Last Jan. 8, Fred Hoiberg was in the thick of a busy NBA season. In his role as vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he had planned a few visits to his beloved Hilton Coliseum, where he’d scout Cyclone player Craig Brackins and other Big 12 talents while silently cheering for the Cardinal & Gold from his courtside seat. He would keep his dream of following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a college coach politely tucked away. Because if there was one head coaching job Hoiberg really wanted, it was Iowa State’s. But as a Cyclone fan, he supported head coach Greg McDermott. He wanted what was best for his alma mater. A few years earlier, he’d made athletics director Jamie Pollard aware of his interest in coming home. And that was going to have to be good enough for then.
But a lot can change in a year. And this is palpably now.
This Jan. 8, Hoiberg will be in the arena where he once accepted his grandfather, Jerry Bush’s, posthumous induction into the University of Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame. It will be the last time Iowa State plays a conference game at Nebraska, as the Huskers will be leaving to join the Big Ten next season. But the game will be significant for another reason: It will be the first time Hoiberg coaches a conference game in his new role – as the man who landed his dream job at age 37.
The nation raised its collective eyebrow last April when Hoiberg (’95 finance) was introduced as McDermott’s successor – despite having no formal coaching experience. To those on the outside, the hire didn’t make much sense. But to those who know and love “The Mayor,” nothing had ever felt so right.
“Sometimes it just makes too much sense,” Hoiberg’s former ISU coach and current UTEP coach, Tim Floyd, said. “His hire is so logical, and it’s going to be great for Cyclone fans and fans of the game of basketball.”
The man who recruited Hoiberg to ISU, Johnny Orr, agreed. So did Larry Eustachy, the coach who followed Floyd at ISU. So did Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. And ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. And the thousands of Iowa Staters and Ames community members who had full confidence in the hire because, well, “He’s Fred.”
It can be tough to quantify or explain the “Fred factor” that attracts people to the Ames native and former Cyclone All-American, but there’s no question it exists – and that it’s a huge asset to him in this new endeavor. His father, retired ISU faculty member Eric Hoiberg, says his son has always been extremely confident in his own abilities and, in turn, others have supreme confidence in him. While some may view Hoiberg taking this job as a personal risk to his sterling reputation, neither the coach nor his father see it that way. When you love Iowa State this much and have such high confidence in your ability to meet a challenge, you don’t bat an eye at the chance of a lifetime.
“I think life is full of risk taking, and some people take it on as a challenge,” Eric Hoiberg says. “Fred’s always been the kind of person who looks at risk and doesn’t back away from it. Fred’s got a lot of confidence in his abilities and in his knowledge of the game and, particularly, in his ability to work with people.”
Sure, Hoiberg knows he has something to prove. But his confident and competitive personality relishes the challenge. “I want to make the people of this community and this state proud. I want to make Jamie Pollard look like a genius for making this hire,” he says. “You know, I’m up for this job. It takes a lot of time and effort and energy, and I’m all in.”
One of the people who bought in early to Hoiberg’s confident vision is Bobby Lutz, who now sits alongside Hoiberg on the Cyclone bench as an assistant coach. Lutz, who was fired after 12 seasons by his alma mater, Charlotte, following a 19-win season last year, won 399 career games as a head basketball coach. He’s certainly someone who knows a thing or two about coaching.
“I was going to take the year off; I had some other opportunities – in fact, they were great opportunities, but I just wasn’t interested,” Lutz says. “The more I got to know Fred, the more I was interested [in coming to Iowa State]. The biggest reason I came into this situation was because of him as a person.”
Lutz, who calls Hoiberg a “natural,” is one of the primary resources the rookie coach says he’s leaned on as he learns the ins and outs of the coaching profession. Hoiberg says it was a huge feather in his cap to lure Lutz to Ames, where he rounded out a staff that also includes former McDermott assistants T.J. Otzelberger and Jeff Rutter, as well as 14-year veteran assistant Elwyn McRoy.
“I’m excited about not only the chemistry on the team, but chemistry on the staff,” Hoiberg says. “Our staff has great chemistry.”
Even before he had coached a game, Hoiberg could summarize his coaching style: up-tempo offense and pressing defense, an approachable relationship with his players, intense but not aggressive leadership, and a philosophy that empowers not only the coaching staff, but his players, to be leaders and disciplinarians within the team.
“Fred’s never been one to use intimidation in anything he does,” Eric Hoiberg says. “But he’s got a highly competitive spirit, and it doesn’t take long for people to recognize that.
I think that that competitiveness is the thing that lays the foundation for his relationship with his players. He wants to win, but he’s not an explosive personality. He’s very intense, and he just comes at [coaching] from a perspective of mutual respect. I think the players respect his abilities and Fred respects their abilities.”
Forward Calvin Godfrey says Hoiberg’s team “feels like a family.”
“I like his coaching style,” adds forward Royce White. “He’s a players’ coach.”
“Successful teams I’ve played on, everybody knew their role,” Hoiberg says. “The teams I’ve played for that weren’t very good – and, you know, I’ve played on a lot of those – everybody had their own agendas and were out for themselves. I talk to these guys all the time about that.
“I think sometimes people may label [the term ‘players’ coach’] as being soft, but I’m stern with these guys, direct with them. You have to know exactly where you stand, but at the same time they know they can come up and talk to me at any given moment. I consider Larry Brown and Kevin McHale players’ coaches, but we knew where we stood because we had great communication with those guys. That’s the biggest thing I learned, I think, is that you have to let these guys know – whether they like it or not – what their roles on the team are.”
Hoiberg has instant credibility with recruits and players for one major reason: He knows just about everything there is to know about the NBA, which is where nearly every player ultimately wants to go. A decade of playing experience coupled with extensive front office scouting and management experience makes ISU’s new basketball boss fully qualified to tell players exactly what they need to do to reach the sport’s highest level. And that goes a long way.
“I can talk about the ways I went about accomplishing my dreams – because it was my dream as a kid to play professional sports,” says Hoiberg, who famously declared at his hiring press conference that he had every NBA general manager on speed dial. “Not many people get the chance, but with the right timing and a little bit of luck anything can happen. We talk to recruits about that, about my NBA experience and, you know, I try to have them put goals together and try to build a path where they can at least give themselves a chance to make it.”
Hoiberg has full confidence that Ames is a place that can make those dreams come true. It certainly worked for him.
“When I played for the Timberwolves, they used to have a segment at time outs called ‘meet the team,’ and [the players] would talk about their hobbies, families, and there was a question about ‘favorite place to vacation,’” Hoiberg recalls. “My teammates said Maui or South of France or Italy. I said ‘Ames, Iowa,’ and I meant it. It’s because of the people, and it’s because it’s home for me. I can’t wait to raise my family here.”
Hoiberg and his wife, Carol (’94 marketing) – also an Ames High and ISU graduate, have four children: Paige, Jack, Sam, and Charlie. They also now have two sets of delighted grandparents in town. Dozens of relatives from Iowa and Nebraska were on hand to see Hoiberg walk onto the Hilton Coliseum court for the first time as head coach Nov. 5, and just about everything about Hoiberg’s new gig has made for an unforgettable homecoming and family reunion.
“It’s just such an exciting prospect for us and for him and for his family,” Eric Hoiberg says. “And the fact that it’s also happening in the place where he grew up is just a special treat and a special privilege.”
Hoiberg and his family admit that he hasn’t had all the time he would like to spend with the family since returning to Ames, but everyone also understands the demands that come with the job – especially starting out. Lutz says the balancing act that comes with being a head coach has been the biggest thing Hoiberg has had to learn on the job.
“He wants to please everybody, and that’s just something you have to juggle,” Lutz says, adding that Hoiberg is in an especially unusual position as local-hero-turned-head-coach. “Every head coach is in demand, but I don’t think there’s any coach that can be more in demand than Fred Hoiberg is at Iowa State University.”
But despite his wild popularity, Hoiberg’s been given a surprising amount of space and respect by the community.
“People in Ames and Iowa State fans show him a lot of respect and respect his privacy,” Eric Hoiberg observes. “You know, you don’t get a lot of people that are hounding him all the time or coming over and interrupting his dinner and that kind of thing, and I think that’s a really positive feature of people around here.”
And perhaps that’s why Hoiberg has such a love affair with Ames – the place where he was a ball boy who grew up idolizing Cyclone basketball players, where he won a high school state championship, and where he once loved eating at the now-defunct Happy Joe’s and O’Malley & McGee’s and the still-popular Wallaby’s, Hickory Park, and Downtown Deli. It’s where he ran a youth basketball camp that was attended by his own children and even his current player, Ames native Bubu Palo. (Hoiberg says it’s “crazy” now to see the photos of his first camp, where he is holding his now-teen daughter as a newborn.) It’s where he has received write-in votes in the mayoral election and where he returned in 1997 to have his No. 32 jersey retired – the first time he announced, perhaps in the heat of the moment, his intention to someday return as head coach.
It’s where he attended classes and breathed in the beauty of ISU’s central campus; Hoiberg is perhaps one of the few coaches in the country who can tell recruits in which exact building they’ll be taking specific classes. (“That’s kind of nice,” he says.) It’s the place where he fell in love with his wife, where he once chucked his losing Pinewood Derby car in a fit of competitive childhood frustration, and where he learned to channel his competitiveness into a true love of sports – basketball, football, track, baseball, really, all of them, his father says.
For Hoiberg, it’s truly the greatest place in the world.
“The best years of my life were playing at Hilton Coliseum,” Hoiberg says. “So now to get the opportunity to coach in front of those same people that supported me, I’m really excited.”