AMES, Iowa — When Fred Hoiberg was in eighth grade and a budding star in Ames—he was already dunking that year—he was forced to sit out a game because of injury.
Hoiberg still showed up to Ames Middle School's game that day, dressed in street clothes. And even though he was physically developing faster than many of his peers, his coach at the time, Bruce Vertanen, says Hoiberg still looked like "a boy." That fact is important to preface Vertanen's story.
Before the game started, Vertanen remembers, the officials came over to greet him, and Hoiberg stood next to his coach.
"They shook hands with him," Vertanen says, still surprised by the act 27 years later. "They thought he was one of the coaches, and he was just an eighth-grade student, but they thought he was a coach because of the way he carried himself and his social skills."
About four hours before tipoff against rival Iowa last month, the man who has always carried himself with poise and confidence was pacing up and down the court during Iowa State's shootaround.
"He does this before every game," Iowa State's equipment manager, Ryan Zluticky, said.
That eighth-grader who turned into "The Mayor" returned to Ames four years ago after a 15-year tour in the NBA. He was hired without any coaching experience.
This season, Iowa State is one of the surprises in college basketball and was one of only five undefeated teams left until Saturday's loss at Oklahoma. Barring an epic collapse, the Cyclones will play in their third straight NCAA tournament, and they have climbed from unranked in the preseason into the top 10 of the polls for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
But no one in Ames seems surprised in the least.
"He's the type of person that would be good at anything he does," Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said. "He's a born leader. Whether he was president of a bank or president of a company or head basketball coach, he's going to be successful."
Hoiberg has managed to rebuild the program to national prominence with a culture of comfort, acceptance and second chances. Iowa State has had eight Division I transfers and another six junior college transfers in four years, and not one has blown up in Hoiberg's face.
The model, once thought to be too risky in the college basketball world, has been copied by others trying to rebuild.
What has been just as integral to Iowa State's success is a free-flowing, pro-style offense that would be difficult to replicate without Hoiberg's mind.
The Cyclones were the second-highest-scoring team among BCS conference schools last season and rank third this season. (That's a stat Hoiberg likes to share with recruits.) They led the country in three-pointers made and attempted last season and have attempted more than 40 percent of their shots from deep each of the last three seasons. Assistant coach Doc Sadler says he's never heard Hoiberg tell a player he took a bad shot.
As Hoiberg enters Hilton Coliseum for the long-anticipated Iowa game, he raises his fist in the air to a standing ovation, but that's about as much emotion as he'll show the entire night. His sideline demeanor is stoic, Brad Stevens-esque in a way.
"His approach is always the same. Always consistency. Always that calm person," assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih said of Hoiberg. "He expects our players to act that way on the court, and it shows."
Last month, the Cyclones rallied from down 18 against Northern Iowa and down 10 to Iowa in the span of one week. They've trailed by double digits in four of their 14 wins.
Hoiberg's teams do not panic. But those close to the coach know he has one of the best poker faces in college basketball because "if anyone opened the insides of him, they would see how tense he is," Abdelmassih says.
That cool helped Hoiberg become one of the greatest shooters in the world. He led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage his final year in the league in 2004-05, but his playing career was cut short because of a heart condition. Nine years later, Hoiberg is one of the hottest coaching names in the game with much of the interest coming from the pros.
Iowa State could not have found a coach with more pride in the program's success. Hoiberg cares more about the program than his own budding resume.
"I'm very happy here," he told Bleacher Report last month. "It was a dream come true for me when I was hired."
But he loves the NBA too. He knows the league just as well, if not better, than the college game. He admittedly watches more pro basketball than college basketball. And soon, if not already, his phone is going to be ringing.
In 2006 when Pollard was looking to resurrect the basketball program after firing Wayne Morgan, he got a call from a familiar name.
It was Hoiberg.
Pollard did not really know Hoiberg. He only knew of him.
Hoiberg wasn't born in Ames—his family is from Nebraska, and his grandpa even coached the Huskers basketball team—but Hoiberg is an Ames guy. He grew up in town and led Ames High School to a state championship in 1991. He was also a dual-threat star quarterback and had big-time offers to play college football, including one from Nebraska.
Iowa State's basketball coach at the time, legendary Johnny Orr, did not want to see Hoiberg playing anywhere other than basketball in Ames.
During a substate game his senior year, Hoiberg scored 53 points and had 38 at halftime. Orr rushed down to the sidelines before Hoiberg's coach, Wayne Clinton, could get to the locker room.
"We've got to have him," Orr told Clinton. "We've got to have this kid."
Orr beat out Arizona and Lute Olson, as the chance for Hoiberg to play college ball in front of his family was too hard to pass up.
His No. 32 hangs in the rafters. During the Ames race for mayor in 1993, Hoiberg got a number of write-in votes.
That's how he became "The Mayor."
And when The Mayor called Pollard in 2006, he had to take the call.
Months earlier, Hoiberg had seen his playing career unexpectedly end because of a heart condition that required open-heart surgery.
"My future that I felt like was far away—life after basketball—was all of the sudden there," Hoiberg said. "When you're playing, you don't think about that. You're so caught up in the moment...a guy like me who had to do everything possible to compete against those types of athletes every night, that's what I was consumed with."
Rob Babcock, the vice president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, spent four years working alongside Hoiberg in Minnesota. Babcock said he believes Hoiberg was prepared to be a coach because he would always stay after practice to talk about the game with coaches and other front-office people.
The Timberwolves didn't hesitate to hire Hoiberg in the front office, but his first choice would have been to coach, and what better place to get his start than his alma mater?
Hoiberg said he called Pollard in 2006 to make sure he was making the right choice, but Pollard said Hoiberg wanted the job.
"Quite honestly, it felt like every great basketball player thinks he can be a great coach," Pollard said.
Pollard wasn't going to let Hoiberg's mystique lead him into an illogical decision, and he told Hoiberg he would give his name to whoever he ended up hiring—Greg McDermott was his choice.
"He said he only wanted to be the head coach," Pollard said.
Over the next four years, Hoiberg climbed the ladder in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he was vice president of basketball operations by the time the Iowa State job reopened in 2010.
During McDermott's tenure, Hoiberg reconnected with Iowa State. He talked to the men's and women's teams when they came to play in Minnesota; he became a donor to the athletic department, and every time he was in Ames to visit his family, he made it a point to go see Pollard and sit with him at games.
Hoiberg also started planning how he would coach during the practices he attended during his scouting duties for Minnesota.
"I took a lot of notes on what I liked and what I didn't like, and if I ever got the opportunity, how I would apply that to my coaching strategy," Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg made such an impression on Pollard that when McDermott resigned on a Sunday in April, Pollard went to meet with the Iowa State president that day.
"I shared with him a list of people that I'd like to talk to, but I told him 'I'd like to start with Fred and go meet with him, and if I'm comfortable that I think he could do it, would you give me permission to go no further and just hire him?'" Pollard asked. "The president at that time said 'absolutely.'"
On Monday morning, Pollard drove to Minneapolis. And on Monday night at Hoiberg's kitchen table, the 37-year-old former Cyclone without any coaching experience agreed to be the next head basketball coach at Iowa State.
Hoiberg had spent a majority of his time in Minnesota scouting and helping build the roster. Spend enough time on that side of the business, and you learn quickly that no one can win without players.
The front-office side of Hoiberg's brain quickly started putting together a plan for how he would rebuild when Pollard came to visit him, and before he would take the job, he needed to know Iowa State would support his vision.
Hoiberg told Pollard: "If I'm going to coach at Iowa State, I want to beat KU. But to beat KU, I've got to have the same talent as KU. And I can't get that talent right now out of high school. The 4- and 5-star players, they're not going to choose Iowa State today. Would you be comfortable if I found the right transfers?"
Pollard agreed immediately.
"I was very comfortable with that because I felt that Fred had enough stake in the game locally that he wasn't going to bring in renegades that were going to tarnish his name," Pollard said. "He would be very calculated with who he brought in."
The Cyclones are no longer leaning on transfers as heavily as they did the past two seasons—five of their top seven were signed out of high school—but Hoiberg knows he can fill a hole or two each offseason with transfers, and he doesn't have to worry about them screwing up his team dynamic.
The first group made that possible. The No. 1 target for Hoiberg when he got the job was Royce White, a player who grew up in Minnesota and signed with the Gophers out of high school.
White never played a game at Minnesota, left the team in December of his freshman year and dropped out of school two months later. He had pleaded guilty to theft and disorderly conduct for an incident at the Mall of America in the fall, and months later he was charged with trespassing after an alleged theft of a laptop computer from a university dorm. He left Minnesota in February 2010.
White was one of the most talented players in the country—Kentucky, Baylor and Georgetown came calling along with Iowa State—but he had doubts he ever wanted to play again.
"I had my own concerns about basketball and what it means to base a lot of my life success on basketball," White told Bleacher Report last week.
White dealt with anxiety—and still does—in addition to his previous problems with the law. Iowa State even filed for a mental-health waiver before White's first year at the school, which was denied by the NCAA.
Of course, any coach desperate to win would have taken White, but Hoiberg was more calculated. He talked to many people who knew White and asked then-Minnesota coach Tubby Smith if he would take him again.
"Absolutely I would take him," Smith told him.
"When I was in the NBA and part of the draft process, that was a big thing was doing background work on guys, seeing if they were the right fit for the organization," Hoiberg said. "Same thing goes into play here—your college and your system—do the guys you're looking at fit? I feel very comfortable taking the players we did."
White was a great success at Iowa State and got drafted 16th by the Rockets in 2012 after his one season in Ames.
White currently lives in Philadelphia, where he was traded in July and was cut in October. His anxiety and fear of flying has been well-documented, but neither were an issue at Iowa State.
"I did tell somebody the other day, they asked would you get on a plane with Coach Hoiberg, and I said I'd follow coach into a volcano with airplanes shooting out of it," White said. "It was a joke, but really it wasn't. It's like a statement to my loyalty to him and how much I believe in him. I guess he did make me a lot more comfortable."
White and Hoiberg would talk almost every day about his future, but many of their discussions were outside of basketball.
"That's why he's more so a friend or a father figure, and I think he plays that role for a lot of his players, and that's why they have the success they do," White said.
White needed someone with patience who understood his situation, and Hoiberg has been that guy for all of his players.
Abdelmassih says that when players arrive at Iowa State, especially transfers, they are "shocked" at how quiet it is at practice.
Hoiberg studies from the sidelines, and like any coach, he stops play occasionally to correct mistakes. It's rare, however, for Hoiberg to raise his voice.
"Who he is as a basketball coach and a life coach kind of merge into one," White said. "When you build a relationship like that and look over to coach during a game, you see a person you know. You don't differentiate between this is coach in coach mode and this is coach, the caring leader that I can go to for anything."
This past summer, Abdelmassih got married in Des Moines and had Hoiberg as a groomsman in his wedding. During the reception, Abdelmassih spilled a drink on the dance floor and when he looked up, "Here comes this dude, 6'5" with a mop, starting to dance, wiping up my mess."
"I know Fred as Fred, not No. 32 at Iowa State, The Mayor as everyone likes to call him. I just know him as Fred," Abdelmassih said. "Just Fred came to my wedding.
"There's just no ego. He is who he is."
Abdelmassih, who is from New York, is 28 and got his start as a student manager at St. John's. He interned for Hoiberg in Minnesota, and Hoiberg brought him to Ames because "his ability to build relationships is unlike anything I've ever seen."
Hoiberg's willingness to lean on his assistants helped him succeed so quickly. He hired former Charlotte head coach Bobby Lutz as his top assistant on his original staff because he knew he needed a guy who had the head coaching experience he lacked.
This offseason, Hoiberg recruited Sadler, the former head coach at Nebraska, away from KU's staff for his defensive expertise. Defense has been the one area where Hoiberg's teams have been average.
The Cyclones are playing their best defense ever using Hoiberg's analytics beliefs—long twos are the worst shot in basketball—and Sadler's principles. The Cyclones rank 38th in effective field-goal percentage defense, per KenPom.com (subscription required)—Hoiberg's teams had never been in the top 100—and only two teams in the country force a higher percentage of two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com.
"A big part of that has been the addition of Doc Sadler on our bench," Hoiberg said. "Doc has always been known as a great defensive coach."
|Adj. Def. Efficiency||Rank||Effective FG%||Rank|
Hoiberg's offense is his own, but it's also a lot of stolen material.
Hoiberg spends many of his nights during the season in front of the television watching games, which probably isn't much different than every other college coach.
But Hoiberg isn't watching college games. Typically, he's watching the NBA.
"I probably watch a lot more NBA basketball than I do college," he said. "I think those are the brightest minds in the game, and those actions that those guys run and the spacing that’s incorporated in the NBA game, it's something we try to put into our structure.
"I'm sitting there with a paper towel drawing up all the plays and the action. That could work for Melvin (Ejim), or that could be a good play for Georges (Niang), and we'll add them into practice the next day and see if we want to add them to our playbook."
In recruiting, Hoiberg is always looking for shooters. During the Nike EYBL season in the summer, Hoiberg finds out who the most efficient three-point shooters are and starts watching those guys play.
Hoiberg also likes mismatches. White couldn't shoot a lick, but at 6'8" and 270 pounds, he could bring the ball up the floor and put opposing big men in unfamiliar positions. Hoiberg is doing the same with 6'7" forward Georges Niang this year, and he's just as comfortable playing his guards in the post. Point guard DeAndre Kane has had the second-most post-up opportunities for the Cyclones, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).
"When we meet with families and these kids and the question always comes up, 'Coach, what position do you see me at?' His answer always is, 'I don't have 1's, 2's, 3's, 4's and 5's, I just want basketball players,'" Abdelmassih said.
"If you can't showcase your talent playing for Fred, I don't know, honestly, who you can showcase your talent playing for, because he's going to give you the freedom to play within our system and showcase your ability."
Hoiberg is wearing a track suit and he's sitting on a couch in the comfort of his own office, but he's stiffened up now.
He's asked about his contract and the NBA.
"I don't know what the numbers are and all that," he says. "It actually makes me uncomfortable to talk about."
But the NBA is interested.
"I've had discussions with several people in the league who have called me and asked me about Fred," Babcock said. "People are aware of Fred, and any NBA job that opened up, I would certainly put him on the list."
Hoiberg's contract is structured to make that move a relatively easy one. Hoiberg signed a 10-year extension with Iowa State in April. In that contract, he has two different buyout clauses. If he leaves for another college, the buyout is $2 million. If he leaves for the NBA, it's only $500,000.
"If he wants to go to the NBA, to me, that's a whole different career path," Pollard said. "Our fans would be disappointed, but they'd understand. If he were to leave to go coach another college, he's got to think about what that means and what that means to all of us. He's an Iowa Stater, he grew up here in Ames and in some ways he'd be tearing at the fabric of the institution.
"He wanted to send a message to people that he's not going to another college. If he were to leave, it'd be to the NBA, and that's a decision he may or may not make in his lifetime. He's got a long time to think about that."
On the night before the big game with Iowa, Hoiberg's parents sat in the stands at the Iowa State-Iowa women's game. Hoiberg's father, Eric, was a professor at the school, and his parents are entrenched in the community.
Hoiberg married his high school sweetheart, and his in-laws live in Ames as well. He has four children, two in high school and twin boys in fifth grade, and he likes that they're growing up in Ames.
"That's stuff that you just can't replace," Hoiberg said.
"In a short time, he can be at his practice, and in 10 minutes, he can be at one of his kids' game," said Gary Thompson, another Iowa State legend who returned home after his playing career and hasn't left.
"Can I honestly say he'll entertain any (NBA offers)? I have no clue, but I do know the happiest place that I've seen him is in Ames, Iowa," Abdelmassih says.
"He is the state's favorite son, not just Ames'," Hoiberg's high school coach, Clinton, says. "Wherever he goes, people just gravitate toward him.
"I know a lot of folks who are University of Iowa fans. They say, 'I'm from Ames, I went to the University of Iowa, but I find myself rooting for Coach Hoiberg.'"
Against Iowa, the Cyclones trailed for most of the game and got some Hilton Magic in the final seconds when Iowa guard Mike Gesell missed two free throws in one trip to the line for the first time in his career.
It was the first time the Cyclones had been 8-0 since the 1996-97 season when Tim Floyd was the coach. Floyd, coincidentally, left Iowa State in 1998 to coach the Bulls and returned to the college ranks seven years later.
Once Hoiberg finished all his media responsibilities, he visited with his family who had been waiting right behind the Iowa State bench. They were all there. He was all smiles and finally at ease.
The NBA's interest is only going to increase the more success Hoiberg has at Iowa State, and maybe some day the NBA pull will get him.
For now, though, Hoiberg is right at home in Ames.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.