HOOPS: Fred Hoiberg, the second coming

Fred Hoiberg is introduced as the new head coach of the ISU men’s basketball team during a press conference on Nov. 9, 2010 at the Jacobson Athletic Building.

Chris Cuellar

With all due respect to returning players and the oft-flooded arena they will soon play in, Fred Hoiberg is the face of this year’s ISU men’s basketball team.

Hoiberg grew up just blocks from Hilton Coliseum off of Donald Street in Ames. Without being mindful of details, the rest of his life unfolded as follows: Ball boy for the Cyclones, Ames High School star, high school state champion, Mr. Basketball, Iowa State star, NBA player, heart procedures and early retirement, basketball administration executive, a return to Ames and coach of the aforementioned Cyclones.

His wife, Carol, and four children – Paige, 13, Jack, 11, and Sam and Charlie, 7-year-old twins – could be considered details. NBA life and the leap away from Ames and returning to it are details as well. With a whirlwind of a life for the last few months, one could understand if Hoiberg feels the pressure.

“I’m just excited about this opportunity,” Hoiberg said. “I want to make people in this community proud. I want to make Jamie Pollard look like he made a great hire. I want to get the culture moving in the right direction and playing the right way.”

Hoiberg was summoned back to Ames in the spring to save the program, after former coach Greg McDermott left for Creighton. Saving meant bringing in former Big Ten players Chris Allen, Royce White and Chris Babb, six freshmen and four other transfers to reshape the program. Recruiting can only control so much.

Basketball season has arrived, and the saving isn’t just talk any more. Saving has to take place on the floor, even if the lines above his image on the team’s annual poster say that, “The road is long.”

“I’m excited for him being back,” said first-team All-American and Iowa State basketball legend Gary Thompson. “People just have to be patient. I don’t know how you can step into this situation and expect the guy to win right away. If he does, it’ll be tremendous.”

Thompson is a visible figure in the program, and in ISU athletics as a whole. He’s seen the talent come through the doors at Iowa State, and Hoiberg was one of those talented players.

Whether it be NBA connections, ambition or work ethic, Iowa State’s first 1,000-point scorer thinks Hoiberg has what it takes to make it work.

“He’s got everything it takes,” Thompson said.

“I think in the coaching game, you are continuing to learn, no matter how many years’ experience you have. Fred’s going to find out. You’ve gotta kick one guy in the butt, and the other guy you have to handle with kid gloves and encourage him – X’s and O’s are X’s and O’s. There’s so much that goes into the games with all the other things that are involved. Those things are going to be hitting him for the first time.”

Hyperbole doesn’t really do it justice. Hoiberg was state player of the year for football and basketball at Ames High. He was an all-state quarterback with a scholarship offer to Nebraska in 1992. After receiving every Iowa State honor conceivable and making his mark in the NBA, the hometown kid still sees Ames as a comfortable place.

Things probably feel more comfortable when there is success, especially when you epitomize success to your town. There isn’t always success in jump-starting a program.

Recruiting is built upon relationships formed through success. Unless getting “Fred Hoiberg Day” pronounced and your jersey number retired count as failures, there aren’t many more ISU success stories better than Hoiberg’s.

It rubs off on the people he’s bringing in. After all, he’s here to win basketball games, not to get his past honors reeled off.

“He was someone that came to Iowa State and made it,” said freshman forward Melvin Ejim. “He made it to a place where a lot of us on the team want to get to, so his experience here was definitely something that drew me to Iowa State.”

Ejim was the highest rated Class of 2010 recruit that landed in Ames. McDermott and assistant T.J. Otzelberger were responsible for getting Ejim to Iowa State, but the Toronto native knows success with his current head coach is palpable.

A few guys want second chances. Some players want a shot at the NBA. Whatever the case, players are coming to Ames now.

“Coach Hoiberg with his connections and all his knowledge, and my work ethic and all the stuff I can bring to the table, I think it will be great for me being here,” said senior guard Chris Allen, who will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Allen transferred from traditional powerhouse Michigan State, home of the intense and national title winner Tom Izzo.

“He’s way different than coach Izzo, they are two way different type of coaches. We don’t know if coach Hoiberg’s works yet, but just seeing how he is with the players I think it’s going to be great,” Allen said.

Recruiting star Otzelberger is a big reason Iowa State is getting plenty of looks, but Hoiberg is a draw, and the program knows it.

“I’m an old timer, and things really change. I can’t believe the emphasis as I hear these kids respond to him as they come to Iowa State,” Thompson said.

“These kids nowdays, all they’re thinking about is thinking about making $2 to 3 million contracts and they think anybody that’s associated with the NBA and that background, and Fred’s got two areas of the NBA – as a player and management. I think that’s really going to help him in getting a better talented kid here.”

How different are things now? All new players and new assistant coaches mean a top-to-bottom shift in attitude and personality. Student managers feel the difference. Returning players definitely feel the difference.

“I’d say coach Hoiberg is a little more laid back, but at the same time I think he knows when to speak up and let people what they need to do,” said junior guard Scott Christopherson. “We do a lot more live five-on-five stuff than we did in the past. Everybody’s just having fun.”

A brand new Sukup Basketball Facility gives Iowa State another chip to draw better players. A career 40 percent shooter from 3-point range in 10 NBA years could probably help too. His first college coach believes success will follow.

“He was a good leader on the floor, and he’s smart, and he knows basketball real well,” said Iowa State’s winningest coach Johhny Orr in a phone interview. “He knows how to judge talent, and I think with his name and everything, he’ll be able to get talent.”

The Cyclones have been picked to finish last in the Big 12 in the coaches poll and in other media outlets. With all the new faces, there are too many uncertainties for other basketball minds to think Hoiberg has a chance at the postseason in his first year. McDermott couldn’t do it, and he had a couple NBA first-round draft picks in and around the program.

“I think long range, and even next year, I’ve watched with the kids that are sitting out this year, and I think the talent level is considerably different than what we’ve seen the last couple years,” Thompson said.

If the struggles happen, or are to be believed, Hoiberg may wish he was golfing in Florida with Orr this season. The namesake of Hilton Coliseum’s newest restaurant still thinks the traits that made him a great player can make him a great coach.

“He was a great player and a great young man,” Orr said. “Everybody admired him, he was a good person, a great citizen. He didn’t have any bad traits about him. He was a good team player, always very supportive of everyone.”

All the talk about Hilton Magic, The Mayor and the brightest future imaginable is still flowing. The honeymoon phase is going strong. What problems will arise if his teams struggle to score, or fall hard in the Big 12 this season? What happens to all these supernatural powers and civic leadership titles if the team is losing.

Orr has won more games at Iowa State than any other coach. He’s also lost more games than any other coach. He knows.

“Rebuilding is not so good,” Orr said. “When I first came to Iowa State, we had a tough time. I think he’ll find the same thing I did. The guys will really bust their tails for him.”

Hoiberg will continue to be the face of the program. All success and storytelling aside, there is a solid contingency of females that believe Hoiberg is the right face for the program because of his face, not the on-court performances that got him into this position.

He doesn’t have coaching experience. Assistant Bobby Lutz is here. Lutz was a head coach at Charlotte for 12 seasons, a school he took to five NCAA tournaments.

Hoiberg doesn’t have all the players. Otzelberger and Hoiberg’s own persona can bring that in.

The season is getting ready to begin, and if all the smiles and magic are still around come March, consider Hoiberg’s first season a rousing success. But consider, even if Hilton isn’t all smiles late in the Big 12 season, Hoiberg has been here for years. The coach wants to continue to be here. And he’s just as much a part of Ames as Ames is a part of him.

“He’s just a terrific guy, and a smart and intelligent guy,” Thompson said. “I think he’ll find more success than you’d expect next year.”

His legacy at Iowa State remains unblemished. Odds are, if he can coach near as well as he played, his could leave his legacy pristine.