Fred Hoiberg may already be Nebraska’s most decorated basketball coach, but he still has plenty to prove on the court.
No coach in Lincoln has ever had Hoiberg’s pedigree: a former NBA player-turned-major-conference-champion-coach who moved on to the NBA. No previous Nebraska basketball coach has ever had either NBA coaching experience or high-major level college basketball coaching experience before Nebraska.
Not many kids raised in Ames, Iowa, make it to the NBA, much less last 10 years there. Ask Hoiberg and he’ll say it wasn’t luck or God-given skill that got him there.
“The reason I played was because I was the hardest worker,” he said in his introductory press conference. “Nobody was going to out-work me. That’s how I got to that level, and that’s what I’m going to demand and expect out of our players, is to go out every day and give everything we can and put an exciting product on the floor that will make our fans proud.”
At every stop in his career, Hoiberg has put in the work to be successful. He started all four years of college at Iowa State, leading the team to a pair of NCAA Tournament wins. In the NBA, he weathered four seasons playing sparingly on the Indiana Pacers before finding a home with the Chicago Bulls in the post-Michael Jordan era.
Following a four-year stint in Chicago, Hoiberg’s career was revitalized in Minnesota thanks to his reputation as a sharpshooter. Off the bench, he helped the Timberwolves reach the 2003-04 Western Conference Finals, where they fell in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite shooting 48% from 3-point range the following season, his team missed the playoffs. His career was then cut short after undergoing open heart surgery to repair an aneurysm in his aortic root.
Hoiberg began the second phase of his career the following season in Minnesota’s front office. Three years into the job, he worked his way up to being vice president of basketball operations.
He never would see the fruits of his labors in the Twin Cities. The following year, he decided to return to Ames to become the head coach of his alma mater. At Iowa State, his work ethic and coaching helped lead Iowa State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Two years later, Hoiberg led them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years.
Once again, Hoiberg’s team suffered a close loss in the tournament. After losing in the second round against Ohio State on a three with less than a second left, the Cyclones broke through to the Sweet 16 the following year with a win over North Carolina despite losing star forward Georges Niang in the first round with a foot injury.
The loss of Niang proved to be too much to overcome in the Sweet 16, as No. 3 seed Cyclones fell to No. 7 seed and eventual national champion UConn. Hoiberg and Iowa State were once again primed for a deep run in the tournament in 2015, but were upset in the first round on a last-second shot by UAB.
When Hoiberg left to coach the Chicago Bulls, he surrendered the ability of having control of his roster. Hired to lead the Bulls to the NBA Finals with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, neither would be on the team two years later. Promising forward Nikola Mirotic was also traded away two years after Hoiberg took over.
His lone appearance in the NBA Playoffs started with the Bulls going up 2-0 in the first round over the Boston Celtics, but a hand injury suffered by starting point guard Rajon Rondo caused that lead to turn into a 4-2 series loss.
Nebraska basketball is no stranger to injuries and roster turnover. Just this past season alone, a slew of injuries turned a team poised to pick up the program’s first NCAA Tournament win into one left with six scholarship players healthy as it limped into the NIT.
At this moment, fans are only asking Hoiberg to win one game in the NCAA Tournament. Despite the low bar for success, his dreams are far more grand.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t fully expect to turn it around and win consistently,” Hoiberg said.
Last December, Nebraska fans had a taste of what that would be like. Fans packed Pinnacle Bank Arena to the point that students were standing four rows deep at the top of the lower bowl. The setting was more of a mauling at a Roman Coliseum than a basketball game in Nebraska, and the Huskers obliged to the fan’s wishes and dismantled Creighton, 94-75.
For one afternoon, the potential of Nebraska basketball shined.
That same environment was recreated when No. 6 Michigan State visited Lincoln the following month, but the Huskers instead shot 33 percent from the field and lost 70-64.
In the Hoiberg era, there’s likely to be more nights similar to the former rather than the latter. Hoiberg’s offense plays faster than any Big Ten team, and with the right players it can be explosive.
A lot has changed since Hoiberg last coached college basketball. His primary roster-building method is acquiring transfers, and that market has exploded over the past five years. Trying to replace seven or more departures from the 2018-19 roster will be much easier in 2019 with the larger transfer market than it was when he was building his first team at Iowa State in 2010.
Eventually, the goal for Hoiberg’s roster is to have a nine or 10 man rotation of players, both high school recruits and transfers, and at least two other transfers who have to sit out a season.
There are a lot of signs pointing towards Hoiberg being able to take Nebraska basketball to new heights. He has the proven results at similar schools, the right style of play to compete with the best in the conference, and most importantly, a staff he is comfortable with.
One of the largest differences between Hoiberg’s situation at Iowa State compared to Nebraska is the likelihood of having continuity within his staff. In his staff at Nebraska, Hoiberg has accumulated a group that he is comfortable with, has proven success and has a large chance of staying in Lincoln for multiple seasons.
Assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih met Hoiberg as an intern for the Timberwolves and worked with him all five seasons at Iowa State. He has built a reputation as one of the best recruiters of transfers in the nation.
Doc Sadler worked just one season as an assistant under Hoiberg before taking a head coaching job at Southern Mississippi. Six seasons later, he is moving on from being a head coach and returning to Nebraska, where he was in charge for six seasons, to try and help his former team reach new heights as the de facto defensive coach on the staff.
Armon Gates is the lone holdover from Tim Miles’ staff. He already proved his retention worthwhile by securing the commitment of Jervay Green, one of the top recruits at the junior college level. After moving to Lincoln one spring prior, Gates and his family, which includes two young children, are excited to stay for another season.
“I’ve seen what this place can do,” Gates said after Hoiberg was hired. “It sells itself. I’ve never been a part of a community that really cares about the players or the team support-wise the way this place does. If you have that and all you have to do is get players here and put a good product on the floor, I think it’s something that’ll blow the roof off.”
The final piece to Hoiberg’s staff is special assistant Bobby Lutz. Lutz worked just one season under Hoiberg at Iowa State, but his offense that he created as UNC-Charlotte’s head coach from 1998-2010 became a model for the one his boss installed at Iowa State. At Nebraska, Lutz is excited to work with Hoiberg again and focus on scouting teams as well as other day-to-day operations.
“I want to be on a team that has a legitimate chance to get to a Final Four,” Lutz said after accepting his new role at Nebraska. “And that’s a lofty goal. But that’s one of the reasons that I came here.”
The bar has been set lower for Fred Hoiberg at Nebraska than anywhere else he’s been before, but the potential to reach new personal heights has never been higher.