CF’s Q & A with ISU assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger

Former Cyclone women’s basketball star Alison (Lacey) Otzelberger had already decided to plot a course back to Ames.

 Her husband, T.J., knew he’d better follow suit — and fast.

 “Basically, she was coming with or without me,” joked T.J. Otzelberger, the second-term Iowa State men’s basketball assistant coach who accepted longtime honorary “Mayor” Fred Hoiberg’s offer to return to the Cyclones less than two months months ago after a two-season stint at Washington. “She was so fired up to return back home to central Iowa, so basically I had to tag along and be part of the deal, otherwise it would have been hard to see my kids (nearly six-month-old twins Jayce and Olivia) and my wife. She was in from the start.”

 A lot has changed, of course, since the popular Otzelberger family packed up their belongings and happily became Ames residents again.

 Most of those changes have been welcomed — from once again experiencing the warmth and support of ISU fans, to the familiar sense of belonging that re-emerged as they moved in to a new house within a week.

 “From the time that we got back, this is awesome,” Otzelberger said. “Mostly because of the people — mostly because of friends, family, Cyclone fans, the sense of community. It’s been unbelievable. We wanted to get back in the worst way to raise our family here.”

 None of that’s changed, but one huge element that made a return to Cyclone Country still might (we all know what that is). Otzelberger’s trying to be a calming influence as well-founded speculation percolates with respect to the beloved Hoiberg’s future plans. Mainly, is he NBA bound (as in Chicago, or elsewhere) or will he come back and coach the consensus preseason top-10 Cyclones in 2015-16?

 Those questions, as we know, remain unanswered as of this morning.

 But Otzelberger touched on the topic as well as what it means to be back at ISU in a wide-ranging Q & A (below) with We spoke with him Tuesday evening.


 Q: One week. That’s a short turnaround from job offer to putting your feet up in a new house. How did it come together so quickly?

 A: “I wanted to make sure that in the transition that I wasn’t away from Alison and the kids. I wanted them to be with me. So we were fortunate. We had a good friend who was selling a house and it fit what we were looking for and the process went quickly. They sent (us) some pictures and from the pictures we saw, we loved it. It was great.”

 Q: How much did thoughts of returning to Ames pop up even before Fred offered you that opportunity?

 A: “It was something that through the last two years had definitely come up. When we had our kids it really got to a point where as much as we would miss (Washington), we realized that sense of family, that community, those relationships with people and where we wanted to raise our kids was here. I think as evident as it may have been before, our conversations had really picked up because those are two game-changers right there. My wife, jokingly this winter, I thought she was going to come out to a Washington game and bring the kids. She informed me that the first game they would attend would be an Iowa State game because they are Cyclones. So they will be attending their first college basketball game this winter, which is pretty cool.”

 Q: About those fans. What sets them apart?

 A: “I think just the close connection that you have with the fans here and the passion that they have for this program and how much everybody cares about Iowa State. It feels great to be in an environment where people care so much. To my wife and I — to her, this is obviously here alma mater and she couldn’t be more passionate about Iowa State. For me, it’s a university that took a chance on me and gave me my first opportunity in coaching in Division I. So I think for both of us it holds a special place in our hearts and always will. It’s where we want to be. For the first time in a long time, you feel settled. You feel — the kids are good, we’re back home, everything’s great, so we couldn’t be more fortunate.”

 Q: At the same time, how tough has it been to console/counsel fans rightly concerned about Fred’s future plans?

 A: “I think more than anything, with Fred and the conversations that we’ve had, at this point Fred is our head coach. And he is leading the program and we are trying to do everything we can as a staff and a group of players to keep moving forward in that direction and continue to build on the success each year to have a great season this upcoming year. Although that question comes out a lot, from the vantage point of the coaching staff and players, until we hear otherwise, Fred’s our leader. Fred’s our head coach. We’re all in this together working on trying to get better every day to make next season the best that it can possibly be.”

 Q: How special can the 2015-16 be, given the roster you already have, let alone any other players who may choose to join the program yet this summer?

 A: “When you talk about the roster and you talk about the group that’s been assembled, you talk about guys like Georges Niang and Naz Long, who are entering their senior year, who are four-year players. And the amount of passion and pride they have for this program is tremendous. You hear this a lot of times, but we really have a group that leads itself. We have a group that holds themselves accountable. We have guys in Georges and Naz who — this place is so important to them and the people are so important to them, that on a daily basis, they are continuing to stay focused on the team and getting better, and not being consumed about what may or may not happen elsewhere. Obviously there are some questions about Fred and what the future may hold, which is out of all of our control. On the other end of it, it’s been great to see the guys really bind together, stick together and come together as a group during this situation.”

 Q: How important has social media been in this regard, since most players have been back home for a while, hearing rumors, seeing reports, unable to get in the gym together to sort through things both mentally and physically?

 A: “I think with the combination of Twitter and Instagram and FaceTime and all these sorts of social media, all those guys stay closely connected. They can FaceTime each other and see each other and see what each other’s feeling and what they’re going through, how they’re doing and see the emotion on their face. I’ve seen the guys posting pictures and messaging at each other and encouraging each other. A lot of times, with the time we live in with social media, there can be some things that aren’t always the most positive that come from it, but in this case, it really has given our guys some tools to challenge each other and continue to build on the chemistry of the team.”

Q: What was the first thing you did upon returning to Ames that cemented it, again, as “home?”

 A: “My wife and I have always been big fans of Wallaby’s and she particularly loves the cheese fries at Wallaby’s. She had talked about them quite a bit as we had been gone. So when we returned, that was the first restaurant stop that we made together. Once she had those cheese fries, I think that’s what made this return official.”

 Q: What’s your schedule look like now that the Tailgate Tour winds down? What will command the most attention?

 A: “The number one thing that we’ll continue to focus on is the most important people are our players — and they players who are currently on this team and what they’re going through and what we can do for them. So I think above anything else, I’m trying to be a resource, a leader, a listener, a mentor. Whatever those guys need every day is absolutely critical and nothing’s more important than that. And beyond that, we’re continuing with the recruiting process. There’s a possibility with scholarships available we could still add to this year’s roster, but whether we do or don’t, we want to make sure we have the right guy and we’re always continuing to recruit underclassmen. And then as June hits, we get into camp season. June 6 we start our camp. So it’s one of those things where there’s always things you can do to be bettering the program and trying to make the program the best that it can be. We’re trying to focus on those, but I think at the top of our list, by far, is spending time with our guys. We have four players on campus right now on a summer school course and on June 5 the majority of the team will return by then and we’ll have all the guys here, which will be great.”

 Q: So there’s no rush/full court press to fill the two open scholarships, given the highly experienced and productive roster you’ll roll into 2015-16 with?

 A: “Having open scholarships gives us the flexibility to exhaust all options and look in all scenarios and at any student-athletes who might be available. At the same time, we’ve elevated this program to a level where we expect a high standard of player, as a student, a person and on the floor. If there’s a player like that who’s out there and available yet, we’re definitely open to looking into it. If not, we’re totally content with the team that we have assembled — they guys that we have in this group, that they’re poised to have a phenomenal year. We’d be fine with that scenario as well and saving the scholarships for next year.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.