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Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg Was the Best Coach Iowa State’s Had

April 01, 2019

As one former Iowa State writer put it to me, Fred Hoiberg literally turned Iowa State’s basketball program around. 

By now, Nebraska’s new head basketball coach and his credentials are well known. At Iowa State, the grandson of former NU coach Jerry Bush went to four NCAA tournaments in five years and won two Big 12 championships. He won a ton at a place that previously wasn’t known for much winning. 

Nebraska’s players appear anxious to meet Hoiberg. The same goes for high schoolers committed to or signed with the Huskers. But why, exactly? What makes the reputation so strong? I thought the best way to answer that would be to ask those who watched and covered those five years in Ames, Iowa. 

So Hail Varsity reached out to three people to answer four questions on Hoiberg’s five years — Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register, Travis Hines of The Ames Tribune, and Alex Gookin formerly of The Iowa State Daily. The reviews were all glowing. 

When Athletic Director Bill Moos talked about qualities he wanted in the Huskers’ next coach, integrity and character were among those most important. Hoiberg, from those who’ve known him, is every bit the stand-up man he’s shown to be. Professional and genuine are common assessments. 

Here’s the rest of what they had to say.


HV: Safe to call Hoiberg’s time at Iowa State an unprecedented success?

TB: Just that Iowa State did things it hadn’t done in a long, long time. It was a program that had kind of fallen on some tough times. It hadn’t had success in a while. I think the fanbase was kind of frustrated. I don’t want to say giving up, but growing frustrated, and Fred not only re-energized the fanbase but brought success that hadn’t been seen there in a long, long time. 

TH: Yeah, because of all the winning. Fred Hoiberg took Iowa State to four-straight NCAA tournaments, something it had never done before. He won back-to-back Big 12 tournaments when the Cyclones had just two of those prior to his arrival. His persona, success and style of play made Iowa State a national brand. It was the best stretch of basketball in program history. 

AG: I think you could argue that no one has been more successful than Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State. Orr, Eustachy, and Floyd all had their own successes, but Fred uniquely had to rebuild that program coming off four consecutive losing seasons, and he did it fast. People sometimes forget Fred was only at Iowa State for five seasons because he was so instantly successful that it felt like his tenure was longer.

HV: Hoiberg’s offenses in Ames were, outside of that first season, among the most efficient in college basketball. What was it about his system or his scheme that worked so well at the college level? 

TB: It was a free-flowing, fast-paced, high-scoring, spread offense. Fred was pretty well-respected as a guy who knew how offenses worked as well as anybody. He gained a great reputation for drawing some pretty fantastic dead ball plays. It’s not just that Fred knew how to build a high-scoring offensive team, it’s that he knew how to find players to fit that, too. 

I think the interesting thing with Fred is he gets labeled as this guy who brought in a whole bunch of transfers, and that’s true—he did bring in a bunch of transfers—but he also brought in a ton of high school guys who flew really under the radar. Georges Niang, Naz Mitrou-Long, Monte Morris. He molded all those guys into not just college stars, but now NBA players. 

I remember Monte saying he was basically waiting for an offer from Michigan State and it never came. To a certain degree, Monte definitely flew under the radar, and definitely Naz Mitrou-Long.

TH: Mostly it was a pace-and-space offense that has become the way to play both in the NBA and college basketball. But it wasn't only that. In Hoiberg's first NCAA tournament year of 2011-12, the Cyclones played significantly slower than they would in any other season because they had Royce White, a 6-foot-8, 270-pounder running point-forward. Hoiberg wants to play fast and shoot a bunch of 3s—all the analytics suggest that's the best way to play—but if the personnel dictates another style, he won't hesitate to call an audible. 

AG: Fred’s offenses basically operated on finding the best and most efficient shot, and a lot of that was simply great spacing and ball movement. Other than a few isolation plays, most of Iowa State’s success on offense was just being a step ahead of the defense—his teams were some of the best in the nation in transition and most of the halfcourt offense was simply moving the ball quickly and finding an open guy on the perimeter or on a backdoor cut. He was also uniquely great at developing baseline out-of-bounds sets to the point that the “BLOB” plays were common talking points among fans. 

HV: What was Hoiberg’s approach to defense? Looking at their numbers, those teams were never terrible but they weren’t ever great, why?

TB: I think it’s just because there was such a laser-focus on the offense. Fred did preach everything that would lead to success on defense—fundamentals, getting 50-50 balls, playing with great intensity and stuff like that. I think the fact that his offenses were that good, at times, his teams probably thought they could just outshoot people. Usually you win games that way and they usually did and that worked for them for the most part. I think that’s probably why those numbers look that way more than anything. 

TH: There were a number of contributing factors there. First, I think Hoiberg's strength as a coach is on the offensive end of the floor. That's where he's most knowledgable and most creative. That's where he really thrives. Next, I don't think Iowa State usually had the personnel to excel defensively. Their best players were offense-first, which doesn't absolve Hoiberg because he recruited them but it does speak to the overall philosophy. I think one of Hoiberg's challenges this time around in college is to improve the defense, but his motto was always "they've got to guard us, too" so I don't think the focus will suddenly change.

AG: I don’t think Fred was necessarily bad at coaching defense, but I think the focus on offensive philosophies certainly led to defensive deficiencies. A lot of the offense was focused on getting out in transition and I think that sometimes pulled players away from their defensive focus. I can really only think of two-to-three truly good defensive players under Hoiberg at Iowa State, which is definitely too few for the talent he had. 

HV: What’s your lasting impression of the five years under Hoiberg? What do you think the fanbase’s lasting impression of him is?

TB: Pretty memorable. Fred produced during those five years, but because it was such a small window, he left Iowa State fans wanting more. I think that’s added to his legacy even more, of being larger than life. The Fred Hoiberg era at Iowa State was a giant success, but I think the more we kind of move away from it, the fact that Fred was this All-American boy, grew up in Ames, was a ballboy at Iowa State, played at Iowa State, started at Iowa State and then turned the program around during some struggling times, those are all things not lost but I think Iowa State fans, the more time goes by, tend to look at it in even greater terms of success than it probably was. 

I think there were mixed emotions [about Hoiberg leaving for the NBA]. Obviously, there’s going to be a level of the fanbase that’s not happy that he’s leaving. I think most fans were disappointed knowing that Fred was leaving a great team behind. It was a team a lot of people had pegged as possibly returning one of the best Iowa State teams in recent memory. The fact that Fred was leaving put a giant question mark around that team. It still went to the Sweet 16 the first year of Steve Prohm’s tenure, but I think a lot of people will always wonder what could have been if Fred was coaching that team. It’s not fair to Steve Prohm, but that’s the reality of the situation. 

And then, yeah, there is a portion of fans who are happy for Fred. They look at him as “one of us.” He is that boy next door. A lot of people feel like they can relate to Fred Hoiberg, and the opportunity to coach at the highest level in your profession isn’t something most people would turn down. 

TH: They won a lot, and the program always seemed to be moving toward a better season. One successful year would end, and it would always appear that a better one was on the docket, which it mostly was. As for fans, they certainly were hurt by his decision to leave his alma mater for the NBA, but most got it and make no mistake: Fred Hoiberg is a legend and an icon in Ames. Coaching at Nebraska will probably strain that some, but there is no one who has embodied Iowa State and done more for the athletic department there than him.  

AG: Fred is an extremely talented coach and recruiter and I think there’s a ton of respect for him not only at Iowa State, but across the nation. He had such a unique situation at Iowa State having been a ballboy for the program as a kid, then the local high school star, then an all-Big 12 caliber player at ISU, then highly successful coach in such a short time. He quite honestly probably elevated himself to somewhat mythical proportions in Ames, where fans have almost a warped view of his success and struggle with him being anywhere else. And because of that, his legend and lasting impression will suffer a bit with him being at Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers are still pretty universally disliked across the state of Iowa and even these first few days with Hoiberg being a Husker has been weird and kind of annoying, for lack of a better term. But at the end of the day, Hoiberg’s jersey still hangs in the rafters at Hilton Coliseum and I think the majority of fans are rooting for him to succeed. 

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