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How Fred Hoiberg became too big for Iowa State

With the Chicago Bulls chasing after the Iowa State coach, his storied career in Ames might finally be over.

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Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Fred Hoiberg is Iowa State basketball. He grew up in Ames, starred for the team in the early '90s and returned as head coach to lead the program out of its biggest NCAA Tournament drought in two decades. But after five years of helping his hometown school turn into one of college basketball's most exciting upstarts, Hoiberg may have finally outgrown his pond.

At the moment, Iowa State is stuck in a holding pattern, caught in the middle of a seemingly petty, bitter feud between the Chicago Bulls front office and head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau has the second-highest winning percentage among active coaches and has elevated the Bulls to an annual contender in the Eastern Conference, but it's no secret management is ready for a change.

It's also no secret the man at the top of Chicago's wish list is Hoiberg.

Rumors started circulating around the All-Star break: If Thibodeau couldn't lead the Bulls to the NBA Finals, his time in Chicago was likely over. Hoiberg's name was tied to the franchise from the start. It's not a coincidence.

The Bulls first formed their Iowa State connection 16 years ago when then GM Jerry Krause handpicked ISU coach Tim Floyd to succeed Phil Jackson and transition the Bulls out of the Michael Jordan era. When Floyd was hired, Chicago also brought along his assistant coach, Gar Forman.

Forman is now the GM in Chicago, but he's always had one eye on Ames. Three months before the Bulls hired Thibodeau in the summer of 2010, Hoiberg was hired at Iowa State. He was previously working in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office, where former president of basketball operations David Kahn said Hoiberg was "on track to become president of an NBA team."

Hoiberg had no head coaching experience at the time, but he was already a legend in Ames. He turned down a Nebraska football scholarship at the height of the Tom Osborne era to play basketball for his hometown school. He left as the program's third-leading scorer after taking the Cyclones to the NCAA Tournament three times. He had his jersey retired two years after graduation.

Before Hoiberg arrived, Iowa State basketball was at its low point. The Cyclones had finished with a losing record in each of the previous three seasons under coach Greg McDermott, who heard whispers about his job security and took an offer from Creighton. In its first season under Hoiberg, ISU got back to .500. During his second year is when Hoiberg really started to show what type of coach he could be.

The star of the 2012 team was forward Royce White, a gifted but troubled transfer from Minnesota. He led the Cyclones to a 23-11 campaign, a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a win over UConn once there. The addition of White started a trend Hoiberg has followed throughout his tenure at ISU: Instead of competing against bigger programs for top high school recruits, Hoiberg has always been willing to take a chance on a transfer, even if there are red flags off the court.

With White, Iowa State had the No. 24 offense in college basketball, per KenPom. It was a drastic change from the McDermott era, when the Cyclones averaged an offensive finish of No. 185 in the country.

Hoiberg had given Iowa State an identity. It would play as fast any team in the country, fire three-pointers at will and put an emphasis on meaningful off-the-ball motion. The Cyclones were also always undersized, never having a legitimate center before last season when Marquette transfer Jameel McKay finally provided a shot blocker inside. That meant ISU's defense was always inferior to its offense, but no one was going to argue with the exciting brand of ball Hoiberg's teams were playing.

As the years went on, the transfers kept coming in and the offense continued to rise up rankings. In 2013, Utah transfer Will Clyburn and Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious powered a team that finished with the No. 6 offense in the country. The next year, Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane and Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim brought the team to the Sweet 16 with, once again, the No. 6 offense in the country.

The addition of McKay at midseason last year meant Iowa State finally looked like it had its most balanced team. The defense rose to No. 71, up from No. 133 two years earlier. The talented but troubled transfer was UNLV combo guard Bryce Dejean-Jones. Many people believed Iowa State had the pieces for a Final Four run.

If there's any hesitation to leave Iowa State for Hoiberg, it's because of the way last season ended. The Cyclones were upset as a No. 3 seed by UAB, a middling Conference USA team no one thought could win an NCAA Tournament game. Iowa State was dominated on the glass -- UAB had a 19-9 offensive rebound advantage -- and a powerful offense was held to just 0.86 points per possession.

Iowa State will have another preseason top-10 team next season, but the writing for Hoiberg's future seems to be on the wall. School AD Jamie Pollard said Hoiberg expressed his long-term goal was coaching in the NBA from the moment he was hired at Iowa State. After turning down the Timberwolves job last year and meeting with the Cavaliers and Warriors about their vacancies, it seems like the pull of the Bulls job might be too much to reject.

In Hoiberg, the Bulls see something like the anti-Thibodeau. His teams play the type of fast, free-flowing basketball that's in style at the moment. Instead of grinding down his players during the regular season, Hoiberg is known as a players coach. Sometimes he might take it too far: Last season, five Iowa State players were arrested for either drugs or alcohol.

The Bulls will bet that an organizational culture that values character will take care of any off-court issue. It seems like they're also willing to bet a new voice can get Chicago past its usual hump of a first- or second-round playoff exit. In a perfect world, Hoiberg could have a similar affect on the Bulls as Steve Kerr had on the Warriors after replacing Mark Jackson.

Even as Hoiberg's teams have made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once in five years, his time at Iowa State speaks for itself. The Cyclones will survive, but it won't be easy. At Iowa State, no one just replaces Fred Hoiberg.


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