How a local hero returned home and rescued Iowa State basketball
It was April of 2010, and the Iowa State University men’s basketball program had seen better days. Back in 2003, head coach Larry Eustachy, whose last tournament appearance was losing a historic upset against 15th seed Hampton two years earlier, was caught fraternizing at a student party drinking beer and posing for cameras. Eustachy was immediately fired by the school after the embarrassing photos leaked online, which led to the promotion of assistant Wayne Morgan. The Cyclones did make an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2005 under Morgan thanks to star players Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock, but were blown out in the second round by North Carolina. After a disappointing season in 2006, Morgan was let go and replaced by Greg McDermott, who had made his name at the nearby University of Northern Iowa.
But McDermott was incapable of duplicating his success with Northern Iowa at the bigger state school, finishing with a losing record each of his four seasons coaching there. To rub salt into the wounds of Iowa State fans, two of the best players to play at Iowa State at that time, Wesley Johnson and Mike Taylor, both left the school for different reasons. Taylor became a standout in the NBA developmental league while Johnson became the Big East Player of the Year at Syracuse in 2010. Following that same season, McDermott’s best remaining player Craig Brackins waived his senior year to go to the NBA Draft, and McDermott knew his standing at Ames was on thin ice going into next season. In what seemed like a sudden turn of events in April, McDermott quickly left Iowa State to go back to the Missouri Valley Conference, this time as the new head coach at Creighton University.
Fans in Iowa were doubly pissed with McDermott not only for his mediocre performance as a head coach but for bolting a program with such rich history without hesitation. With no head coach, a noticeable void in talent, and a competitive Big XII Conference to catch up with, it seemed like the golden days of Hilton Magic at Iowa State were merely fading memories. It was at this moment of truth that the school’s athletic director Jamie Pollard remembered a conversation he had back in 2006 during his first coaching search. He wound up hiring Greg McDermott, which turned out to be a mistake, but one of the men to whom he had reached out at that time was a former Cyclone great who had recently retired from the NBA and taken a front office job with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Pollard got in his car and drove up to Minnesota convinced that he was going to be staring at the next head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones when he knocked on his front door. That man was Fred Hoiberg.
It is flat-out impossible to tell the story of Ames sports or Iowa State basketball without mentioning the name Fred Hoiberg. Originally born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Hoiberg was a 6’4” long-faced blue-chipper who grew up walking distance from Hilton Coliseum, the arena where the Cyclones play to this day. As a wide-eyed kid in the 1980’s, Hoiberg worshipped former Iowa State greats like Jeff Grayer and Jeff Hornacek. He learned his shooting motion as a child from watching the late Barry Stevens, who played with Grayer and Hornacek and made a game winning shot against Missouri in 1983 that set the tone for what was eventually nicknamed “Hilton Magic” by a writer in 1989. Before Grayer, Hornacek, or Stevens ever wore an Iowa State uniform, the school had only made the NCAA Tournament one time in its history back in 1944. His first brush with an Iowa State player was one to forget, though. One night as a 13-year-old ball boy, Hornacek bumped into Hoiberg out-of-bounds, sprained his ankle, and missed the rest of the game. Better days were ahead, fortunately, for Hoiberg, as he led Ames High School to a state championship and was awarded Iowa’s “Mr. Basketball” award in 1991. At the same time, he was also named Gatorade’s state player of the year in football as the star quarterback for the aptly named Little Cyclones. He was such a good QB that Tom Osbourne and Nebraska recruited him to come back to Lincoln, but Hoiberg’s heart and destiny always laid with the city of Ames, where his grandparents still lived and his father was a sociology professor at the university.
Just like he did as a high school phenom, it did not take long for Hoiberg to keep the legend going at Iowa State. Playing for the energetic and colorful Johnny Orr his first three seasons, Hoiberg was an immediate contributor as an underclassmen as he helped lead the Cyclones to NCAA Tournament appearances in 1992 and 1993. In his junior year, his last under Orr, Hoiberg led the team in points, rebounds, and assists. When Orr retired in 1994, Tim Floyd came from the University of New Orleans to take over the job and inherited Hoiberg as the de facto leader of the team in his senior year. Hoiberg was a such a model player for a coach that one time Floyd had to make up a story about him chugging bears after a football game to show the rest of the team that he could be tough on the star player. Floyd admitted later that Hoiberg was such a perfect player that he could not find anything wrong with him. His senior season at Iowa State in 1995 was the stuff of legend as he led the team in scoring again and cemented his legacy as a dangerous outside shooter from anywhere on the court. He scored 41 points with just 13 shots in a win over Colorado, scored 17 straight points in the second half at home to upset #3-ranked Kansas, and led the team to an NCAA Tournament victory in the first round.
He was so popular in Ames that his former teammate Doug Collins (not to be confused the current ESPN commentator) dubbed him “The Mayor” because so many people liked him. That nickname stuck for good when Hoiberg received several write-in votes in the actual Ames mayoral race in 1993. While he was never an actual mayor, Hoiberg was the city’s spiritual mayor as he graduated from Iowa State as an All-American in basketball and academics. In 1997, only two years after graduating, alongside his idols Jeff Grayer, Jeff Hornacek, and Barry Stevens, Hoiberg’s number 32 was retired by the school. Although many doubted his prospects as an NBA player, he was selected late in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. That same year, he was selected #1 overall in the CBA Draft by the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets, hoping to keep the popular Mayor in his home state to sell tickets. Hoiberg, however, made a go of his NBA career, and played his first four seasons at Indiana for a legendary coach (Larry Brown) and a legendary player (Larry Bird). After the 1999 season, Hoiberg signed a contract to play for the lowly Chicago Bulls where he reunited with his former Iowa State coach Tim Floyd. The Bulls were historically awful and Floyd was eventually fired, but in his first two seasons with Chicago, Hoiberg posted career highs in points (9.1), rebounds (4.2) and assists (3.6).
After four memorable seasons barely playing for the Pacers, then four forgettable seasons putting up his best numbers with the Bulls, Hoiberg signed a contract in 2003 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who went on to have their best season in franchise history behind regular season MVP Kevin Garnett. The Wolves would go on to lose to Shaq and Kobe’s L.A. Lakers in the 2004 Western Conference Finals, but it was in their Game 5 98-96 victory that Hoiberg, wearing his college number 32, may have had his brightest moment as an NBA player, going 5 for 10 from the field with 14 points in 38 minutes of play. The only Timberwolves players with more points than Hoiberg that night were Garnett and Latrell Sprewell, and it remains to this day the Timberwolves’ last playoff victory. By the time he reached Minnesota, Hoiberg was known as one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the NBA, and he led the league in three-point field goal percentage in the 2004-05 season. But it was in June of 2005 that Hoiberg received some shocking news. During a customary physical exam at a Mayo Clinic regarding a life insurance policy, the doctor discovered an enlarged aortic root called “aneurysm of sinus of Valsalva,” a rare and potentially fatal heart condition. Hoiberg, who has had a bicuspid aortic valve since birth, underwent successful open-heart surgery to correct the defect, but his basketball playing career was in serious jeopardy.
One day, not long after an internal defibrillator was inserted into his chest due to complications from the surgery, Hoiberg stepped outside of his home, where he lived with his wife and four children, and fainted immediately. He tried out for the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns, but there were no takers, and although the danger of playing with his repaired heart was considered low by his doctors, the risk would always be there. It was with that fear and resignation that on April 17, 2006, at age 33, Hoiberg announced his retirement as a player and accepted a management role with the Timberwolves under Kevin McHale. After four seasons in Minnesota (the last of which Hoiberg was named Vice President of Basketball Operations), Hoiberg sat in his house and shook the hand of Jamie Pollard to come back to his alma mater as the next head coach at Iowa State. Although many were speculative about how successful Hoiberg could be given that he had no head coaching experience at all up to that point, the news was greeted with delight by fans who had followed “The Mayor” since his playing days in the early 1990’s. After retiring as a player, Hoiberg had slowly reconnected with his former school as a booster and loyal alumnus. Now, the former hometown hero was anticipating, in his own words, “the thrill of coming home,” where his parents still worked and where he met his wife to wear the red and yellow once again.
The first season of the Fred Hoiberg Era at Iowa State, however, was not a pleasant one on the surface. The only key players he brought back from the previous year’s squad were Diante Garrett, Scott Christopherson, and Jamie Vanderbeken. The school finished 3-13 in Big XII, worst in the conference, and a 16-16 overall record. But you could tell from the beginning of Hoiberg’s tenure that he liked to experiment with different positions and offensive looks. His leading rebounder in 2011 at 7.2 RPG was Darion “Jake” Anderson, who stood at a miniscule 6’2”. His top three scorers were all 6’4” or shorter. Although Garrett was a natural point guard, Hoiberg granted him the freedom to run the offense and call his own number as a two-guard the same way most NBA coaches do with their star point men. But Anderson, an out-of-position transfer from Northern Illinois, was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Hoiberg’s master plan at restoring “Hilton Magic” in Ames. Although it was not visible on the actual court during their miserable 2011 season, you could tell by the next season that there were better days to come for Iowa State. Coming off of a lukewarm reputation under Greg McDermott, Hoiberg knew that it was simply impossible to lure in top high school recruits to play at Iowa State in quick succession. So what Hoiberg did was the next best option when it comes to turning your program around in college basketball: The transfer circuit.
Although it has been practiced for plenty of years (remember that once upon a time, Larry Bird played briefly at Indiana before transferring to Indiana State), the number of transfers and the potential shift in power that such players can bring along by changing schools has increased substantially over the years. Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers made that statement loud and clear this past season when they reached the Final Four with a team whose three biggest contributors were transfers from Oregon (Malcolm Armstead) and junior colleges (Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early). The beauty of bringing over transfers is the fact that the players already have experience playing against college players and are ready to contribute right away. Tim Floyd, who had coached Hoiberg in college and the NBA, had his best seasons at Iowa State (including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1997) by bringing in transfers from smaller schools such as Dedric Willoughby, Kenny Pratt, and Kelvin Cato. Taking notes from his predecessor, Hoiberg dove right in during the summer of 2010 and was able to turn Iowa State into a haven for misfit toys in college basketball. His biggest catch was Royce White, a highly touted high school recruit who got kicked out of Minnesota for two separate incidents involving theft of laptops and pushing down a security officer at the Mall of America. On top of that, White had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which made him fearful of flying and difficult to communicate with at times. Hoiberg had previously known White when he was still working for the Timberwolves in Minnesota and convinced the forward to join him at Iowa State.
As most transfers do without a hardship waiver, White had to sit out a year to play for Hoiberg along with Chris Allen, who had already played in a Final Four game for Michigan State, Chris Babb from Penn State, and Anthony Booker from Southern Illinois. After their seasons in purgatory, Hoiberg unleashed a team that took everyone by surprise, including the media, who predicted in the preseason that Iowa State would finish 8th out of 10 teams in the Big XII. The 2011-12 season turned out to be the tipping point for Iowa State basketball’s resurgence. Although Scott Christopherson and freshman Melvin Ejim added to the cause, it was the long-anticipated set of transfers that led the way, particularly the do-it-all Royce White. White led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, leading them to two significant home wins over Kansas and Baylor. The Cyclones finished 4th in the conference with a 23-11 record, a 9-game turnaround from last year, which is the best in conference history. Their 22 regular season wins were the third-most in a single season in program history, and their NCAA Tournament win over UConn in the Round of 64 was their first since 2005. Hoiberg was awarded the Big XII’s Coach of the Year award along with Bill Self, and judging by the amount of distress Royce White has exhibited in the NBA, Hoiberg deserved an extra trophy for being able to keep his embattled star happy for even one season.
When White, the team leader in every category, declared for the NBA Draft after the 2012 NCAA Tournament, many skeptics were wary about how Hoiberg’s team would adjust to having yearly turnover due to the excessive number of transfers he had invited to play at Iowa State. What the skeptics found out in 2013, however, was how ahead of the curve Hoiberg really was in terms of implementing pro style tendencies to the college game. It has always been an unofficial rule in college basketball that the head coach of a program also serves as a de facto G.M. for his school, the one who purports the school’s image to recruits and reporters while managing transactions to fit with the team dynamic and eligibility requirements. Some would find Hoiberg’s reliance on transfers (like John Calipari’s reliance on talented one-and-done NBA prospects) as a dangerous balancing act that is far more sensitive to collapse than building teams the traditional way. However, even though his experiences as an executive with the Timberwolves were not the most fruitful, he learned a thing or two from his NBA days about managing distinctive egos, cultivating different styles of play for a common goal, and most importantly, creating a culture of winning. Taking a cue from his pro experience, Hoiberg is an avid follower of advanced statistics in terms of evaluating which shots should be encouraged for certain players on offense and defense. It is no surprise that he emphasizes the same spots on the court that many NBA teams who practice small ball have gravitated towards: Three-pointers off the catch-and-shoot, and easy openings around the rim. It is a perfect marriage of the freestyle, new age NBA offense and the experimental clashing of styles in the college game, and no one has done it better than Hoiberg has.
It was in 2013 that Hoiberg really began to flex his strategic muscles in college by implementing a position-flexible, up-tempo, shot-happy offense that the team had slowly mastered since first taking over. In Hoiberg’s first season as head coach, Iowa State averaged 8.6 made three-pointers per game, tied for 13th in the nation. The following season, they increased to 8.9, which was tied for 7th in the nation. Then in 2013, the byproduct of Hoiberg’s three-point specialties was in full bloom as the team averaged 9.8 three’s per game, far and away the top team in the country in that statistic and a Big XII record. Their team scoring average shot up from 73.2 PPG in 2012 to 79.6 in 2013, which was good for 4th in the nation. The transfers kept rolling in as their two leading scorers were Tyrus McGee, a top juco recruit from Oklahoma, and Will Clyburn, formerly from the University of Utah. Their leading assist man was Korie Lucious, another former Michigan State Spartan with Final Four experience. Add to that the development of stretch forward Ejim and power forward Georges Niang, and the Cyclones were well on their way to their second tournament in a row with a 23-12 record. What felt to some like an anomalous season in 2012 turned out to be the start of something big for Iowa State fans. The Cyclones would easily trounce Notre Dame for another first-round NCAA Tournament victory for the second year in a row. You could tell by the tournament performances that the Cyclones are getting closer and closer to the Final Four. In 2012, they reached the Round of 32 but were destroyed in the second half by eventual champion Kentucky. In 2013, Iowa State fought hard (and got the bad end of a controversial charge call late in the game) before Aaron Craft sank a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Cyclones an agonizingly close loss to Ohio State in the Round of 32.
Despite the tough loss, Hoiberg’s remarkable turnaround at Iowa State had turned the 40-year-old wunderkind into a hot name amongst some NBA circles, which pressured the school in inking him to a new 10-year, $20 million contract extension. It seems unreasonable that Hoiberg would ever consider leaving the school he has associated himself with since his childhood days to go to another college, and that is now even more unlikely because of the fact that there is a $2 million buyout attached to that scenario. But there is the lingering fact that the buyout rate for Hoiberg’s new deal if he wanted to join an NBA team is merely $500,000, which leaves one to wonder if The Mayor has one eye on the next level if the pros come calling. For now, however, he seems more than happy to coach his alma mater to new heights, and those heights have gotten raised even more this season. Iowa State University in its entire history has been in the NCAA Tournament 15 times, and Fred Hoiberg has been involved in 5 of them either as a player or a coach. It is safe to say that you can add one more to that total this season. Not only do they remain a top-5 team in scoring and a top-15 team in three-pointers made, but they have vastly improved their rebounding to 10th and are second in the country in assists.
So far this season, the Cyclones have gotten off to their best start in school history with an undefeated record. Their resume includes quality wins over BYU, Iowa, Michigan, and Boise State in the Diamondhead Classic. In a state where there are no pro sports teams to take the glory, you will never see a more electrifying atmosphere in a college basketball game than what the Hilton Coliseum was channeling when Iowa State battled their hated rivals, the Iowa Hawkeyes (who have also recently regained relevance under head coach Fran McCaffery). The last few minutes of Iowa State’s 85-82 comeback win over Iowa were the most exhilarating I have seen all season so far in college hoops. If you still do not believe that “Hilton Magic” is back yet, this game will make a believer out of you, too. With Ejim, who was a freshman when Hoiberg first took over the coaching duties, now a multi-talented senior at the lead, Iowa State has enjoyed three Top 100 high school recruits in the last two years in Niang, Matt Thomas, and Monte Morris. They also have a double-double machine from Yonkers named Dustin Hogue, the Canadian sharpshooter Naz Long, and DeAndre Kane, another transfer coup who was the top player at Marshall for years before coming to Ames. Put it all together, and you have one of the most efficient and multi-skilled teams in the country.
Hoiberg will have his work cut out for him this season, however, as Iowa State takes their undefeated non-conference record into the Big XII, which currently holds the strongest R.P.I. rating among all of the conferences in college basketball this year. It is yet to be seen if the Cyclones can overtake against powers like Kansas, Oklahoma State, or Baylor en route to doing what has seemed impossible in Ames for over a decade: Winning a Big XII championship. Hoiberg is already on his way to his third NCAA Tournament appearance in a row, something that hasn’t been done since Tim Floyd did it from 1995 to 1997. This season in particular has turned sentimental. On November 7th, Orr was invited to appear in front of the Iowa State crowd before a game between the Cyclones and Michigan, another school he coached. He did his trademark fist pump to the delight of all before Iowa State beat Michigan 77-70. Sadly, that turned out to be his final public appearance. On December 31st, 2013, Johnny Orr passed away at the age of 86.
Orr may be gone physically, but the vibrant spirit of the coach who first saw greatness in Hoiberg, and the originator of “Hilton Magic,” is as alive as ever. The magic is back and will continue to thrill Iowa State fans thanks to one of its finest magicians, whose number hangs in the rafters as he guides his team on the floor. As the weeks roll along, it seems more and more as if 2014 could be a dream year for Iowa State basketball, and it will all be done in dedication to the man who pioneered the program. Given his humble nature, Fred Hoiberg is more than proud to keep Orr’s memory at the forefront as his Cyclones have one of their best seasons ever. A defect in his heart may have put an abrupt end to his playing career, but it was the school closest to his heart that gave Fred Hoiberg (and, in return, Iowa State) the one thing you always hope for: A second act.