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The once and future Mayor: Can Fred Hoiberg really win at Nebraska?

UniqueThis 17 Sep 24
Sep 26, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Fred Hoiberg sinks into the leather chair in his expansive new office, chuckling about his second opportunity to coach college basketball ... and to go home again.

Hoiberg's nickname, "The Mayor," was established along with his legend when the then-Iowa State star received several write-in votes in the Ames, Iowa, mayoral race in 1993. Seventeen years later, he returned as head coach at ISU, leading the program to unprecedented heights before departing for the NBA.

But let the record reflect that Ames' favorite son was actually born in Lincoln, Nebraska. His parents, Eric and Karen, met right here on campus. And though his family left Lincoln for Ames when Fred was 2 years old, his grandfather, Jerry Bush, served as the head basketball coach of the Cornhuskers from 1954 to 1963.

Lincoln is his birthplace, a fact proven by the sea of family members and friends who attended an introductory press conference upon his hiring in April. This is why the usually subdued Hoiberg is laughing. How many coaches get two homecomings?

"It's crazy how life comes full circle sometimes," he says.

Though Hoiberg's connection with Lincoln is undeniable, this is not a place where basketball luminaries appear on election ballots. The Huskers have been to the NCAA tournament once in the past 20 years. They've never won an NCAA tournament game, and last won a conference title in 1950.

By all accounts, Nebraska is a football school, albeit one with serious basketball ambitions backed by incredible facilities, including the $184 million Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Those upgrades weren't enough to sustain Tim Miles, Hoiberg's predecessor, who was fired in March after he amassed a 52-76 record in the Big Ten over his seven seasons.

Miles brought energy and buzz to the program. He tweeted at halftime. Under Miles, Isaiah Roby, a second-round pick in June's NBA draft, became the first Nebraska player drafted in 20 years. Miles made folks excited about the possibilities in Lincoln, but couldn't sustain the success after a run to the 2014 NCAA tournament.

It's a familiar story -- since 1925, no Nebraska coach has won 60% of his games.

And it's part of the reason why Hoiberg says being here has been an emotional experience. His own grandfather, who led Nebraska to an upset of Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas squad in 1958, and who helped integrate the basketball program, is on that long list of coaches who couldn't quite figure it out here. Jerry Bush went 81-132 in Lincoln. He died just after Fred's 4th birthday.

"He was the one who laid the foundation for me to get into this profession," says Hoiberg, who stops to look at his grandfather's picture in the hallway near his office every day. "I think a lot about my grandpa."

For Hoiberg, the date Dec. 3 is memorable for two reasons. It's his wife, Carol's, birthday. It also marks the day in 2018 when the Chicago Bulls fired him.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, he'd taken over a Bulls team that had become an NBA playoff fixture under Tom Thibodeau but said it was seeking better communication between coach and players. Hoiberg, who played 10 years in the NBA, seemed an ideal fit. He'd led Iowa State to unprecedented heights -- four NCAA tournament appearances in five years, a 115-56 record overall, a Sweet 16 run in 2014 and two Big 12 tournament titles (2014, 2015).

But the Bulls led the NBA in injuries during Hoiberg's first season, and missed the playoffs. After picking up hometown hero Dwyane Wade to co-star with Jimmy Butler, Hoiberg's squad squeezed into the 2016-17 playoffs as the No. 8 seed and won their first two games against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, before point guard Rajon Rondo's season-ending thumb injury sunk their chances.

The Bulls never returned to the playoffs under Hoiberg. Trades, free-agency losses, and more horrible injury luck left him with a young, rebuilding squad that started 5-19 last season before John Paxson and Gar Forman fired him.

"It was hard, I'm not gonna lie to you," Hoiberg said of the experience. "You have trouble sleeping. A lot of emotions go through your mind. You just try to process the best you can. ... I wasn't one of those guys that said, 'I did everything right, I got screwed.' I looked back and really processed what I could have done better."

Hoiberg thought about sitting out for a year. He also considered waiting for another NBA job to open. But he wouldn't stay unemployed for long -- Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos called him in March.

The personal connection to Lincoln mattered to Hoiberg, but so did the program's plentiful resources. During his first preseason, when the Bulls played the Mavericks in an exhibition game there, Hoiberg came away impressed by Nebraska's facilities.

"I wasn't one of those guys that said, 'I did everything right, I got screwed.' I looked back and really processed what I could have done better."
Fred Hoiberg, on his firing by the Bulls

Pinnacle Bank Arena, which sits on the site of a former rail yard that was moved to make room for the arena, has sparked $340 million of investment in an area that now features new restaurants, bars, stores and condos. A practice facility that opened in 2011 features heated bathroom floors, iPads in every locker stall, life-sized posters of each player on the current roster and a giant screen on the wall of the practice court, so the home team's players and coaches can watch film without leaving the floor.

Hoiberg knew Nebraska's facilities were comparable to those at any Power 5 school and perhaps the professional ranks, too.

Proof? Representatives from nine NBA teams have toured Pinnacle Bank Arena and the team's practice facilities. The owner, president and general manager of Spain's Valencia Basket of the Euroleague have crossed an ocean to get a look.

"I know several [NBA] teams patterned their facilities after our facility at Nebraska," Hoiberg said. "It's got everything you need, and guys can come in here any time of day and get shots up. That's a great thing to have when you have a facility like this. And then our arena, I'm not sure there's a better one in college basketball than Pinnacle Bank Arena. So you've got everything you need here, and that was one of the attractive things about this job. Facilities are so important when you're recruiting."

Although the wins haven't come yet for Nebraska, the players will, Hoiberg said, once they see progress, the facilities and the following that proves Nebraska wants to win big and soon. At Friday's sold-out "Opening Night with the Huskers" at Pinnacle Bank Arena -- an event which will feature rapper Rick Ross -- the team will host top-100 recruits Frank Anselem (2020) and Wilhelm Breidenbach (2021).

Opening Night will be another party in a town becoming increasingly known for its basketball parties. Last year, Nebraska finished 10th in Division I basketball average attendance (15,341) during a 19-17 season that ended without an NCAA tournament appearance. The Arena itself has become a staple of the local community. Guns N' Roses, Miranda Lambert and Bob Dylan will all perform there in October.

That Nebraska could lure Hoiberg, who had spoken with other teams about possible opportunities prior to signing a seven-year, $25 million deal with Nebraska, is further evidence of the community's interest in, and university's commitment to, college basketball.

"Coaching in Ames, really the place I consider my hometown, was incredible," Hoiberg says. "Coaching with people that gave me so much support. But I feel that same love here because of the great support that we have."

At a summer practice prior to a team trip to Italy, Hoiberg is the shooter in a defensive drill. He's at the top of the key and he's supposed to miss the shot. He instead drains three in a row with the same stroke he used as a 40% shooter from beyond the arc in his NBA career.

His grandfather could shoot too. Jerry Bush would climb the stairs at the Nebraska Coliseum, the home of Huskers basketball from 1926 to 1976, and hit trick shots from the rafters before practice.

Bush's legacy at Nebraska is more about what he achieved away from the court, and the way he connected with players.

When Albert Maxey arrived in Lincoln in 1957, he wasn't sure he belonged. One of the first black players in school history -- Nebraska went without a black basketball letterman for 40-plus before Bush's arrival -- Maxey says he trusted his coach when Bush told him, "I'll take care of you." Maxey had made history as a member of the all-black starting five at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis that won Indiana's state title in 1955. His best friend, NBA legend Oscar Robertson, was the star of that team.

At his first Nebraska practice, Maxey says he was surprised that his white teammates didn't know how to dunk, so he taught them. He despaired that he couldn't eat at the same restaurants or stay at the same hotels his white teammates frequented on the road.

But he respected Bush for keeping his word. He was a stern, strong, unconventional figure who liked to draw up plays by placing five pennies on the ground while he smoked a cigar on the sideline.

"During one practice, before he sets the play, he took the cigar out of his mouth and stuck it behind his ear while it was still burning," remembered Maxey, whose grandson, John Harris, is a graduate manager at Nebraska. "It was still lit. He was setting up the play and we were all staring and waiting to see when it was going to burn his ear."

Bush never had a winning season while at Nebraska, but earned the adoration of players and fans through his colorful demeanor. The "Big Bear" also secured one of the top wins in program history when Jim Kubacki hit the game-winner in a 43-41 win over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in 1958. School officials canceled classes on Monday to celebrate.

That's the type of frenzy Hoiberg wants to duplicate at Nebraska.

At Iowa State, which finished 15-17 the year before he arrived, Hoiberg changed the fortunes of the program by finding Georges Niang, Monte Morris and other under-the-radar prospects. He also signed key transfers such as Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State) and DeAndre Kane (Marshall), at a time when such widespread reliance on transfers was polarizing. Things have changed. More than 1,000 players entered the transfer portal this offseason.

Hoiberg has six transfers on this year's Nebraska roster, though he acknowledges he'll face more competition in attracting them.

"We're going to use a lot of the same things that we did at Iowa State," he says. "We obviously built that program early with transfer players. ... Some teams were taking transfers at that time but we weren't competing against Kansas and Duke and Kentucky for transfers. Now we are."

Last year's group finished 6-14 in the Big Ten, and only one contributor returns. Hoiberg's 2019-20 team will feature key new faces like JC transfers Jervay Green and Cam Mack, as well as Haanif Cheatham, a grad transfer who started his career at Marquette and averaged 13.2 PPG for Florida Gulf Coast last season.

Green, Mack and Cheatham, three of 11 newcomers, are entrusted with keeping the Pinnacle excitement going in the first year of the Hoiberg Era in Lincoln.

"It's crazy," Cheatham said. "Once you walk in, it's amazing. And that's what you want as a college kid. Just be around good people, good facilities. And we've got everything here. Everything you'd ask for, you got it. You can't complain about anything."

They could struggle this year, but the idea is that early bumps for a young team will lead to success down the road. Hoiberg intends to be the head coach when that time comes -- he said he and Carol want Nebraska to be the final stop of his coaching career. That's probably a premature admission for a 46-year-old head coach. But, for the second time, Hoiberg is home. He doesn't plan to leave before he's reached his goal.

"One thing we're looking to build is a tradition," Hoiberg says. "We've got the facilities. We've got the support. Now, we really need to build a consistent winner. I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we could do it."