Duke was not Duke until Mike Krzyzewski helped make it so. The same could be said for UConn with the help of Jim Calhoun and a few other programs that we view today as powerhouses in college basketball. While Duke and UConn are widely accepted today as college hoops royalty, there was a time when neither were all that and a bag of chips. Great things aren’t just born great — they sometimes have to be made great by great people.
Fred Hoiberg came to Iowa State in 2010 with as little national fanfare as most would expect for a program that didn’t win 20 games since 2004, and only had 13 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1908. Really, considering that Iowa State calls the Big 12 home — a league long dominated by Kansas — the hiring was almost an afterthought.
Sure, some thought it was neat. A former Iowa State player was coming home to coach. A former NBA journeyman, who had a long (albeit uneventful) career, was tabbed the Mayor of Ames. In a perfect world, maybe Hoiberg would make Iowa State a consistently good program.
Hoiberg clearly had other plans.
The things he did when he initially took over the job in 2010 almost seemed desperate. Hoiberg made the conscious effort to win right away. He decided to focus on bringing in transfers who were bad fits in other places. The Lincoln, Nebraska native almost completely ignored recruiting in its more traditional methods and forms.
The initial wave of success, after a ho-hum debut season with an incomplete roster, was mind boggling. After finishing in 12th place in the 2010-2011 Big 12 season, Hoiberg led the Cyclones to a 23-11 overall record in the 2011-2012 campaign. He guided Iowa State to a third-place finish in the Big 12 and a trip to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Basically, Hoiberg was using many of those transfers he knew would play hard for him, because they had nowhere else to go to. He assembled various parts from scattered places and forged a relatively quick turnaround.
Hoiberg’s method of turning Iowa State into Last Chance University wasn’t the only way in which The Mayor opened the eyes of college basketball observers. He implemented an offensive system that has resulted in Iowa State becoming one of the most entertaining college basketball teams to watch in the entire nation.
Hoiberg, who was a three-point specialist for much of his NBA playing career, has essentially put together an offensive approach that much resembles a team of five Fred Hoibergs on the court at the same time, playing the way he would play — with the only exception being that many of the players playing under the Mayor of Ames are far more athletic. More or less, Iowa State is comprised of five more athletic Fred Hoibergs running all over the court, jacking up threes, attacking the basket, and sharing the ball.
That’s not necessarily a system as much as it is Hoiberg letting the players dictate what is best for them. Many college coaches have forced players into their systems even if it was at the detriment of any particular player’s actual skill set. The same cannot be said for anyone who has played for Iowa State. Hoiberg has not cared about a player’s size, his supposed position on the court, or anything else that traditional coaches use to assemble a set of plays. Instead, Hoiberg has let centers run the point and allowed players to hurl up three-point attempts just a few seconds into a possession. Instructively, Hoiberg has never let endgame situations change his team’s often up-tempo style for the impoverished reason that it’s “the way things have always been done.”
The success Iowa State has enjoyed since Hoiberg came aboard is inarguable. The last two years saw the Cyclones capture two Big 12 Conference Tournament championships. If someone asked a media member just five years ago which teams would regularly compete for Big 12 titles, Iowa State would not be on that short list. Yet here we are, just hours after Iowa State has done it for a second straight year. We’re also just one year removed from the Cyclones making their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2000. We’re talking about what’s next.
Now Iowa State finds itself as a three-seed going into this year’s version of the Big Dance. Obviously, this is just another step forward for a program and coach who no longer want to be viewed as just a team with a fun system or a program that makes for a neat story in March. There seems to be more to it than that.
It is hard to quantify, especially without making it seem like hyperbole, but there is a discussion to be had about the best college basketball coaches 42 (Hoiberg’s age) and under. Guys like Shaka Smart, Buzz Williams, and a few others immediately pop out as really good names. Then there’s the Aaron Eckhart lookalike, who is starting to make a run as a contender in this category. (Of course, a discussion like that is subjective and makes for a better “Top 10” article than it does as a tangible and factually-laced debate.)
At the same time, Hoiberg has become too hard to ignore. So, too, have the Cyclones. As rumors are constantly circling around NBA teams yearning for the former NBA executive to “come home” to the pros, he already is home at his alma mater. There’s a growing notion — at least from myself — that he is close to making Iowa State into the next program that was once just another program and is now that program.
Many steps still need to be taken by Hoiberg for Iowa State to be remotely considered a national, perennial darling, but everything has to start somewhere. In just his fifth year as the Iowa State coach, Hoiberg has his program on the verge of a bigger breakthrough. That reality in itself is something of an achievement. Now, Iowa State needs to take those extra steps, to go beyond the Sweet 16 and regularly be an Elite Eight contender — and yes, so much more.
Iowa State’s run may have actually started in 1991, when Hoiberg joined the program as a player. Being part of the community in Ames helped make him into a Cyclones loyalist. Now, in 2015 as a coach, Hoiberg is attempting to take Iowa State to the next level. It started with him as a player, and it moved to taking over a program in a state of disarray. Hoiberg has subsequently given Iowa State an identity and tasted initial successes. He’s now trying to keep the program moving forward.
The birth of greatness has to start somewhere. Any great program, such as Duke or Connecticut, has its genesis moment, its origin story. Duke became Duke when it beat UNLV in the 1991 Final Four national semifinals. Connecticut became Connecticut when it took down Duke in the 1999 national championship game.
Iowa State is very much in the process of moving toward that special origin story, that moment when it busts through to the Final Four, something the program narrowly missed in the 2000 regional finals against Michigan State in The Palace of Auburn Hills. ISU wants to find a palace of its own, a place in one of college basketball’s most spacious and luxurious rooms.
The program’s pursuit of that shining March moment just happens to be directly tied to Fred Hoiberg.
Duke and Coach K.
UConn and Coach Calhoun.
We should all pay attention to the Cyclones now, so we can tell our kids about the early years of Iowa State and Hoiberg before they become, you know, Iowa State and Hoiberg.