For Hoiberg and Huskers, a fresh start shows promise

Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 11:39pm

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg is trying to build the Cornhuskers in the same way he did Iowa State.

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg is trying to build the Cornhuskers in the same way he did Iowa State. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

It’s halftime of the Nebraska men’s basketball team’s final exhibition game in Italy, and coach Fred Hoiberg is not happy. His players are acting on their own agendas. They’re not moving the ball how he wants. They’re not playing the game the way he’s drilled them to play it.

He’s in the process of giving his team a piece of his mind when he notices the blood running down his arm. 

He’d broken his clipboard in frustration, and his thumb split open in the process. The cut takes a while to stop bleeding, but even with an open wound, his focus is entirely on the team and the game. 

Hoiberg is, above all else, a basketball coach. He’s not going to let a bleeding cut – or a history of heart problems – change that.

“I just put a towel on it and went back to coaching,” Hoiberg said at Big Ten Media Day in October. “You have to get the message across to your players when they’re not playing the right way.”

When Nebraska announced Hoiberg’s hire in early April of last year, it was a fresh start. A chance for Hoiberg to prove his coaching chops after a disappointing five years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls. A chance for the Huskers to move beyond the plateau of missed chances and mediocrity that was the Tim Miles era.

But for Hoiberg, it was also a return to his roots. His parents grew up in Lincoln and went to school at Nebraska. His father’s father was a history professor there. And his mother’s father, Jerry Bush, coached the Huskers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The hallmark of Bush’s time as coach at Nebraska: a last-second, heart-palpitating upset of the No. 4 Kansas team led by Wilt Chamberlain, in a season that had already seen the Jayhawks beat the Huskers 102-46.

Reviving Nebraska basketball is in Fred Hoiberg’s blood. He’s more than up for the challenge.

“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could win, and win consistently,” Hoiberg said. “We have everything you need in order to do that. … I think it’s just a matter of time before we get this thing going and we’re a consistent winner.”

It will be a challenge. The Huskers only returned two from last year’s roster, only one of whom had ever played a minute of Big Ten basketball. Guards Cam Mack, Dachon Burke, Jr. and Haanif Cheatham have shown promise, combining for an average of 30-plus points a game, but this season has made it clear that they cannot carry Nebraska through the talented Big Ten. If the Huskers want to be relevant in this conference, they’re going to need a lot more talent.

Although it won’t come overnight, depth is something Hoiberg can create. He’s done it before.

In 2010, Hoiberg took the head coaching job at his alma mater, Iowa State. When he came in, the Cyclones were the definition of a middling program, having spent the previous five seasons hanging out around the .500 mark with the occasional NIT bid. 

By Hoiberg’s second year in Ames, Iowa State was an eight-seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and won its first-round game over Connecticut, the defending national champion, before falling to Kentucky, that year’s eventual title-winner.

That first Cyclones roster had only returned four players from the previous year, and Hoiberg pieced together the rest into a 16-16 squad.

So how did a .500 team with a lack of experienced players become a legitimate March contender so quickly?

The answer: transfers. Hoiberg’s energy and excitement was catching, and he had convinced talents like Royce White and Chris Babb to come to Ames and build something with him. Their mandatory year of ineligibility completed, they rounded out Iowa State’s roster. With an already-solid group of returning players, led by forward Melvin Ejim and guard Scott Christopherson, and the spark provided by White and Babb, the Cyclones were off to the races.

“He hit the ground running,” Ejim told The Daily. “He really knew the game, and he had a great staff around him – guys who knew what he wanted, and what he wanted to achieve, and they were able to find great players that could fit what he wanted to do, and from there, he started to have success pretty quickly.”

But it wasn’t just a fluke season, nor was it an inexperienced team reliant on older talent that had been developed elsewhere. That 2011-12 team was just the jumping-off point. The Cyclones made the NCAA Tournament every subsequent year with Hoiberg at the helm. Three out of their four tournament runs ended at the hands of the eventual national champion.

In just a few years, Hoiberg built a powerhouse at Iowa State that lasted throughout the duration of his tenure and even a little bit beyond his departure.

Who’s to say he can’t do the same at Nebraska?

“At Nebraska, I think we can have a similar blueprint,” Hoiberg said. “We have a couple junior college players that are really high-level kids, some freshmen that I’m really excited about for their future, and I have two transfers sitting out this year that I think have a chance to be elite-level players, so that’s how we constructed our roster, and we’ll continue to build.”

The bigger question, then, becomes how Hoiberg has managed to do this once before, and how he’s working to do it again now. How he’s drawn recruits and transfers away from flashy programs to come build something with him – first in Ames, and now in Lincoln. 

The answer, it seems, is the coach himself. He’s not working at big-name basketball schools; he’s not recruiting on trophies and tournament runs. Players came to Ames, and are now starting to come to Lincoln, to play for Fred Hoiberg. 

“He’s a really smart guy, and he understands the game of basketball at such a high level,” Cheatham said. “We get to pick his brain, and we’re getting an understanding of what he wants from the season, what he expects. 

“But he’s a coach that takes our ideas, too. He just listens. He’s a players’ coach, and that’s exactly what you want from your head coach, in who you want to play for.” 

The cool, level-headed in-game leader. The approachable father figure. The kid who just loves the game and can’t wait to get out on the court. The charismatic, animated leader; the coach with sky-high expectations for his team; the coach who is disappointed with anything less – and unafraid to express it.

Fred Hoiberg is all of these things.

“On the court, he’s a serious person, but off the court, he’s a goofball,” Mack said at Media Day. “You kind of get the best of both worlds. He’s all about pace, so if you don’t play with pace, he’ll definitely get on you. He’ll be at your neck. You have to work hard with him. He’s a cool guy, but he’s serious, too.”

Added junior guard Jervay Green: “He doesn’t yell much, but if he does start to yell, that means he’s really serious.”

In an age in college basketball when plenty of teams seem to value animation and emotion from their coaches – Bruce Pearl jumping up and down, screaming, arms outstretched, on the sideline; Jim Boeheim throwing off his jacket; Fran McCaffery running out onto the court in anger – Hoiberg’s even-keeled approach is refreshing: it draws players in, makes them feel comfortable, makes them trust and respect him. 

It’s an approach not unaffected by Hoiberg’s health issues. 

In 2005, while he was playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Hoiberg failed a routine physical for reasons related to the enlarged aortic valve he had been born with. He saw a cardiologist, who discovered a ticking time bomb in the form of an aneurysm at the aortic root. A blow to the chest could’ve caused the aneurysm to rupture.

So Hoiberg underwent eight hours of open-heart surgery to remove the diseased tissue, and another heart surgery, to permanently install his pacemaker. 

He’s now on his second pacemaker. He’ll proudly tell anyone that he wore out the first, and he tells jokes about how he thought the second one might explode when he and his team went to see Rick Ross perform in Lincoln last fall. 

The reality is significantly less upbeat. It involves rushing to the doctor more than a few times; some emotional moments with his terrified family; and a Pulp Fiction-sized needle. 

The result: Fred Hoiberg feels his heart every time it beats.

Eighty-odd heartbeats every minute, 100,000 every day, 3.5 million every year, the pounding in his chest, his throat, his veins an ever-present reminder that his life depends on a tiny metal box in his heart.

It became clear that, for his sake and his family’s, Hoiberg had to stop playing.

Coaching was the natural next step.

“He’s such a competitive person, so he could only stay home and relax for so long,” his wife, Carol, said. “I just knew that he still had it in him, and I knew that he wanted to have a shot at coaching.”

And so, with pacemaker number two ticking away in his chest, Hoiberg went back to work. His heart issues impact him, and how he coaches, but they are not the story.

The story is how he rebuilt a program at Iowa State. How now, at Nebraska, he’s looking to do it again.

It’s going to be a long road. The Huskers’ 82-58 defeat in Ann Arbor on Thursday is plenty of evidence in that regard, not to mention Nebraska’s 2-17 Big Ten record.

But the pieces are there. In Mack and Cheatham, and growing experience; in a 14-point win over Purdue in December, and the potential to compete in conference play; in former Wisconsin wing Kobe King’s commitment, and proof that Hoiberg’s charisma on the recruiting trail is alive and well.

And at the center of it all is Hoiberg. So much of what’s to come for Nebraska depends on him, on the effectiveness of the coaching strategy he’s developed, on his ability to convince talented players to come build something in the cornfields with him. On if he can recapture the magic that turned Iowa State into a perennial tournament contender practically overnight.

He has every faith that he can.

And the more people you talk to about it, the more you start to believe it, too.