Here’s my favorite Nebraska basketball story. . .
In 1996, when the Final Four was held at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, the media hotel was the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
One day, I found myself on an elevator with Nebraska coach Danny Nee, who had guided the Cornhuskers to the Final Four of the NIT, which was played at Madison Square Garden a few days before the NCAA’s Final Four.
Another man on the elevator struck up a conversation with Nee, congratulating him on his NIT success.
As the man got off the elevator, he said, ``Good luck in the championship game.’’
Nee, who had been standing quietly in a Nebraska sweat suit, looked back and said, ``We won it last night.’’
Which is a comment on the NIT as well as Nebraska basketball.
Which brings me to the firing of Tim Miles.
And a much broader question about what constitutes a good basketball job.
To wit: Fred Hoiberg made it official on Saturday, agreeing to a seven-year, $25 million deal that makes him the third highest-paid coach in the Big Ten, and puts him 11th nationally. Even though UCLA and other more glamorous, more accomplished programs than Nebraska might have wanted him, Hoiberg stuck to his Midwestern roots.
``I can’t express how excited I am to be back on the sidelines and to be coaching at a university that means a lot to my family and me,'' Hoiberg said in a press release. ``Lincoln is a special place for our family. I was born in Lincoln, my grandfather Jerry Bush was the head coach at Nebraska, my other grandfather was a long-time professor there, and my parents are proud graduates of the University of Nebraska. Nebraska has always felt like a second home.''
At that salary, Hoiberg can afford a second home. Maybe even a third.
Here's the thing: Coaches like to win. And places that seemingly are more accustomed to winning would have been interested in hiring him. So why would Hoiberg—why would anybody—prefer the Cornhuskers job to coaching at UCLA, for example?
A little background: Hoiberg was fired in December by the Chicago Bulls after three-plus difficult seasons in the NBA, but is untarnished because—well, it’s the NBA, where talent matters more than in any other sport at any level. Hoiberg had a great run before that as head coach at Iowa State, his alma mater. Ames is his hometown—he’s known as The Mayor there—but he was born, as he noted, in Lincoln, where his grandfather, Jerry Bush, was head coach in 1954-63.
I love this Wikipedia summation of Bush’s Nebraska run: ``Dubbed the `Big Bear of the Coliseum,’ [Bush] never produced a winning team in his nine seasons at Nebraska, but his colorful personality and uncanny ability to fashion upsets kept Cornhuskers fans entertained.’’
Tim Miles had the ``colorful personality’’ thing down. I enjoyed being around him. He was funny, smart, humble, entertaining—commodities you don’t always find in coaches. And in his seven-year Nebraska run, he produced three winning seasons, including the last two. He went 22-11 last year, including a 13-5 mark in the Big Ten but failed to secure an NCAA bid. Expectations were high this year, but a string of personnel issues left him with just six scholarship players by the end of a 19-17 record, (6-14 Big Ten). His enthusiasm couldn’t survive that.
This is Nebraska basketball. It is the only Power Five school in the nation that has never won an NCAA tournament game (0-7), I thought Miles was doing a decent enough job. If this year’s team stays healthy, he wins a few more games and is a hero. A switch to Hoiberg is a much trickier thing.
Then again, I’m not going to say Miles should not have been fired. NCAA basketball at this level is a big business. And a tough business.
And before we feel too sorry for Miles, there’s this from the Omaha World-Herald: ``Per Miles’ contract, he’ll be owed $105,000 per month through March 2021 — about $2.5 million total — though that amount could decrease if Miles takes another job.’’
Raise your hand if you'd like to be fired on those terms—especially with the new tax laws.
But I will say this: Somebody will hire Miles if they’re smart. He made Nebraska basketball competitive and entertaining. If he didn’t win enough this year, three injuries and a suspension played a big role in that.
And I will say this: I hope his assistant, defensive whiz Jim Molinari, lands on his feet too. At 64, Molinari—a former assistant to Ray Meyer at DePaul and head coach at Northern Illinois, Bradley and Western Illinois—probably doesn’t need another gig. He also has a law degree from DePaul. But if you look at what he did for the Cornhuskers defense, you’ll know he can help a team at any level.
And most importantly, I will say this: I take my hat off to Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos. I have always felt that the key to making a coaching change was to make sure the new guy was a big improvement over the departing guy.
By replacing Miles with Hoiberg, Moos seems to have done that. Big-time. At Iowa State, Hoiberg went 115-56 in five years, reaching the NCAA tournament in each of his last four years at Ames
The pressure will be on Hoiberg to produce. But he has all the ingredients to do that. Nebraska moved into a new arena recently and has a great fan base, plus all the potential resources that come with playing in the Big Ten alongside one of the nation’s proudest football programs in an area hungry for athletic success.
That's why opening up the Cornhusker wallet for Hoiberg makes sense. Lincoln has been a hoops backwater. But with its Big Ten membership card and its apparent commitment to excellence, I can't think of reasons why Lincoln can't be as successful as Ames.
But back to that early question. . . When I first heard some XM radio guys making the case that Nebraska was a better job for Hoiberg than UCLA, I started rolling my eyes.
I wanted to call Rankman—my friend, colleague and Bruins/Wooden devotee—and ask him about the possibility that someone might prefer Lincoln, Nebraska, to Tinseltown, USA.
But upon further review, I kind of get it.
I have no idea what Hoiberg (and other prospective candidates) are thinking. But UCLA is, in some ways, a tough deal. Yeah, that history is a great foundation. On the other hand, expectations are ridiculous. In fabulous Los Angeles, even a storied college basketball program has to elbow its way to public attention. The Pac-12 is so stagnant at the moment that it’s more of a drag than a boost for teams on the make.
Nebraska, on the other hand, has its shiny new arena. It plays in the Big Ten, which is a great basketball stage. And while it's the only Power Five school in the nation that has never won an NCAA tournament game, Cornhusker Nation is hungry for a winner.
Losing Miles didn't make sense to me at first. It's Nebraska basketball. By making this change, though, Moos wasn't merely bold. He showed the power of being in the Big Ten. And the resources. He already has a young phenom, Scott Frost, at the helm of Nebraska football, which seems poised for a big revival.
By hiring Hoiberg, Moos puts the Cornhuskers on track to become a force in Big Ten basketball. Maybe even beyond.
After he gets things going, I don't see Hoiberg talking NIT hoops in elevators. Or anywhere else.