Wherever Fred Hoiberg goes, there seems to be a good chance that Nate Loenser will follow at some point. That’s the kind of impression the two coaches have made on each other as Hoiberg hired him for the third time to serve as an assistant coach in Lincoln.
Loenser has worked in a variety roles for Hoiberg during their previous stints together at Iowa State and in Chicago with the Bulls, and now he’ll get a chance to make his imprint on the Huskers directly.
“I never wanted to necessarily pigeonhole myself into one category,” Loenser said. “I came into the profession as a, I called it a bottom of funnel guy — just catch all the little things. I started as a manager for a little while, I’ve been a graduate assistant, I’ve been a video guy, I’ve been a guy that would paint the locker room and has done all the jobs A-to-Z. What I’ve tried to pride myself in is whatever the leader that I’ve worked for, I’ve tried to be the person that I’d want to work for me. I think what’s happened over time is a player development niche has been carved out, but I also don’t want to pigeonhole just to say that it is player development. I do think I’m well-rounded when it comes to the defensive end and offensive end.”
Hoiberg spoke very highly of that player development aspect in the release announcing Loenser’s hire, calling him the “best player development guy” he had worked with.
“To me it’s about relationships and building relationships and trust with players,” Loenser said about his style. “I don’t think players are cookie-cutter. Even as a teacher, I used to say my teaching philosophy was a little more eclectic. I like to take the best out of different parts of what I am and try to be authentic, and when it comes to that I think if you’re authentic then you’re able to relate to your student or to your player better. Whether that’s a high school, a college or a pro player, I think ultimately gaining that relationship and trust first is important.”
Loenser arrived in Lincoln in late March, and he got a chance to start working with the returning players before he spoke with the media last Thursday. So far, he said the transition has been smooth.
“There’s always that newness and I understand with me coming in, I’m new, I’m coming from a different level, so there’s that excitement and anticipation, but there’s been no resistance,” Loenser said. “I think we’re building a good foundation, personally speaking when it comes to relationships, so that way when the natural mundane of the day-to-day stuff, if we build that trust now then when those tough times hit I think it will be easier for us to stay together.”
Adversity has been a theme in many of Fred Hoiberg’s press conferences throughout his time in Lincoln. It’s something the Huskers have struggled with as Hoiberg has sought to establish a foundation for his program in the midst of consistent roster fluctuation. Loenser touched on it as well.
“I think coaching and teaching parallels life in a lot of ways,” Loenser said. “It’s the old adage, everybody has a plan until they get hit, so how do you respond to adversity? How do you adjust to adversity? I think ultimately we all know it’s going to happen at some point in time, but if you develop some of those things in place to be able to weather some of those storms, I think ultimately that helps get you on track. This is a competitive business, as we all know, and profession, and other teams are trying to win too, so it’s all about trying to move forward in the same direction and trying to maximize what our abilities are.”
Loenser has spent the last couple of weeks trying to familiarize himself with what those abilities are as the Huskers go through spring workouts. He wants to learn as much as he can about his new team and make player development a two-way street.
“I’ve just tried to really pour into these guys,” Loenser said. “I’m at Nebraska now. This is the most important place for me and my family and these players are at the top of my list and my focus. So I’ve been trying to download them, meaning that I’m trying to figure out how they work, how they operate, and that’s a process. These guys have been great. I appreciate their enthusiasm. They’ve been very receptive.
“But one of my philosophies, and I’ll tell each player this, is I strive to make this a ‘we’ program. In this day and age, I think it’s tough to make it all about ‘my’ program. I think it also can be not as effective if it’s just ‘their’ program. I want to make this a ‘we’ program. Obviously there’s direction that I’m going to provide and parameters, but I want them to feel invested in their development because when they are I think that they put more into it. Whereas if it’s just straight me telling and guiding everything, I think that doesn’t lead to quite the effectiveness, and that’s just how I’ve tried to approach my overall development philosophy.”
One characteristic that Hoiberg has continued to stress that he likes about the group that he’s had over the last year is how much they love to work and compete. He continued to echo that thought throughout the team’s in-game struggles and lack of results, and he said it again during his final post-game Zoom call. Though he hasn’t been around the team long, Loenser has already identified that work ethic that Hoiberg praised.
“The thing that has jumped out to me is just their hunger, their hunger level, their desire to get better,” Loenser said. “It’s not a chase, it’s a ‘What can we do, Coach? How can we get better?’ Obviously it starts there. The places that I’ve been, when the culture’s right, the guys are into working on their craft and getting better. I think that just starts to spread in the right direction.
“I think there is a certain level of continuity right now with the six or seven guys that we have coming back. You look at the year before, there was really only two guys that were coming back and I think just in general last year circumstances really just led to a lot of moving parts at a lot of levels at a lot of different schools. I think this group that I’ve met so far and the players that I’ve met so far are excited to move forward, are excited to get better.”