When I first came on the college basketball beat more than 20 years ago (but who’s counting?), the conventional wisdom held that if a coach was going to take a new job, he was better off going into a program that was down. That way, expectations would be set low, and the new guy would have nowhere to go but up.
Nowadays, the fans don’t wait. A newly hired coach needs to win big right away, or he will be looking for work within a few years. There are many, many examples of good mid-major head coaches or high-major assistants who took a head job at a school that had not won in a long time, failed to turn things around, and then ended up back in the unemployment line.
So feel free to ignore any narrative arguing that Steve Prohm, the now-former Murray State coach whom Iowa State tapped to succeed Fred Hoiberg on Monday, is nuts for agreeing to follow such a tough act. The truth is, Hoiberg has done Prohm an immense service. The Cyclones will return four of their top five scorers from a team that won 25 games and finished in second place in the Big 12 before being upset by UAB in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The team Iowa State will put on the floor next season is be capable of challenging for a Big 12 title almost regardless of who is coaching. Who wouldn't want to step into a situation like that?
Hoiberg has virtually guaranteed Prohm a one-year honeymoon. Yes, moving forward the onus will be heavy on the recruiting front, given that this will be an upperclassman-dominated team, but Prohm will have the best possible chance to succeed. He won big in his previous stop (104-29 in four seasons at Murray State), he will win big in his first season in Ames, and this winter he can go into the living rooms of some of the top recruits in the country and promise them significant playing time right away. Nothing is foolproof, of course, but that’s a pretty good hand to play.
Prohm is relatively young; he will turn 41 in July. He has long been thought of as one of the rising stars in the profession. Yes, he got lucky when two overlooked high school recruits, Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, turned out to be All-American caliber point guards. Prohm will be the first to tell you that he did not realize those guys would turn out to be that good. Still, he coached them the best he knew how, and when the results came, he rightfully got much of the credit.
Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard went about this search in a smart way. He started by reaching out to Iowa State alum and current Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. There was no other place to start. It’s not often that a college AD can call an NBA head coach and offer him a raise, but Hornacek only makes about $2 million a year. Hornacek, however, indicated he wasn’t interested, so Pollard moved on to Plan B.
In doing so, Pollard ignored the external calls to make a “splashy hire.” Or to use another unfortunate phrase that has come along the last 20 years, to “win the press conference.” This is a precarious line of thinking that has led to some shaky hires. Win the press conference? How about winning the league?
Once Hornacek said no, there were no more “splashy” candidates left. There were, however, some good ones, including Iowa State assistant T.J. Otzelberger and Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood. Pollard has known for a while that he could lose Hoiberg to the NBA, so he knew just where to turn. During his four years as head coach at Murray State, Prohm’s teams lost a total of 10 conference games. He is smart and even-keeled, just like Hoiberg. Prohm hoped he would be hired at Alabama, where he served as student manager and student assistant coach for five years, but his alma mater went for Avery Johnson instead. Splash. Prohm was disappointed, but he knew he still had a good job. He figured he’d be back in Murray next season and would wait to see if another opportunity would come along in the spring. As it turned out, a better job than Alabama came along came along at an unusual time, and Prohm made his move.
Prohm will have to forge his own identity in Ames. His tack will likely be different than the one Hoiberg took. No Division I coach made better use of today’s transfer culture than Hoiberg did, but that included accepting several players who had experienced off-court problems at their previous stops. Hoiberg excelled at managing all those personalities—a promising harbinger of how he will perform in the NBA—but Prohm may not have the capability or desire to operate the same way.
The comparisons to Hoiberg will be inevitable, and if Prohm gets wrapped up in them, he is destined to fail. Spoiler alert: Steve Prohm will never be as beloved in Ames, Iowa, as Fred Hoiberg. However, Prohm is as fully prepared to win next season as any coach, young or old, new or experienced. So don’t think for a moment that he is walking into a difficult situation because of what—and who—he is following. Steve Prohm doesn’t need to worry about Fred Hoiberg. He needs to thank him. We'll see whether he is prepared for the marathon, but at the very least, Hoiberg has given him a running start.