Now that Tom Thibodeau is out as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, it may be time for Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg to return to the NBA.
There was Fred Hoiberg, in repose before an Iowa State practice last winter: Arms extended across sideline chairs to either side, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. His Cyclones warmed up on the floor, going through whatever paces they needed to go through as their coach watched. Maybe Hoiberg was thinking deeply and intensely. It was impossible to tell. And thus the moment was impossible to distinguish from all the others in which Hoiberg ruminates but betrays nary a flinch of emotion. Because that is basically every moment.
The workout was set for 3:45 p.m. About then, Bryce Dejean-Jones, a senior guard who had transferred in for the 2014-15 season, walked into the locker room in street clothes, carrying his kicks instead of wearing them. There was no way Dejean-Jones was making a 3:45 p.m. practice whistle. A visitor noted this to an Iowa State official. The official then informed the visitor that Fred Hoiberg was highly unlikely to give a rip about that.
This is what Hoiberg, the Ames native whose No. 32 jersey hangs from the Hilton Coliseum rafters and who earned the nickname the Mayor, would leave behind if he departs Iowa State now: A place that maybe no one in the history of central Iowa has loved more, and a program crafted exactly to his liking and run according to his schedule, pliable as that schedule might be. Past NCAA tournament disappointments—including a Round of 64 loss to No. 14 seed UAB this past March—aside, he has enough talent to take his alma mater to the Final Four next April. Yet if the opportunity presents itself, he nevertheless should go, right now, to the NBA.
On Thursday the Chicago Bulls fired coach Tom Thibodeau, and Hoiberg won’t find a better situation in which to pursue that lifelong ambition. He won’t leave the program he adores in better shape. He won’t ever receive more understanding from the people who revere him and are so desperate for him to stay. He owes Iowa State everything and nothing at this point. If running an NBA team is the itch he must scratch at some juncture—even his athletic director recently conceded it is Hoiberg’s “lifelong dream”—the timing will be painful because of what he leaves behind and perhaps never more perfect because of where he could wind up.
Here we’re inclined to note that decrees about what a person should do with his or her life are presumptuous, if not outright silly. Fred Hoiberg does not need to convene a star chamber to decide between living on the west side of Ames or the west side of Chicago. He might not have a bad decision to make. But if we’re assuming as fact that he in truth wants to coach in the NBA at some point, one decision looks better than the other. If he goes, Hoiberg can rest easy believing he has done right by both his school and himself.
With the Bulls, he would walk into his first professional coaching gig that is remarkable in one way: It is an ideal fit.
Hoiberg played for the franchise from 2000-03, part of a10-year playing career in the NBA. His immediate boss would be general manager Gar Forman, who coached Hoiberg at Iowa State as an assistant under Tim Floyd. He would inherit a roster that is built upon a playmaking, All-Star caliber backcourt of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. If Chicago's players get a taste of Hoiberg’s easygoing, low-pulse demeanor, it will surely feel as if they have been released into a dewy meadow bathed in sunshine and freedom. Maybe it’s easy to overstate the grind of playing for Thibodeau from the outside. But his answer for everything, from a bad night of defensive rotations to getting the wrong sandwich delivered at lunch, was More Work. Should he get the job, Hoiberg will find an accomplished group that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals this year but is likely nonetheless more than willing to listen to a new approach. Few first-time coaches are as lucky.
The problem is that taking the Bulls job means no longer coaching Iowa State. That is no easy thing given Hoiberg’s affection for the place. But while he would abdicate a position, he would not have abdicated his responsibility to the well-being of the program. The Cyclones return four of their top six scorers, including an All-America candidate in rising senior forward Georges Niang and potential all-conference caliber performers in junior point guard Monte Morris and reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year Jameel McKay. Hoiberg's standard transfer infusion will supplement that core, with the arrivals of guard Hallice Cooke (8.2 points per game as an Oregon State freshman in 2013-14) and forward Deonte Burton (6.4 ppg as a sophomore at Marquette in 2014-15), who will be eligible in December.
Undoubtedly, those players want to be coached by Hoiberg. Undoubtedly, Iowa State fans want those players to be coached by Hoiberg. But the Cyclones coach would not scamper off to the pros and leave behind prospects as flat as the landscape around Ames. His successor will run a team that will land in the top 5 of most preseason polls and, should its defense improve, will have legitimate aims of making a Final Four run. That potential should offset the sub-optimal timing of finding a replacement at this time of year; it figures that more than a few capable candidates would run toward a team brimming with that much possibility.
Hoiberg’s conscience ought to be clear. He took over at Iowa State after the school endured four straight losing seasons under Greg McDermott, and his Cyclones teams have averaged 24.8 wins over the last four seasons with four straight NCAA tournament berths. Whatever he promised his school, his home, he has delivered on just about all of it. He would certainly leave it in better shape than he found it.
There are other considerations too, such as the geographic and lifestyle change and its effect on Hoiberg’s family, especially his four young children; and the NBA toll and how Hoiberg will hold up to it after he underwent heart valve replacement surgery on April 17. These are questions only Hoiberg can answer. The best bet is that he will be put on the clock to find those answers soon.
There is no mystery, however, about whether Hoiberg wants to coach in the NBA. Not if we are to believe the man who will do everything to keep Hoiberg while evidently knowing full well he may be fated to watch him leave.
“(The NBA is) what he wants to do,” Iowa State athletic director Pollard told a group of fans during a May 13 luncheon in Ottumwa, Iowa. “It's a matter of when he wants to do it."
No better time than the present.