Hoiberg picks Izzo's brain, then ends up at Nebraska competing against him

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

ROSEMONT, Ill. — Last winter, an unemployed Fred Hoiberg found himself venturing often to East Lansing, Michigan, where he engaged in lengthy discussions about basketball strategy with the dean of Big Ten Conference coaches, Tom Izzo.

There’s no way Hoiberg could have known then how strange it will be on Feb. 20, 2020. That’s when Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans will be playing in a sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Hoiberg will be on the opposite bench, coaching the Cornhuskers and matching wits once again with his new friend and mentor. There will actually be something at stake this time.

“It'll be fun to see Fred there,” Izzo told reporters Wednesday at the Big Ten’s men’s basketball media day.

“We just probably won't share chalk talks anymore.”

Hoiberg, 46, has been synonymous with Ames since moving there as a child. He was a star basketball player at Iowa State before a 10-year NBA career. He returned to coach his alma mater for five successful seasons, going 115-56 and making four NCAA tournaments.

But his dream to coach in the NBA was too strong, and he left Ames to take over the Chicago Bulls in 2015. He was in his fourth season, with a 5-19 record, when the Bulls fired him in December.

That began a period of restlessness for Hoiberg. He could only spend so many mornings drinking coffee, watching game shows and working on crossword puzzles.

Hoiberg’s son, Jack, is a walk-on point guard for the Spartans. Hoiberg headed north to watch Jack run the scout team Izzo’s practices. And that led to hours of discussions about basketball philosophy.

“Even on a game day we spent three hours together just writing ideas up on the board and talking about different things, X's and O's-wise,” Hoiberg said. “I have relied on him, and I've talked to him a lot.”

Nebraska basketball coach Fred Hoiberg laughs before the start of his pro-am round Wednesday at Wakonda Club with comedian Larry the Cable Guy and major champion golfer John Daly on Wednesday at the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines.

Soon, though, Hoiberg will be competing against Izzo. The Cornhuskers fired basketball coach Tim Miles in March after seven seasons produced no NCAA Tournament wins.

Hoiberg, eager to get back into coaching, was an obvious replacement. He was born in Lincoln. Both of his parents are graduates of Nebraska.

“When my dad got his Ph.D. back in 1974, he had two job offers actually; one was in Lawrence, Kansas, and one was in Ames, Iowa. And I'm forever grateful to my dad for making the right choice and moving our family to Ames,” Hoiberg said.

“I always consider Ames my home. There's no doubt about that. But it's funny how life comes full circle sometimes, and it certainly has for me.”

There is excitement surrounding Hoiberg’s hire in Lincoln, to be sure. Tickets have sold fast for games in 15,391-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena.

But Hoiberg is building a team from scratch. Fourteen of his 16 roster spots are filled with newcomers. Only junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson played in games last season for the Cornhuskers, averaging 2 points and 2 rebounds.

Jervay Green is one of the newcomers, a junior guard who transferred from George Washington. All he knew about Hoiberg, Green said, was that he had once coached the Bulls. He looked up a Youtube clip of his new coach scoring 14 points for the Minnesota Timberwolves in a win against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004. 

"That's all I needed right there," Green said. "I said, 'You played against LeBron and you beat him and you put 14 on his head?' That solidified it. That's credibility."

Hoiberg was adept at meshing transfers into an exciting and competitive team at Iowa State. And that’s the route he is taking again. Nebraska will be small, with no player taller than 6-foot-9. But the Cornhuskers will push the pace, Hoiberg promised.

“We've got to find a way to defend, and we have to rebound. That's going to be our biggest challenge, I think, is rebounding, just with the size of our team,” Hoiberg said. “But if we can get that, I am confident that we can get out and run with anybody.”

Hoiberg’s team probably isn’t ready to run with Izzo’s Spartans just yet. Izzo is coming off of his eighth Final Four appearance and his team is led by the preseason Big Ten player of the year in Cassius Winston.

But it only took Hoiberg two seasons to get the Cyclones into the Big Dance. It may not be long before Nebraska is a player in the Big Ten.

"It's not going to be very fun, I know that," Hoiberg said of coaching against Izzo. 

"He's what we're all striving to get to."

As for the end of the chalk talks, Hoiberg had a deadpan answer: "I'm sick of giving him all these ideas."

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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