How Fred Hoiberg Left His Mark on College Hoops in Five Short Years

Posted by Brian Goodman on June 2nd, 2015

You could say that Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg‘s departure to the NBA has been the world’s worst-kept secret, but his eventual plan to return to the professional ranks wasn’t. Named head coach of the Chicago Bulls earlier today, now is the time to look back on Hoiberg’s college coaching career and recognize his legacy as an offensive innovator willing to gamble on players with checkered pasts. His keen ability to combine the two resulted in the Cyclones becoming one of this decade’s most successful programs.

Though his return to Ames was relatively brief, Fred Hoiberg revitalized a downtrodden Iowa State program.

Fred Hoiberg didn’t take long to revitalize a downtrodden Iowa State program.

Following the heyday of the Larry Eustachy era, it was a mystery whether Iowa State would again become a consistent winner. The program had fallen on hard times after Eustachy’s untimely exit from Ames in 2003 — a mixture of poor on-court results with alcohol addiction off of it — and churned through two more head coaches between 2003-10, with just one NCAA Tournament berth to show for it. While it sounds crazy in hindsight, athletic director Jamie Pollard’s move to bring Hoiberg home in April 2010 was viewed as a significant risk by most in the media. Nearly all coaching moves are gambles to some extent, but Hoiberg came to Iowa State with zero head coaching experience at any level and, despite his enormous local popularity, many were uncertain whether he could revitalize a program that had suffered four straight losing seasons and hadn’t won more than nine conference games in any year since 2001.

Somewhat predictably, Hoiberg had a shaky debut season in 2010-11. Freshman Melvin Ejim showed the kind of promise that would eventually make him the 2014 Big 12 Player of the Year and the Cyclones did well to get to .500, but the 16-16 season was mostly forgettable. The next year is when Hoiberg really started to turn things around. The Cyclones broke a 13-game losing streak against Big 12 giant Kansas and knocked off defending national champion Connecticut in the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. The roster again went through heavy turnover, but led by transfers Royce White, Chris Allen, and Chris Babb, the Cyclones increased their offensive efficiency ranking by a whopping 59 spots, finishing 24th overall in 2012. They would never finish lower than that in that category with Hoiberg running the ship.

“The Mayor” led the Cyclones to another successful season in 2013, once again prominently blending transfers into his core rotation, but it wasn’t all rosy. The team’s mediocre defense (133rd nationally) cost it several victories, though in at least one memorable finish questionable officiating played a role as well. The Cyclones struggled to beat the Big 12’s best teams on the road, throwing a speed bump onto Iowa State’s road from good to great. Still, they won 20 games for the second consecutive season, the first time they had done so since the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 campaigns. Hoiberg’s wizardry with the clipboard gave rise to an offense that scored 1.16 points per possession without the benefit of a McDonald’s All-American or a future NBA Draft pick, and it pulled the feat in a time where the game was growing choppier thanks to incessant micromanagement and constant over-officiating. The Cyclones’ fast-paced yet efficient style was a breath of fresh air that made them one of the most entertaining teams in college basketball. Hoiberg’s success recaptured the attention of NBA front office personnel; Pollard acknowledged as much when he went to work on a ten-year, $20 million extension.

Hoiberg’s new deal included a $500,000 buyout if he decided to leave. While the industry consensus was that Hoiberg would never accept another college job, the clause made it essentially impossible for other schools to lure him away. That money, however, was more digestible to the deeper pockets of NBA franchises. Pollard played it cool in 2013 when he gave his thoughts on Hoiberg’s possible career arc, but it soon became exceedingly difficult to deny the notion that while there wasn’t a clear timetable, Hoiberg wouldn’t be much longer for the college game.

The anxiety among much of the fanbase didn’t stop them from turning out, however. The Cyclones restored Hilton Magic, selling out every Big 12 home game during the 2013-14 season in addition to five other regular season dates. Fans embraced yet another transfer with a rough past (DeAndre Kane) as well as a core of homegrown players that included Ejim, sophomore Georges Niang, sharpshooting freshman Naz Long and a freshman point guard with composure beyond his years in Monte’ Morris. Recapturing its glory days, the team won 28 games, took home the Big 12 Tournament title and made the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years.

With a reinvigorated fanbase, Hilton Coliseum became one of the most hostile venues for visiting opponents.

With a reinvigorated fanbase, Hilton Coliseum became one of the most hostile venues for visiting opponents. (Reese Strickland/USA Today Sports)

With his coach’s popularity at an all-time high, Pollard could no longer hide from the probability of the still-young Hoiberg returning to the NBA. The summer of 2014 was the first one where Hoiberg was strongly connected to an opening at the next level, with speculation swirling of a reunion with the Timberwolves due to Hoiberg’s close relationship with GM Flip Saunders from his time there as a player and executive. Ultimately, though, he returned to an experienced and confident Cyclone team. All Iowa State did last season was repeat as Big 12 Tournament champs, set a team record with a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, place an AP All-American for the second straight year and again sell out all of its conference home games.

Although the season ended on a sour note for the Cyclones as they were upset in the first round by #14-seed UAB, the rumor mill kept churning. In fact, the talk grew louder than it ever had before. Nearly 350 miles from Ames, a rift that had emerged between Bulls management and head coach Tom Thibodeau grew too wide for general manager Gar Forman — another close acquaintance from Hoiberg’s pro career — to bear, and last week, the Bulls finally cut the cord. That move escalated the chatter, as there was finally a clear path from inevitability to a real-world scenario that could finally lure Hoiberg’s interest. He and his camp remained quiet throughout the process, but the leaks spoke accurately enough, and with Hoiberg realizing his dream of running the ship of a storied pro franchise that’s ready to win right now, Pollard will ramp up his search for a successor.

While Hoiberg may not be a college lifer like so many of the sport’s biggest names or nearly as accomplished, his brief time back in Ames left an indelible mark on the game. He should be lauded for his success in converting players with shaky pasts into key pieces for winning teams and his ability to thrive with a free-flowing, fast-paced and efficient offense in a period where the game was (and still is) fraught with stoppages, micromanagement, questionable shot selection and excessive contact.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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