Hoiberg, Iowa State a true love story
AMES, Iowa - As the college football season wound down, head coaches' names began to float around to fill the seven vacancies on the NFL coaching carousel. Chip Kelly was leaving Oregon for the Cleveland Browns - no, Bill O'Brien was leaving Penn State for the Cleveland Browns - no, maybe Nick Saban will leave the most lucrative coaching position in college football history for the Cleveland Browns. Doug Marrone ditched Syracuse for the Buffalo Bills job. And now the rumor mill sees Notre Dame's Brian Kelly as a good fit for the Chicago Bears.
It's enough to make college football programs feel like the lady whose boyfriend is constantly flirting with someone else.
But as we turn our eyes from college football to college basketball - a sport where the finest coaches, people like Rick Pitino and John Calipari, have shown that they're just as vulnerable to the siren song of a pro head-coaching job - there's a heartwarming story in the Midwestern college town of Ames, Iowa about a man who decided to do just the opposite.
It is here that Fred Hoiberg took the path less traveled and headed from the glitz of the NBA back down to the college life. And because of Hoiberg's unorthodox decision to leave the NBA for a head-coaching vacancy at Iowa State three years ago, the game of basketball is better off.
To outsiders who don't understand what the man known as The Mayor means to Iowa State basketball, the university's decision to hire the then-37-year-old Hoiberg away from the Minnesota Timberwolves front office was as quixotic as Hoiberg's decision to leave the promised land of the NBA. Why would Iowa State risk its program on a guy who'd never been a head coach at any level? And why would Hoiberg risk his career track that seemed destined to make him an NBA general manager - he was already the No. 2 man at the Timberwolves - for a mediocre college program that hadn't even made the NCAA tournament in five years?
But as anyone in Iowa knows, the story of how Hoiberg came to leave the NBA to coach at his alma mater is a pretty straightforward tale. It's a love story, pure and simple, between a man and a university.
And in just his third season, it's already brought Iowa State basketball back to its glory years.
"Some people have come here and used this job as a stepping stone," said Hoiberg last week as his team prepared for tonight's Big 12 opener at sixth-ranked Kansas. "This is where I want to be … I'm really happy here. I'd love to coach here for 20 years."
The love story began when Hoiberg was only two years old and his father, Eric, accepted a position as a sociology professor at Iowa State. The family moved from Nebraska to Ames and lived in a house just five blocks away from Hilton Coliseum. A few years later, the Cyclones hired Johnny Orr from the University of Michigan, and a golden age for Iowa State basketball began. A program that hadn't made the NCAA tournament since World War II suddenly went dancing in March 12 times over two decades, including its first-ever Sweet 16 in 1986.
And young Hoiberg had a front row seat to what became known as Hilton Magic. He was a ball boy for the basketball team; he was a ball boy for the football team. His was the foot who Iowa State star Jeff Hornacek stepped on, spraining his ankle before a game. He watched firsthand as Orr built a nothing program into something special.
"I fell in love with it," Hoiberg said, "and knew that one day I wanted to play here."
Which, of course, he did, scoring 20 points a game both his junior and senior seasons, becoming the most popular player in Iowa State history, and then getting drafted by the Indiana Pacers and heading to the NBA.
That's where Hoiberg's story takes a turn.
He'd put together a solid pro basketball career. As a sharp-shooting, cerebral guard, Hoiberg got some minutes with the Pacers, signed as a free-agent with the Chicago Bulls, then went to Minnesota and became a three-point specialist. He led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage during the 2004-05 season, making them at a clip of nearly 50 percent.
After that season, things changed. Hoiberg and his wife, who already had two kids, had just had twins. Hoiberg decided to take out an extra life insurance policy when the twins were born. He had a routine physical performed, and doctors noticed something wrong with his heart. He'd felt physically fine, but inside his heart an aortic aneurysm had developed.
Hoiberg was a Hank Gathers waiting to happen.
"I was out there playing with a ticking time bomb in my chest," Hoiberg said. "If I hadn't found out it was only a matter of time before my aorta ruptured. You don't have a very good chance when that happens."
Just like that, his NBA career was over, five years or so before he'd planned to hang it up. He had heart surgery. A pacemaker was put in his chest. The Timberwolves offered him a front-office job, and he worked his way up near the top of the organization, working the phones with other general managers, scouting college players, constructing a team.
He was in the middle of preparing for the 2010 NBA Draft when he got a phone call from Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard. Head coach Greg McDermott had taken a job at Creighton.
Did Hoiberg want to put his name in the Iowa State hat?
"I said just let me know when and where and I'm ready," Hoiberg said. "He was up at my house in Chaska, Minn., the next day, sitting at my dining room table. We sat there for three hours. I laid out my vision for what I'd do with the program. And he hired me on the spot."
After making the tournament last year on a transfer-heavy roster, Hoiberg's Cyclones beat defending champion UConn and put in a solid effort against the eventual national champions Kentucky. There's a feeling around this program that it's turned from basketball backwater into a real destination. Hoiberg's up-tempo style has the Cyclones as one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. Tall, silky smooth senior guard Will Clyburn, a transfer from Utah, is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Tyrus McGee is shooting 3-pointers at the same near-50-percent rate that Hoiberg had in his last year in the NBA. Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious is proving a good tempo manager at point guard, and junior Melvin Ejim is cleaning up the boards.
Three of those four will graduate, but Hoiberg is adding a solid recruiting class to his transfer-heavy lineup for next season.
Will they challenge the Jayhawks for the Big 12 title? Doubtful. But the Cyclones could very well challenge Oklahoma State and Kansas State for that second spot in the conference.
Unlike most of the manufactured love stories between a college coach and his program, the bond between Hoiberg and Iowa State is real.
And you get the sense that this love story is well on its way to happily ever after.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.