Feb 22, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; UNLV Rebels head coach T.J. Otzelberger reacts in the second half against the San Diego State Aztecs at Viejas Arena. UNLV won 66-63. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jamie Pollard couldn’t suppress a grin as he delivered a brief statement before today’s press conference for new Iowa State men’s basketball head coach T.J. Otzelberger.
Pollard’s phone has been blowing up — in a good way — since news broke of Otzelberger’s return.
Legendary Cyclones football coach Dan McCarney, Pollard said, had reached out enthusiastically. So did former Iowa State national champion wrestler and current Wisconsin assistant, Jon Reader. Oh, and “The Mayor” Fred Hoiberg offered a hearty thumbs-up, as well.
“I know T.J. will be evaluated based on how our basketball program does (in terms of wins and losses), but if the last 24 hours are any indication, we couldn’t have found a better fit,” Pollard said.
The theme of the day — and the hire — has been, “welcome home,” and Otzelberger echoed that sentiment throughout his re-introductory remarks.
The former ISU assistant to Greg McDermott and Hoiberg, left UNLV after two seasons to return to Ames, and thanked Iowa State president Wendy Wintersteen and Pollard “for entrusting me with the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Otzelberger then thanked his family, colleagues and leadership staff at his first two head coaching stops, South Dakota State and UNLV, and finally, “Cyclone Nation.”
“It has been so heartwarming over the last 24 hours,” said Otzelberger, who is 99-63 in his head coaching career. “The calls, the texts, the communication I’ve got from so many beloved family members, friends, people in the community, former coaches, players, alums … It’s incredibly humbling to have that type of reception and just reaffirms why this is so right.”
And it feels seamless, even though Otzelberger’s path back “home” has been somewhat circuitous. The journey is rarely linear. Twists and turns light the way.
“Central Iowa is home for Alison and I,” Otzelberger said. “Our passion for the Cyclones has never wavered. We bleed cardinal and gold and our family is established already here in Central Iowa. So many people that we’ve known that are family and it’s amazing what you call ‘home.’ Alison, her being from Australia originally, and for me, from Milwaukee, and knowing there’s one place on this planet that we call home and that’s right here … I know the things that matter to our fan base and I’m eager to sell our vision. We need to bring the magic back to Hilton Coliseum.”
No doubt. Otzelberger was a key architect in the “golden era” that marked most of Hoiberg’s tenure as head coach of his alma mater. Former stars from that time — including Georges Niang and Matt Thomas — took to Twitter to laud Otzelberger’s return to the Cyclones.
“T.J. recruited me to Iowa State with a ton of passion and was instrumental in my development as a player and as a man!” Niang, now with the Utah Jazz, tweeted.
Thomas, now with the Toronto Raptors, tweeted that “T.J. was the reason I came to Iowa State to become a Cyclone.”
So the testimonials continue to roll in. But how will Otzelberger roll as ISU’s head-man?
First, he said, he’ll sit down with the current Cyclones later today to share his vision and fully listen to their concerns.
“As we look forward with our program, there’s nobody (more) important than those young men and I’m excited for that opportunity this afternoon,” Otzelberger said. “We’re going to establish a staff that loves Iowa State as much as I do and my family does. The most important thing I’ve lived with success here is the passion people have for Iowa State. We’re going to put together a staff of high character individuals who do the right thing, who work extremely hard and are excellent teachers of the game. But I can assure you they’re gonna love Iowa State as much as we all do.”
McCarney — who Pollard reference in his initial remarks — certainly does. He and his wife, Margy, first met Otzelberger when the latter was a green assistant in the first season of the McDermott era.
“Margy and I kind of put our arm around him,” McCarney told me over the phone this afternoon. “He was a young, single assistant. Met him, liked him. My kind of guy. High energy. No (B.S.). Genuine, fun guy. Just our kind of guy.”
They had dinner a few times, but fierce competition soon entered the friendship’s picture.
“He found out we played tennis and he said, ‘Do you think we can go play sometime?’” McCarney said. “I said, ‘Hell, yes, we’ll go play tennis.’ So we used to go out to the country club in Ames and play tennis. … (T.J.’s) got a spin shot you’ve got to watch out for, man … We played ‘cutthroat,’ the three of us, (and) I found out pretty fast what a competitive cat he is. Neither one of us wanted to lose and my wife, Margy, maybe the most competitive of all of us and she didn’t want to lose to these two guys. These two knuckleheads. So great games and competitive, diving for balls and all of that. We had a lot of fun.”
They obviously bonded immediately and even though McCarney’s era as ISU’s head football coach ended shortly after Otzelberger first arrived, their friendship only deepened over time.
“We’ve always stayed in touch, mutual respect,” McCarney said. “He brought me to South Dakota State three times when he was up there to talk to his staff and his team. He brought me out to Vegas to talk to his staff and his team. I don’t have (much) understanding of basketball. I never coached or played it. I was a wrestler. But it was about winning and success, and trying to be elite; overcoming adversity, and handling success, those kinds of things … He’s one of my favorite people in my lifetime. Really happy for him. Thrilled that it worked out for him. … I’m really happy for him and proud of him.”
Now the hard work begins. But Otzelberger’s built for it. Home or away, his commitment resides wherever his feet are firmly planted — and now, finally, that’s back in Ames.
“When I first came to Ames back in 2005, I quickly realized how special this place truly is, and it’s about the people,” Otzelberger said. “There’s nothing like walking out of that tunnel in Hilton Coliseum and as I walked in this morning, I got a little choked up thinking of walking out there and remembering all the memories, all the great times going through your mind, thinking about games and shots, and ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and all those moments. And I know I’ve left Ames a couple times and I’ve had some great experiences, but what that’s confirmed for me more than anything is my passion for Iowa State. It’s time to get to work. And I couldn’t be more ready to go.”