Fred Hoiberg has now turned over his entire coaching staff since his first season in Lincoln, making the final change last week when he hired Ernie Zeigler to replace the departed Armon Gates.
Despite the difficult timing of his search — Gates left the program in July, well after the coaching carousel had mostly settled across the country — Hoiberg managed to find someone who “checked all the boxes” in Zeigler.
One of those boxes was head coaching experience, which Hoiberg said was important. After beginning his coaching career at the high school level, Zeigler went overseas to serve as a professional head coach, first in China for one season and then in Saudi Arabia for two. He returned stateside to begin his college career as an assistant, making four different stops before taking over as the head coach at Central Michigan, where he spent six seasons.
“Most of those guys think it’s easy, and they sit there and they give every recommendation,” Hoiberg said. “But until you’ve actually sat in that chair, you just don’t have that experience of making those split-second decisions in the heat of the moment. It’s hard. I’ve got a couple guys that have filled that now with Nate [Loenser] being the head coach of the Windy City Bulls, the inaugural season of the G League affiliate with the Bulls when we were in Chicago. And now Ernie with six years of experience at Central Michigan.”
Zeigler said his time as a head coach provided him with valuable perspective that he’s used as an assistant over the past nine seasons.
“The first thing is understanding it’s about one thing: making sure your head coach is successful,” Zeigler said. “And I think a lot of times as assistants, young assistants, old assistants, you get caught up into what you think versus what’s best for him. And I know being able to be that bridge for that and understanding that and knowing that it’s about staff chemistry, it’s about we and not us, and understanding when to interject ideas, and then having a thick enough skin to know that when the head coach says ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ keep your head up straight and you keep battling and you keep trying to help the program win and be successful and helping our players daily.
“That’s the big thing, helping our guys get better every day. If they get better incrementally every day, it puts Coach Hoiberg in a position to put them in this position to be successful.”
Zeigler has worked for and interacted with many coaches during his 22 years as a college coach, and Hoiberg heard from some of them after news began to leak about the hire, a number of which had inquired about the opening themselves.
“The experience that he’s had and the different people that he has worked for that I have a great deal of respect for, I talked to them on multiple occasions,” Hoiberg said. “Even the coaching candidates that reached out to me, a number of them reached out after the news broke a couple of days ago that Ernie was the guy and just explained to me how great of a hire that was. And that doesn’t happen very often, when you miss out on an opportunity to join the staff, for them to continue to reach out. A couple of them said that he was a mentor to them in this business as well.”
Perhaps the most prominent of the coaches that Hoiberg spoke with during the process was Ben Howland, who hired Zeigler as an assistant three different times. Zeigler first worked for Howland at Pittsburgh, then followed him to UCLA. Zeigler left Howland’s staff to accept the Central Michigan job, then spent two seasons as an assistant at Detroit before reuniting with Howland at Mississippi State.
“I talked to Ben a couple different times and he just absolutely raved about him,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously, when you go to different places and you continue to bring a guy with you, there’s good feelings there. With Ben’s track record of what he’s accomplished, to talk about Ernie being a guy that was a huge part of their success certainly resonated very well with me. When you play in the Final Four … there’s nothing more powerful than playing for a national championship and playing in that championship game, which he had a huge part in that — game planning, with the players that were on that roster. So again, proven track record, a proven winner.”
Now, the work begins for Zeigler as he looks to play catch-up before the 2022-23 season opener. Fellow newcomer Adam Howard at least got a chance to go through summer workouts with the team as Hoiberg hired him to replace Matt Abdelmassih back in April. Nate Loenser is the veteran on the staff as he is heading into his second season at Nebraska, though he worked with Hoiberg previously in Chicago and Iowa State.
“Adam just came on a few months ago, Nate’s the senior guy on the staff in terms of how things are done and what Fred likes because he’s been around him the longest,” Zeigler said. “For me, it’s just about being a sponge and learning but also being able to give the experiences I’ve had to help us get our players better.
“Because the bottomline is if our players take this next step, our program will take this next step, and that’s our job is to get them to strive towards their ultimate level of success daily.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.