AMES, Iowa — The debate over Iowa State's decision to hire Fred Hoiberg two years ago included at least one point everyone could agree on: Even if he could make the transition from rising NBA executive to Big 12 coach, it was going to take time.
Well, "The Mayor" has arrived and he's way ahead of schedule.
The Ames native and former Iowa State star has improbably pushed his local legend to new heights. Just 23 months after taking his first coaching job at any level, Hoiberg was named the Big 12's co-Coach of the Year and his Cyclones (22-10) are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
"I've always said that I think good coaches coach and great coaches lead," Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said. "He's got outstanding leadership qualities,"
Eighth-seeded Iowa State — a program revitalized this season by Hoiberg's decision to bring in talented transfers like Chris Allen and Royce White — will face defending national champion Connecticut (20-13) on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
Hoiberg's rapid ascension has made it easy to forget the divided opinions about the wisdom of his hiring.
Cyclones fans have always adored Hoiberg, the school's third-leading scorer. But even fans who thought Hoiberg could do no wrong worried about his lack of experience.
Hoiberg left a front-office job with the Minnesota Timberwolves, surprising some who thought his basketball acumen would someday lead him to an NBA general manager's job. But besides some scouting duties, he hadn't been actively involved in college hoops since he played 15 years earlier. He'd never coached a game in his life.
But Hoiberg had always been planning for his dream job. He' pushed for the Cyclones job as far back as 2006, shortly after his decade-long NBA career came to an end. Pollard pegged him as too green for the gig, hiring Greg McDermott away from Northern Iowa instead.
When McDermott told Pollard four years later that he was leaving for Creighton, Pollard accepted his resignation, hopped in his car and drove straight to Hoiberg's house in Minneapolis.
Hoiberg joined Pollard in Ames for an introductory press conference two days later, a moment that helped convince Pollard that he'd made the right call.
"I go back to presser when he got hired. He didn't conduct himself like somebody who's never done it before," Pollard said.
Hoiberg quickly adopted a three-pronged approach for resurrecting the program. It included hiring a "gray hair" to help him and infusing the program with talent by aggressively seeking out transfers from other Division I schools.
"I wanted to get things turned around quickly, obviously by the way that we brought in the players that we did," Hoiberg said. "We wanted to get as much talent here as possible to give ourselves a chance."
The hope was that instant success would raise the program's profile, making it easier to recruit top talent.
It's turned out to be a really good idea.
Hoiberg brought in former Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz as an assistant last season. Though the depth-challenged Cyclones struggled to a 3-13 league mark, Lutz proved to be a valuable resource for Hoiberg to learn from before leaving to be closer to family at North Carolina State.
Iowa State associate head coach T.J. Otzelberger, who Hoiberg retained from McDermott's staff, said the new coach has been helped by his smarts.
"He knows the game inside and out. I think the adjustment has more so been along the lines of all the other day-to-day operations," Otzelberger said. "I don't think there's been an adjustment for him basketball-wise."
The transfers became eligible in November. They didn't need much time to adjust, either.
Allen ranks third on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game. Junior Chris Babb embraced his role as a defender and became one of the best around, and White was just named the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year.
Iowa State was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 largely because nobody knew how Hoiberg could blend his individual pieces into a winning team.
But Hoiberg's experience in assessing talent from his days working with the Timberwolves and what Pollard said is his keen eye for social compatibility has allowed the program to thrive.
Hoiberg has lined up a pair of top transfers for next season in former Michigan State guard Korie Lucious and Utah forward Will Clyburn. But he's also landed a four-player recruiting class led by four-star forward Georges Niang.
"He a guy that they can relate to. He's not somebody that's a yeller and screamer. That's not his approach. He's more cerebral, and I think he builds a relationship individually with each player," Otzelberger said. "That allows him to understand them better and it allows them to (become) more vested in him. They really feel like he's really got their best interests at heart, and that he cares about them."Comment on this story
The Cyclones know the odds of them getting past the opening weekend are steep, with the Huskies up first and top-seeded Kentucky likely awaiting the winner.
But few thought Iowa State would be in such a position just two years after handing Hoiberg his dream job.
"From a personal standpoint, from someone who grew up in Ames, it's awesome to see the passion that's back for Cyclone basketball," he said. "Now that we're there, hopefully we stay moving in this direction for a long time and, this is something that's expected every year, getting into the tournament."