Five years ago when Fred Hoiberg was hired, the questions being asked were innumerable. As Brent Blum pointed out on Monday, the primary question was, “there’s no way you can fire a legend.” But there were more; who will be on his staff, how will he recruit, how can Jamie Pollard hire someone that has never even coached his kids in their youth leagues, and how can this roster play up-tempo?
No one ever really could have dreamed that he would be too good, too soon. That his trajectory as a bright basketball mind in the college game would look like a launch at Cape Canaveral instead of the slow elevation of the kite you fly with your kids in your backyard.
Nobody ever could have dreamed his offensive schemes and designs could lead to four straight years with efficiencies ranked 24th, 6th, 6th, and 11thin the country. I distinctly remember message board discussions in his first year that he looked to be in over his head.
Nobody ever could have dreamed that he would lead the charge in revolutionizing the transfer recruiting tactic by harvesting some of the best available talent and utilizing their experience and maturity. His calmness and “shooters mentality” as a coach to instill confidence as a “player’s coach” seemed to be unsustainable. Hoiberg’s ability to mesh personalities and build team cohesion may be a stronger trait than his X’s and O’s mind and a hallmark of how his coaching strengths could, and should, serve him well in the NBA.
We all hoped this day would never come and that he’d retire in Ames. Some contrived that he would stick it out through the graduation of all of his kids, though that has never been stated. But we all hoped that he could build something long lasting that cemented Iowa State’s place on the college basketball map. By doing something special that we’ve never seen before or by making a run as a program that was unprecedented across the country, not just in Ames.
Fred Hoiberg was supposed to be the Mike Krzyzewski of our generation; at our school.
NBA rumors arose constantly and each of the last three off-seasons had been filled with some degrees of tumultuousness. While the fans had to ride out the rocky waves without ever really knowing how dangerous they were.
Previously these rumors eventually subsided with a statement of reassurance. Generally speaking, it would say how happy he was to be in Ames with his family or even how he hoped to retire here. But for those close to him the urge was always suspected and it was evident to all of us by looking at his contract and seeing the buyout differences for another college program versus an NBA franchise; even if we didn’t want to believe it or acknowledge it.
These scenarios always seem to create a catch-22 for coaches. Rumors are persisting and we want a statement from our coach, but a statement can’t be made at every rumor and if, or when, a statement is made it has to be convincing that it is sincere and permanent as to not hurt the program over the long haul.
So we have to understand that when Hoiberg said he wanted to retire in Ames nearly a year ago that even if it wasn’t 100 percent true, it was with the best interest of the program in mind. It sucks, but it is how things work in this business.
Perhaps what is the most interesting aspect to me is how the sword once again cuts both ways. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but over the past few years there have been opposing fan bases that talk about Cyclone fans and their propensity to boo in Hilton Coliseum. Let’s for a moment say that it is true and that there are more complaints from the crowd in Ames than the average college basketball venue. My response to that is that while it may not be the most becoming look for a fan base the flipside is that the passion that fuels it is the same passion that makes Hilton amazing. The passion that does everything it can to physically propel a team to greatness. When the climate is right, the fan response to a 4-0 Cyclone run can put other venues to shame at their best.
Part of what made Hoiberg so great was his NBA style and the connections he sold from day one.
“I have every NBA GM on speed dial,” was a phrase we heard constantly early in his tenure. His approach to handling players to build confidence, the offensive sets that were built on spacing and the high ball screen, and his ability to fit pieces together on a short turn-around even when their personalities weren’t without difficulty. That all screams NBA.
Those traits were a part of his style because of his experience as a player for 10 seasons in the league and a front office executive for another five years. The NBA game was always his fascination and he often alluded to it by admitting how much more NBA basketball he would watch than college basketball.
What made him great as a coach at Iowa State is ultimately what pulled him away from Ames.
Though that can be understood by rational minds, it doesn’t mean everything is sunshine and roses for even the most understanding fans. That is in part because of the expectations that many built for Hoiberg to stay for life, or at least much longer than five years, on their own. But he has also always been the Golden Boy of Ames.
That has proven to be both a curse and a luxury for his stint in Ames which makes me even more fascinated with Batman’s quote in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain.”
Despite leaving, Hoiberg is still no villain. His departure may be disappointing and not what we had hoped he would do but his achievements in Ames were more than we ever could have hoped for in April of 2010.
I wouldn’t say that fans were sold a bill of goods on his hire being great because if he had success he’d never leave us in terms of it essentially being propaganda from the University, but it was a common belief immediately after his hire.
That can make it difficult to not harbor at least some bit of resentment through all of this for the loyal fans.
But his career aspirations just didn’t fully align with ours and I’m sure the decision didn’t come with any ease. Perhaps ironically for The Mayor, it reminds me of the quandary for politicians and if they are supposed to act on their own conviction or on behalf of the constituents in which they represent.
The places he has brought this program to would alone absolve him of his decision to leave. You know the highlights but one that I must share is that Iowa State has been in the top 25 since November of 2013, or 67 consecutive games, many of those inside the top 15. That’s a record and an amazing one that will continue into next season.
The program is undoubtedly in a better place now. As obvious as that is, it would be easy to forget in the face of the heights we anticipate that this program was headed toward with him, in the long term.
I don’t know Fred and I’ve never really talked to him outside of asking for an autograph when I was 12, so I can’t say I know why he left outside of his aspirations to compete in the NBA. But, I’ll always wonder if the pressure he put on himself to succeed in Ames was too much to carry for more than a handful of years. Very similar to the pressure that any hometown hero would feel but amplified by his own competitiveness and desire to not let anyone down. Losses gutted him and wins were rarely more than a relief.
I still remember vividly the first time Hoiberg walked out of the tunnel in Hilton as the coach and the applause that he got; a beyond resounding applause for a pre-season exhibition game. As his first season went on and the team began to struggle, his entrance into the arena was continually met with that reaction. I often said how at some point the wins would need to come or that fan response would eventually die off, there’s just no way it could get louder. But it did, every season.
The whole situation has reminded me of a story of visiting my aunt and uncle in Wisconsin around 15 years ago. We were headed to church on a Sunday morning when they were telling me and my grandparents about their priest and how amazing he was. He was personable, charismatic, and parishioners of all ages loved him. The joke going around was that they never wanted him to leave because if he did he could be replaced with Jesus Christ himself and they would all be disappointed.
That is obviously extreme, but that begins to highlight the honest sadness that Fred going to the NBA leaves me wallowing in. No matter what, things just won’t be the same and I’ll miss it. A lot. His story is a personification of many Cyclone fans mixed in with a Disney twist, at least that is how it was supposed to be.
The Iowa State basketball program isn’t a blue blood or elite, but it certainly has a tradition and successes to be proud of, and will again. Even with Fred at the helm, the 2016-17 season was going to be an intriguing one as upwards of six or seven scholarships will need to be filled.
But the loaded roster for next season would be a jumping off point for his successor. Some may lament that he’s sacrificing what could be a banner year for the program for his own personal gain but that would clearly be an outlier from everything we know about him as a man. But this was an angle that had me worried about his departure since January.
Hoiberg too was once a returning senior on a loaded roster when his coach retired to give his successor a springboard into the future of the program. Johnny Orr stepped down in 1994 for the betterment of the program in the long term.
I’ve long held the theory that the rocky exit of Larry Eustachy in 2003 maybe would have been handled better had Pete Taylor still been around. Pete had been the de facto liaison between Eustachy and the administration for some time prior to his untimely death a handful of weeks before Eustachy’s problems surfaced.
All of that said, I can’t help but wonder how this would have unfolded had Coach Orr still been with us today. Maybe the same, maybe not.
To Fred, with some sadness and disappointment I say good luck. But most importantly, thanks and see ya later.