Jan 14, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Caleb Grill (2) shoots a three point shot against Kansas Jayhawks guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) during the first half at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State is looking to get back to playing with joy.
That was the prevailing thought coming out of T.J. Otzelberger’s time with the media on Thursday after Caleb Grill was dismissed from the program the previous day “due to a failure to meet the program’s expectations.”
Otzelberger declined to provide many specifics behind the decision to dismiss Grill from the team, but he made clear the intention of the guys remaining in the locker room as the postseason looms.
“I stand behind the fact that there was a point in this season, probably a month ago, where the spirit that we had, the energy we played with, the enthusiasm and the passion that our guys played with on the court and exuded as a team, was as strong as any team in the country,” Otzelberger said. “Right now, more than spacing the floor, shooting the three or those sort of things, what we’re trying to do is work extremely intentionally to make sure that we get that back, that we reclaim that the best we can or get it all the way back so that we’re playing with that spirit.”
Grill was a crucial piece of Iowa State’s team this season, especially when he was knocking down shots in significant wins over North Carolina, Baylor, TCU and Texas.
Something changed, though, both for Grill and the program, after the win over the Longhorns on Jan. 17. In that game, Grill suffered a back injury that continued to linger and held him out of multiple games as Iowa State’s season took a steep downturn.
Even when he was on the floor, Grill was a shell of himself, knocking down just six of his last 26 attempts from 3-point range and getting visibily frustrated at times, including multiple occassions that led to criticial technical fouls in games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
You can read between the lines of what Otzelberger’s saying and the timeline he’s detailing of when his team stopped playing with the level of joy and intensity to which he’d become accustomed.
“What I can say for a team is it’s something that we’ve clearly had, and everybody’s seen. Everybody knows what it looks like,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve been fortunate to have it in our program, not only this year, but last year, where you watch our guys play and it’s the passion, the enthusiasm, the energy, and doing all those things. Why ever or why not that hasn’t happened for the last three weeks or so, I can tell you that we are working tirelessly in every way possible to make sure we bring that back to our program.”
The previously strong relationship between Otzelberger and Grill has been well-documented. Otzelberger was the first coach to recruit him and earned his letter of intent at South Dakota State before leaving to be the head coach at UNLV.
After spending his freshman season at Iowa State, Grill joined Otzelberger in Las Vegas for one season before coming back to Ames along with his coach.
Otzelberger was visibly emotional after Grill’s breakout performance in Portland helped Iowa State upset (at the time) No. 1 North Carolina in the Phil Knight Invitational.
The fact that this strong baseline relationship existed should be a clue to fans wondering where all of this went wrong. This is something that had to have been brewing behind the scenes for some time, and finally just came to a head this week.
“The standards and expectations and what we talk about a lot are very, very high level in our program,” Otzelberger said. “It’s not for everybody, and so it’s important that on a daily basis, everybody upholds those standards and lives up to those expectations. I don’t want to get into particular instances or things that have happened, specifically, but what I can say is, all those daily habits that we talked about, and things that are important in our program and upholding those standards, we’ve got to make sure that those are intact every single day.”
This story took another turn Wednesday afternoon when Grill released a statement thanking Iowa State and members of the program for their support during his career. He also noted a mental illness he’s been battling while playing for Iowa State.
“One day, when I am brave enough, I hope to be able to share my story about my mental health and my mental illness I have been battling through all season,” Grill wrote. “While everyone was commenting about the hair, or the funny actions on the court, it was a way for me to get out of that state of mind and feel like me being myself instead of the dark place I have been in this season.”
Otzelberger reiterated that Grill will have all the mental health resources the school offers still available to him despite not being a member of the basketball team.
He also noted how important strong mental health is to him, his staff and the program’s entire culture. He also made clear how difficult it is to weigh the contexual factors of what Grill’s been going through with what’s happening within the program.
“I think anybody who comes to our program knows it’s a very relationship fueled program,” Otzelberger said. “We want guys in here that we want to be around that we want around our family, and we spend a lot of time together. You develop those close bonds. You develop those relationships. That’s where it gets challenging, because you want the individuals so badly to be successful. Yet, there’s decisions that need to be made as a leader of this program, at a time they need to be made when you know that it’s best for the program. As much as you care for those individuals. we’ve always got to keep the program at the forefront. What I can say is, obviously, that’s something that’s happened here very recently. That’s the position that we’re currently in right now.”
Otzelberger did not go as far as to say this was the most difficult situation he’s handled as a leader in college basketball, but his mannerisms made clear this was an uncomfortable situation for him. Nobody wants to cut loose someone who has stood by their side for six years.
Still, this should be further indication of the importance of Iowa State men’s basketball and the program’s culture to its head coach. It does not matter who you are or what the relationship is, there is a high standard to live up to within that program.
If you don’t live up to that standard, you will not be part of it.
“I really care about being the head coach at Iowa State,” Otzelberger said. “This program really matters to me. It’s personal. It’s my family. It’s my wife who played here, it’s a place I’ve grown up coaching, and there’s no position or job I honor more than being the head coach of this program. Regardless of how difficult the choice may or may not be in the given time, I have a responsibility, and I have a job to do. I have to carry that out because it affects a lot of people. We’re going to continue to make sure that we make the best decisions at the right time for this program, regardless of how challenging they may or may not be for me personally.”