- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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EVERY COLLEGE TOWN has The Guy. The one who never pays for lunch or drinks. The one whose currency is in all those photos displayed in old wooden trophy cases. The presence of The Guy brings conversations to a halt -- whether at a frat house dining hall or a board of trustees meeting. And if he wants, he can leverage that clout to sell his entire university, Greeks to regents, on nearly any idea, no matter how outlandish.
In Ames, Iowa, Fred Hoiberg is The Guy. He's the basketball luminary who led Ames High to a state championship in 1991, then spurned national program offers to help bring Iowa State to hoops glory with three trips to the NCAA tourney. At the local racket club, there's a reserved parking spot with "The Mayor" stenciled on its curb -- and it's not for Ann Campbell, the actual mayor of Ames.
The Guy, The Mayor, is now in his second season as the head coach of Iowa State, and he wants nothing more than to reinvigorate his beloved college hoops program. The thing is, his chosen road to reconstruction involves top-loading the roster with high-profile transfers -- a path some might consider calling outlandish.
It's not John Calipari's one-and-done roster roulette at Kentucky, and it isn't Mike Krzyzewski's four-year patience project at Duke. It's somewhere in between, based on the premise of recruiting a talented crop of vets to entice new classes of freshmen down the road. Supporters praise the strategy as a way to bring experience into the program under the guise of being an oasis of second chances. Detractors claim it's a get-rich-quick scheme, an inherently faulty makeup of misfits that's doomed to fail. And yet, all sides are obviously willing to see how it plays out, because this is Ames, Iowa, and by god, this is Fred Hoiberg.
Hoiberg is a local in every sense of the word. His father is a sociology professor at Iowa State. He grew up five blocks from Hilton Coliseum and met his wife, Carol, in the hallways of Ames High. His Iowa State teammates began calling him The Mayor because of his popularity around town; it stuck thanks to some write-in votes he received during the local election in 1993 -- his sophomore season -- when he was the team's top rebounder (6.3 rpg).
His local accomplishments, however, have garnered national praise. After college, Hoiberg embarked on a decade-long tour of duty as a three-point sharpshooter in the NBA, playing for the Pacers under Larry Brown and Larry Bird, and later Kevin McHale with the Timberwolves. The guys he played under all knew his pedigree -- that his grandfather, Jerry Bush, had been the coach at Nebraska -- and they viewed Hoiberg as a future coach. When an aortic aneurysm put an end to his on-court career in 2005, that future came sooner than planned. After undergoing heart surgery, Hoiberg moved into the Timberwolves' front office and promptly began dropping hints that he'd
like to return to Ames. At first, Cyclones athletic director Jamie Pollard shrugged him off as just another jock who thought he could coach. Four years later, when then-Cyclones coach Greg McDermott announced his departure for Creighton, Pollard drove to Minneapolis, contract in hand, and Hoiberg quit his post as VP of basketball operations to come home.
"Maybe that's part of why I feel a connection to these players who are looking for a second chance," Hoiberg confesses, reflecting on his health scare. "It's not a reach at all to say that my issues made me feel like I had a second shot at life. Being back on campus I feel like I've started a second life here in Ames. Why not let others experience that with me?"
No doubt Royce White, a 6-foot-8 forward for Iowa State, was grateful to join Hoiberg's second-chance experience. A highly touted power forward from Minneapolis, White was convicted of theft and disorderly conduct in December 2009 and left the University of Minnesota in February 2010 before playing one second of his freshman campaign. "The Mayor has promised to bring back the pride to his town and his school," says White. "He's doing it -- just not the way maybe some other people would. He brought us in, the misfits."
Four of Hoiberg's five starters, including White, are transfers. Each one brings his own backstory and baggage, not to mention a jigsaw puzzle of remaining years of eligibility. It's a chemistry experiment that seems especially odd for the buttoned-up Hoiberg -- a disciplined hoopster known for staying in the gym for three hours after practice shooting free throws and a guy who's never even sniffed the wrong side of the rules. But to him, it was a pragmatic answer to a common problem for programs in rebuilding mode. Programs like Iowa State.
Hoiberg was tasked with recharging a roster that was, ironically, left bare due to a rash of outgoing transfers. So he followed his pro exec instincts and
went looking for free agents. He touted his NBA address book, high-octane three-pointer offense and unabashed love for his school. He even went back to each potential transfer's high school coach and shook every branch of the notoriously gossipy college coaching tree. Why do you think this guy wants out? Was he a problem or did he just not fit in the scheme? Is all this crap I'm reading on the Internet for real or just made up?
One player Hoiberg sought out was former Southern Illinois forward Anthony Booker, a top-50 prep star who became frustrated with the atmosphere and wanted more playing time. Hoiberg then fortified his backcourt with former Big Ten stars Chris Babb, who grew wary of an ever-struggling Penn State program, and guard Chris Allen, who played in two Final Fours for Michigan State before being dismissed from the team for failing to meet team obligations. Next season brings the additions of former Utah forward Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious, another Michigan State refugee.
"I think there's a real misperception about what we were doing," says former assistant Bobby Lutz, now an assistant coach at NC State, who helped Hoiberg assemble the current lineup. "We weren't saying, 'Hey, I hear so-and-so is getting kicked off his team, let's go get him!' We looked for good kids. We researched them as if they were being recruited for the first time."
Hoiberg views the approach as temporary -- a short-term fix to kick-start a long-term plan. "I absolutely want our program to be a place where players want to be for four years," he says, harking back to his playing days. "Those were the greatest four years of my life, and I want to re-create that. But first we have to build this into a place where kids want to be."
So far, Ames as Ellis Island is working. Last season, Hoiberg's first as a head coach, the Cyclones finished 16-16 overall and 3-13 in the Big 12 (dead last) while the four transfers sat out per NCAA rules. With those four finally eligible this season, the team had 14 wins by Jan. 21, including a 4-2 start in
conference play. That success has helped the entire community buy into the reconstruction-by-reclamation plan, even the Cyclones who lost playing time to the newcomers. "I think a lot of people were skeptical because they've never really seen something like this, with so many of us coming in," Babb says. "But none of us on the team are skeptical. I think there's only one person in the world who could have sold this idea to this town: That's Coach."
For his part in the experiment, Allen agrees. "People were like, 'Why Iowa State?'?" he says of his drawn-out departure from Michigan State, which provided months of fodder for school message boards. (Spartans coach Tom Izzo denies rumors that his relationship with Allen was prickly.) "That's easy," Allen explains. "They wanted me here. They don't want to talk about the past. We're about looking ahead."
Looking ahead is something these transfers did plenty of last season, when they spent road games in the team's film room, eating pizza and watching their teammates play on TV. During their mandatory year of ineligibility, transfers can only practice and attend home games. This led to the group's nickname, the Best Scout Team in America -- a role the transfers initially despised but eventually embraced; it was an opportunity to become their own unit while pushing the actual starters hard in practice. In that film room, they'd have conversations about Hoiberg's plan and their places in it. They agreed that none of them could slip up and do something stupid to start what White calls the "See! They're just a bunch of screwup transfers!" conversation.
"In the end it was good for us, because it created this bonding experience that we wouldn't have had otherwise," says White. "We understand we were chosen to build Iowa State into something, and we can't mess that up. Now every game we walk out onto that court together I can feel us getting stronger."
For the first time in years, the citizens of Ames are making enough noise in Hilton Coliseum to fill the rafters, where Hoiberg's No. 32 jersey hangs. Just a few minutes up Lincoln Way, No. 32 also keeps a place at City Hall -- a T-shirt neatly folded in a desk drawer belonging to Mayor Campbell. Across the back, in cardinal and gold, it reads, "The Other Mayor." "My brother gave it to me," Campbell says with a chuckle. "That's pretty much all you need to know about whose town this is."
In ESPN The Magazine, Ryan McGee writes that Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg is showing his coaching counterparts there's more than one way to recruit.