Powell: Otzelberger’s first step is a big one

T.J. Otzelberger speaks with the media in his introductory press conference March 19.

James Powell

Just weeks before Iowa State men’s basketball begins its first season under new head coach T.J. Otzelberger, news broke that Xavier Foster would not be on the team.

Now, the ball is in Otzelberger’s court as he and his team scramble to make sense of the news.

But more than that, it puts a very early and significant dent in the culture that Otzelberger promised to change from a 2-22 season. After a team with little success in a difficult Big 12, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard was adamant that Otzelberger was the right man for the job.

“It became obvious to us that T.J. Otzelberger was the perfect coach and the perfect fit for Iowa State University at this particular time,” Pollard said back in March when the hire was first made official.

Months later, Otzelberger has to navigate the murky waters that await him, his staff and his players after Foster was dismissed from the team Friday.

While this alleged incident didn’t occur under Otzelberger’s watch, it was under his direction that Foster left the team, and he cited his adamancy on building a culture.

“After much consideration, I have decided that this is necessary as we continue to build our culture,” Otzelberger said in his statement released Friday.

For a first-year head coach, trying to get your feet planted firmly in a new role is difficult enough. The challenge becomes even more daunting because Iowa State hasn’t won a Big 12 game since February 2020.

After Otzelberger’s first significant roadblock of the season, there are questions about how the team will function on the court and how their newfound culture will respond to this news.

The fact that Otzelberger was adamant about the low tolerance for matters like this shows that he has a passion for building a team identity and how something like this does not fit that identity.

Otzelberger was aware of how big an impact Foster could have made on the court. He knew that his team is relatively thin at the post position, so having Foster back from injury would’ve helped them greatly.

But what he knew more than anything was that he had to take a firm stance on something no coach ever wants to have to deal with. He knew that this was his first shot at implementing a team image for Iowa State. And he did.

The minute Otzelberger stepped on campus; he led with a passion for the program that started his career. Passion for that program to return to the national stature it once had.

Such philosophies can contribute greatly to how a coach turns a program around. The minute an outside force tries to infiltrate the hard-nosed and culture-focused environment that Otzelberger has tried to accomplish, it must be dealt with quickly and swiftly.

The language with which Otzelberger publicly dismissed Foster was that of a man who is confident in his ability to build a team in the future that is respected nationally and does not surround itself with players that suffer off-the-court consequences as severe as this.

There was no fluff in the statement. Otzelberger has standards that he expects his players to meet, and the second he feels one of them isn’t, they won’t be around much longer.

It was always evident that he would have to do something about these allegations, as any program would with the seriousness of the situation. Now that the information is more public keeping Foster on the roster was of little to no benefit.

One could argue that Otzelberger made the easy, obvious decision to dismiss Foster. Others may argue that it should’ve come sooner. 

But I can almost guarantee that there isn’t a hard-and-fast set of rules for dealing with this situation. Most coaches try to instill a culture and mindset that doesn’t allow these things to get in the way.

What made Otzelberger’s situation a bit more complex is that he came into the program not long ago, yet he had to make the tough call about Foster’s status on the team.

Surely, Otzelberger hoped his first big test would be an on-court matter such as the CyHawk rivalry or a tough Big 12 schedule. But a matter as delicate as this one meant that Otzelberger had to take a firm stand. And I would argue he did.

Whatever comes from the ripple effect created by this situation remains to be seen. However, what does not is that Otzelberger planted himself firmly in the camp of culture, and he took an important first step in building that from the ground up.