg displayed nearly 20 years before, when he was being recruited out of high school. His grandfather, Jerry Bush, had been the Nebraska basketball coach in the 1950s and 60s, and when Tom Osborne recruited the Ames High senior for football, he was floored. When Hoiberg went to Arizona on a basketball visit and found a cardboard poster on his bed covered with signatures and which read "1,000 Wildcat Fans Want Fred Hoiberg at Arizona," he was interested. But here's the catch: He had yet to take his official visit to the program five blocks down the road.
Iowa State was one of Hoiberg's final visits, and by then, he'd gotten the hang of the routine. When it was time for bed, he found a similar piece of paper to the one he'd been given in Tucson, a thousand Cyclones want you to play here, blah, blah, blah. It might have seemed redundant, but not to Hoiberg. This one was different. "A thousand people want me," he said, recalling the signatures, "and shoot, I knew probably 800 of them." That sealed the deal.
Hoiberg might be a product of a bygone era, the rosy-cheeked, fair-haired Midwestern boy who met his wife, Carol, at Ames High. It might be the time, the circumstances, the way in which college athletics have changed that make him such a rare breed. But it might just also be Hoiberg, and that it's simply how he does things.
Fred Hoiberg at the interview table after a win isn't too different from the man who can't walk down the street without a handshake or two. He laughs, he's intense, he compares his team's game when it devolves to that of his 9-year-old twin boys' soccer team. Maybe it's a corny metaphor but somehow not when Hoiberg says it.
It's easy for Hoiberg to talk about this team. He's furious when it loses, as mad as anyone in town, and when it wins, he's on top of the world. The losing comes less frequently, and not in Ames since Jan. 11, 2012, so Hoiberg's job can seem easy. But if the team hadn't yet won, maybe not this soon, but, say, five years after he took over, things would be different. The golden boy would be a disappointment for the first time in his life, and it's hard to say who would take it harder: Ames or Hoiberg.
When Pollard offered Hoiberg the job, the two discussed the fact that from the second he accepted, opinions would change. Some people would think he was inexperienced, unsuited for the job. Others would think it was handed to him. "Here to date, Fred walked on water," Pollard said, shrugging. There would be no swimming in this scenario: for Hoiberg it was decidedly sink or walk.
He is a man who goes nowhere in Ames without turning heads. To walk down the street with Hoiberg, associate coach T.J. Otzelberger says, is to be stopped for handshakes, for autographs, to be told a story about how someone's great uncle graduated high school with Fred's cousin, and isn't that just the most interesting thing ever? The man is bombarded with speaking engagements, with causes to back, with demands for his time, and yet because this is Ames and plenty of people have known him since he was barely old enough to walk, he can also sit and watch his four kids' games without being bothered. It's a fine line, to balance it all, but it's not as if he didn't see it coming.
"I never would have taken this job if I didn't think I was going to be good at it," he said. "That's what I always (say). I have too much passion and too much respect for this university to come in here and take it back several years."
And thus far, things have run close to perfectly. After a 16-16 first season, Hoiberg's Cyclones went 23-11 last season, and Royce White became the highest-pick, at No. 16, of any Iowa State player in the NBA draft since 2000. This year's team is 19-8, with that 22-game home winning streak, and Hoiberg has the program very much alive. Pollard calls it a "marriage, a reconnection," and when he says it's worked out as well as he could have imagined, you don't get the sense he's exaggerating.
Say it's a fluke that it happened this fast, or that it's luck, or a weaker Big 12. Say what you want, and then meet Fred Hoiberg, and reconsider it. Because just as leading a team, recruiting and succeeding had so little to do with his outsized legend, so too does his drive to win. Hoiberg is the Mayor in the same sense that Andy Griffith was the sheriff – it's not the least bit political, but 100 percent genuine. Hoiberg wants the Cyclones to win not because it makes him look like a good coach but because they
must win. He wouldn't want to let them down, couldn't imagine it any other way.
"With him… the pressure's more self-induced, just because he loves this place so much," Otzelberger said. "This means so much to him that he wants to be successful. Not necessarily as much for himself but for the people that have supported him and the school that has been behind him."
On Feb. 15, 1992, the Cyclones came back from a double-digit deficit against second-ranked Oklahoma State. Hoiberg, then a freshman, completed a three-point play to give his team the lead with 8.9 seconds remaining, but Iowa State then fouled with a second to go. That brought Oklahoma State's Darwyn Alexander, one of the conference's best free throw shooters, to the line.
Hoiberg remembers it like it was yesterday. Hilton was buzzing. The backboard shook with the noise, and Alexander missed both shots, securing the win for the Cyclones. To this day, it's the Hilton memory Hoiberg mentions first, and it's precisely that atmosphere he's hoping to bring back to Ames. Some might say he's already done it.
Otzelberger describes one's first trip to the arena as involving "an adjustment period for your nerves," and he's right. The thing starts out quietly, with groups of fans streaming in. Among many there's a familial resemblance, the pack spanning generations, from grandpa in his hat to a toddler with her pompons. Fans carry soft-serve cones six inches tall, the confection dyed the perfect swirl of Iowa State colors, and the whole place smells a bit like a carnival.
When the game starts, though, the place hums, even for a dud of a game against a poor opponent like TCU on a Saturday afternoon in February. The student section is choreographed, and you almost give them credit for the Horned Frogs hitting just five of 17 free throws. The rest of the place is packed full, too, because to be an Ames townie is to be a Cyclones fan. When they're up 10, they scream, and when they're down 10, it's just as loud; not even Hoiberg calling timeout can interrupt it.
And oh, those timeouts. Hoiberg, 40 now, his suit and tie immaculate and every hair in place, ventures out almost to the basket. It's his court, after all, as much as it is any player's, if not more. He stands there, meets with his coaches, directs his team, all calm, all business, no matter how much his insides might be churning. Overhead, the flag bearing his retired number, 32, waves in the rafters, and there he is, the small-town legend willing his team to win.
It's Hilton Magic at its finest, 22 consecutive wins strong.