If anyone can follow ‘The Mayor’ at Iowa State, it’s Steve Prohm
AMES, Iowa – The movers were at his new home right this minute. Steve Prohm had waited for this day for four months — four months spent living at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel across the street from the Iowa State basketball practice facility. Four months away from his newborn son, Cass, and his wife, Katie, who was back in her hometown of Murray, Ky., tying up loose ends from her husband’s successful four-year run as head coach of the Murray State Racers. Four months of frantically recruiting to fill three Iowa State roster spots for the upcoming season and five for the next season.
And now, finally, Prohm had checked out of the hotel, and his wife and son were here, and he had learned how to drive from the practice facility to this Wallaby’s Bar and Grille without GPS assistance, and one of the most unique beginnings to a coaching tenure in college basketball history was about to tip off.
Prohm was taking over a beloved basketball program that, instead of the rebuilding project so many new coaches start with, was approaching unimaginable heights. A senior class featuring Georges Niang and Naz Long had a real shot at becoming the winningest senior class in Iowa State history. Point guard Monte Morris had a chance at heading to the NBA after his junior season, as two Prohm point guards had done at Murray State. The team was as experienced as it is talented.
How often do you see a head coach in his first high-major job inheriting a team ranked seventh in the preseason AP Poll and, by the time of Thursday night’s rivalry matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes, rising to second in the USA Today Coaches Poll?
The 41-year-old Prohm, who looks a bit like a more intense version of the actor Steve Carell, took a bite of his chicken quesadilla as he contemplated his unique spot. It should be noted that there were no jalapenos on the quesadilla. As a rule, Prohm does not do spicy food. And this could be a metaphor for his makeup: a good and decent and straightforward man, a head coach less interested in the flash and sizzle of the coaching spotlight but instead focused on building relationships with his players, a guy who really sounds like he means it when he says his only goal is to get his players to have the best season each of them can have.
Come to think of it, the man is a lot like that coach who preceded him.
“You just have to be confident in who you are as a man and as a basketball coach,” Prohm said. “He did an incredible job here. He’s beloved here.” He paused and smiled. “But my goal is to become The Governor.”
“He,” of course, is The Mayor, Iowa State legend Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg grew up in Ames, was a ballboy for the Iowa State teams that featured Jeff Hornacek, starred at the school before heading to the NBA and was one of only seven Cyclones with their jerseys hanging from the Hilton Coliseum rafters when he returned to Ames in 2010. Hoiberg’s hire was panned as a quixotic endeavor everywhere except Iowa, where he was still beloved: He had worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office after his 10-year NBA career ended, but Hoiberg had zero head coaching experience when he was expected to come in and be the savior for a floundering program.
But save the program he did: On the backs of talented transfers and foundational players like Niang, Morris and Melvin Ejim, Hoiberg vaulted his alma mater to the top of the Big 12, making four NCAA tournaments, winning two Big 12 tournaments and making Ames a basketball town again.
Then, this summer, Hoiberg jumped at a chance few would turn down, to coach the Chicago Bulls.
Which is why Prohm found himself cooped up at Ames’ Hilton Garden Inn all summer, poring over Hoiberg’s offensive playbook, building relationships with Iowa State greats like Hornacek and Marcus Fizer, scrambling to fill out a staff and recruit for future rosters – all the while as the pressure of taking over this Final Four-capable team nagged at the back of his mind.
Of all the challenges Prohm faces in a job where he is expected to win and win immediately, the biggest challenge may be stepping out from under the shadow of a legend in that legend’s hometown.
As Prohm chowed down on the jalapeno-less quesadilla, right above him hung a Hoiberg Indiana Pacers jersey. When Prohm ducked into a bathroom on his way out, two senior citizens were staring at a signed, framed Ames High School Hoiberg jersey just outside the john. When Prohm walks out of the tunnel Thursday night at Hilton Coliseum, he’ll still be mostly an unknown quantity: Not Johnny Orr, who walked out to the theme song from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and not Hoiberg, who walked out to Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock.”
And yet, if you’re picking a coach to take over for Hoiberg, don’t you want a man who is in that same Hoiberg-ian mold? Quietly competitive. Not a glutton for the spotlight. A man who believes the single most important part of coaching college basketball is instilling confidence in his players. A light-hearted dude who had his players convinced his walkout song would be the “Nae Nae.” A coach who, instead of coming to Ames and immediately forcing his stamp on the program, arrived instead with this message: “I need to adjust more to these guys instead of them adjusting to me.” An up-and-coming college basketball mind whose journey couldn’t be more different than Hoiberg’s – Prohm never played Division I college hoops, much less in the NBA – but whose internal constitution seems cut from the same cloth.
Was he nervous? Sure. Before the season began, he kept replaying images in his head because he believes that envisioning something can help it come true. Beating Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Cracking jokes at the post-game podium with Niang. And walking out of the tunnel at a thumping Hilton Coliseum – although he has yet to settle on what his permanent entrance song will be.
“They say the floor shakes, it gets so loud,” Prohm said, an air of wonder in his voice.
Steve Prohm being in this position, with a very real shot at winning a national title in his first year as a high-major head coach, is unlikely for so many reasons – perhaps none more so than the fact that in his family, sports were completely off the radar.
His older brother was studious and enjoyed piano lessons. Piano lessons weren’t even an option for young Steve. From Day 1, all he wanted to do was go outside and play ball. Any ball, really. Playing in select soccer leagues. Playing baseball, where his nickname was “First Pitch,” because he swung at everything. But mostly, playing basketball.
“Nobody in our family is really into sports,” said his mother, Kathy Prohm, a retired elementary school teacher. “I know two-pointers, and I know three-pointers, and that’s about it. But Steve was driven toward sports his whole life. If he had to walk to practice because I couldn’t drive him, that would be OK by him.”
Prohm’s father, Ron, worked in the carpet business. The Prohms lived in a well-appointed suburb of Washington, D.C., their neighborhood home to government workers and a few Washington Redskins, which happens to be the only sports team Prohm still considers himself a diehard fan of. He was friends with vice president Dan Quayle’s son when he was growing up, but after eighth grade the family moved to Dalton, Ga., a town 100 miles north of Atlanta that is known as the Carpet Capital of the World (no joke).
Moving right before high school was the last thing Prohm wanted to do. He felt like an outsider in the South. Classmates called him “Yankee,” and Prohm just thought it was weird they’d nickname him after a pro baseball team.
But as soon as the family moved in, his father installed a basketball hoop on their property, which abutted a golf course.
“Before you knew it,” Ron Prohm said, “half the neighborhood was there playing basketball.”
He played a year of Division III hoops before transferring to Alabama, where he worked as a student manager for the men’s basketball team. Someday, he wanted to become his idol, Dick Vitale, but to do that, he figured he needed to be a high-profile coach first. Those were good Crimson Tide teams, with future NBA players like Antonio McDyess, Roy Rogers and Robert Horry. It was working alongside those elite players where Prohm learned his players-first mentality.
“One of his biggest strengths is player relationships,” said Virginia Tech assistant coach Isaac Chew, a Murray State assistant with Prohm and one of his best friends. “He can communicate with them in a way that’s not a yeller or a screamer.”
Those players liked and respected him so much that McDyess and Rogers eventually were in Prohm’s wedding.
After graduating and working one summer at Blockbuster, Prohm had three job opportunities: assistant women’s coach at Seton Hall; assistant women’s coach at Western Michigan; and volunteer men’s assistant at Centenary College, a tiny school in Louisiana. He took the job at Centenary, under a coach named Billy Kennedy.
It was about as humble of a beginning as you could script: Prohm had a meal ticket, a window-less basement dorm room, a bathroom that was down the hall and 10 percent of the $3,000 in proceeds from the basketball team calendar he was tasked to sell. He did it all. He mopped the floors. He brought out the cheap plastic kiddie pools so the gym floor wouldn’t get wet when rain came in the holes in the gym roof.
Prohm was thrilled. And because of the humility that allowed him to do whatever was needed and an intensity to become great, his head coach saw in him a future star.
“We were on the road, driving from Louisiana to Atlanta to go recruiting one day,” Kennedy recalled. “It was a seven- or eight-hour drive: See a kid play, then turn around and get back. Steve was driving. I was on the phone. He pulled over to a gas station and pumped the gas. While he was pumping gas, he paid at the same time. Then he jumped in the car and took off, trying to go hard and do everything he could for me. But he didn’t realize the gas hose was still connected! And I’m screaming at him, ‘You’re pulling the gas tank! You’re gonna blow this thing up! You’ve gotta stop!’ He’s just like that. He goes hard, and he gets excited. I thought he broke it and was gonna blow the thing up. But he kept on going. I was like, ‘Hey man, we gotta go back!’ And he was like, ‘No – we’re gonna be late.’ ”
Prohm followed Kennedy to Southeast Louisiana University. He was still in a dorm room, but this time he was an assistant who got a salary: $10,000 a year. They took over a program that had won 12 games the past two seasons combined. A couple years into the rebuilding process, they lost to the worst team in Division I basketball, one with a 1-25 record. Those were low moments. But by the time Kennedy left Southeast Louisiana for Murray State, the rebuild was complete. They’d won two straight conference championships, played in the NCAA tournament and won the most games in the history of the school.
Prohm joined Kennedy at Murray State, and that place was different. This was no rebuilding process. It was a tradition-rich school in a basketball-obsessed state. It was a cradle of coaches, the place where N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin made their names. One of those years, 2009-10, was Prohm’s most exhilarating year of coaching, going 31-5 and getting within a possession of upsetting future national runner-up Butler and making the Sweet 16.
Then, when his mentor left for Texas A&M, Prohm slid into the head coaching gig. He was taking over the mid-major equivalent of this year’s Iowa State team: an experienced squad with a future NBA player at point guard and with enormous expectations to win – immediately.
And so, in his first season as a college head coach, Steve Prohm won his first 25 games, went 31-2, ran through the Ohio Valley Conference and won a game in the NCAA tournament.
The first time I spoke with Steve Prohm, he was leaving for the hospital.
It was last March, and Prohm’s heart had just been broken. His Murray State Racers were having an incredible season. An injury-marred 2-4 start bled into a 25-game winning streak, the longest in college basketball last season other than the Kentucky’s. With a future NBA lottery pick at point guard, Cameron Payne, the Racers were one of the most fun and exciting teams in college hoops.
But a couple days before we spoke, a Belmont player had hit an absurd game-winning 3-pointer to upset Murray State in the Ohio Valley Tournament. In all likelihood that was going to knock the Racers out of the NCAA tourney despite the Racers’ top-25 ranking.
Prohm was a complex swirl of emotions. He was heartbroken from the loss. He was pissed at the prospect that the NCAA tournament selection committee would look at Murray State’s RPI and those four early-season losses and not reward the Racers with a tourney bid. He was angry at the idea of being slighted, the unfairness of it all. He was that same kid his mother said would talk back to teachers in elementary school if he felt they weren’t being fair to the class.
And yet he was elated, too. Because within 24 hours, his wife was scheduled to give birth to their first child.
This moment captures Steve Prohm in a nutshell: He was devoted to his team, going on an all-out media blitz to pressure the committee to give a bid to a school that hadn’t lost between Nov. 29 and March 7. By purposely scheduling their baby’s induced birth for between the conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, he had achieved an impressive balance between two of three most important things in his life: family and basketball. (The third thing is his Catholic faith.) And in a little over a decade, Prohm had gone from the assistant coach who lived in a dorm and just wanted a chance to coach basketball to one of the hottest young coaching names in the sport.
“He’s a basketball guy – his life revolves around it,” said Lindy Suiter, a local insurance agent who is a big booster of Racers hoops and publishes a Murray State basketball magazine. “When he was single, he was 24-7. He’s able to form special relationships with these players. He can be one of them. You can just see a bond between him and the guys. There’s a certain degree of respect he shows them and in return they show respect to him.”
From the moment Prohm took over at Murray State, Suiter saw that up-tempo style of basketball he became known for at Murray State and now at Iowa State. He saw Prohm as a guy who had the best of the past three worlds of Murray State coaches: the recruiting ability and “pep in his step” of Mark Gottfriend, the in-game coaching abilities of Mick Cronin and the good, decent Christian foundation of Billy Kennedy.
“You’ve got all three of them in one guy, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay a coach,” Suiter said.
It was at Murray State where Prohm met his wife. But only after a bit of cajoling from his friends. And at their wedding reception a few years ago, the electricity went out, so Chew, Prohm’s best friend, stood up and for 20 minutes entertained the crowd about the story of how the couple met.
“We were in the student lounge,” Chew said. “Two girls were sitting there, doing something for school. And we were always trying to introduce Prohm to women. So I got them to exchange numbers, and he asked Katie out.
“But it was a bad first date, just awful,” Chew continued. “He didn’t interpret things well on the first date from Katie. By the time they got off the date he thought it went horrible, but she thought it went fine. So he left it alone for a couple months, didn’t call her. A couple months later, I volunteered to help her and her roommate move. I asked her about the date. She told me, ‘I really liked him. I would like to go out with him again.’ So I convinced him to call her, and the rest is history.”
History meant hosting Murray State assistant coaches and staffers in their basement for pizza and wings during the NBA Draft or big games. History meant trips to Dairy Queen together, which would eventually reward Prohm’s frequent strawberry shakes with free Dairy Queen for life for his firstborn son. (When he became head coach, if he was in a rush, he had to sneak in the back door of the Dairy Queen because so many people wanted a bit of his time.)
And history meant, eventually, having to say goodbye to his wife’s hometown, a place he had grown to love, when Hoiberg left for Chicago and Iowa State came calling.
“I just told him, ‘You only have so many BCS-level programs where you’ll have the opportunity to win,’ ” Kennedy recalled. “ ‘You’re inheriting a team that’s good. You’re not in a rebuilding situation.’ ”
In many ways, it seemed like the perfect fit. Prohm wanted to stay in a college town. Iowa State was, like Murray State, a basketball-first school. And his most recent Murray State team was like a mid-major version of Iowa State: a run-and-gun group with a quick tempo. Last season, Murray State finished 13th in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com – two spots behind Iowa State.
And, of course, his personality would fall right in line with that culture Fred Hoiberg had established in Ames.
Thursday night, the floor will be shaking at Hilton Coliseum.
It may not be a rivalry that resonates outside of Flyover Country, but in Iowa, the Cy-Hawk Series is what it’s all about. Cyclones have been known to brag about a two-win football season because, hey, well, one of those wins was over the Hawkeyes.
More important for Prohm and his team, Thursday’s game will be their first big test – Iowa is ranked 19th on KenPom.com – in a season he readily admits is the biggest challenge of his coaching career.
His second season at Iowa State will be a reboot. That’s the way next year would have been if Hoiberg had stayed, too, as Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay are all seniors, and Morris may leave for the NBA. Any way you slice it, Prohm’s second Iowa State team will be far less talented than his first. So much of his success in Ames – the culture he establishes, the March expectations he either fulfills or does not – will ride on the next three months.
But in a typically Steve Prohm way, not long before he blew a whistle to start one of his first practices before this season, he said this season really isn’t about him at all.
“The only thing I care about right now is giving these four seniors the best possible season they can have,” Prohm said. “And then we’ll deal with everything in this program going forward after that. Right now, in this moment, those seniors are my biggest priority on and off the floor.”
“We gotta finish the deal – that’s what I keep talking to these guys about,” Prohm continued. “ ‘Be phenomenal, or be forgotten.’ These seniors have had such a great run. It’s our job, as a staff and as a team and as a program, to send them out the right way.”
It’s an odd position he’s in. He’s fully aware of that. There’s no blueprint for success for taking over a Final Four-capable team, other than that offensive playbook Hoiberg handed over to him. There’s just a coach who understands his position is to not get in the way: instill confidence in his players and ride their successes.
“All eyes are gonna be on us – I understand that,” he said. “Everybody expects unbelievable things.”
Just like he envisions walking out of the tunnel to the shaking Hilton Coliseum floor, just like he envisions winning at Allen Fieldhouse, Prohm envisions bigger things, too. A big part of his coaching philosophy is that if you believe in something, you can will it to become true. Several years ago, just after Prohm had taken over as Murray State’s head coach, he gave his father a birthday card. The card was to thank his dad for all the support over the years, from building the basketball hoop in the driveway to sending him money when he was working for peanuts and living in a basement dorm.
But the card was for something else, too.
Inside was a letter.
“Dear Dad,” it read. “This is a ticket to the national championship game for you. It’s good forever. Love, Steve.”
The “ticket,” Prohm told his father, can be redeemed the first time Steve Prohm coaches his team in a national championship game.
There is no expiration date on the ticket, although Prohm does hope his father gets to use it sooner instead of later.