Fred Hoiberg left home — a place where he might have remained the highest-ranking unelected chief magistrate for life — and returned to the NBA instead.
Should Rahm Emanuel be worried that in Chicago now there's a new mayor in town?
"Absolutely not," Hoiberg said. "One area I will never venture into is politics."
Just as Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers tells reporters he's not actually a doctor when they ask about his players' health, Hoiberg reminds he's really not the "Mayor," which is how hometown fans in Ames, Iowa, knew him when he starred for Iowa State in the early 1990s. He led the school to three NCAA tournament appearances before he returned as coach and made the program relevant again, taking it back to the tournament four consecutive seasons nearly two decades after he played.
"In nickname only," said Hoiberg, who once received write-in votes in an Ames election.
Now he is the Bulls' new coach, hired away from his alma mater last summer because of his innovative offense after the team fired defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau. Winner of 50 games or more three times in his five years as coach, Thibodeau and his Chicago teams never did better than 62 victories and an Eastern Conference finals appearance they achieved in his first season there.
At age 43, Hoiberg walked away from his job of a lifetime — and for a lifetime — in a town where he grew up four blocks from campus and where his parents and in-laws still live. In doing so, he agreed to sort out a talented team seeking to settle on its star (Jimmy Butler or Derrick Rose?) as well as just how big men Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson fit with each other.
"I had a great job," he said, "but this was a great situation."
Time for a change
Hoiberg is back at what he calls his sport's "highest level" with a talented team that has started the season 4-2 while it adjusts from Thibodeau's demanding, disciplined and defensive-oriented ways to Hoiberg's calm, cool and free-flowing offensive ideals.
The Bulls enter Saturday's game against the Wolves after Thursday's victory over Oklahoma City in which Rose and Butler combined to score 55 points and the oft-injured Rose looked something like his old self.
With daughter Paige now in college, son Jack a high school junior and twin boys Sam and Charlie in seventh grade, Hoiberg decided the time was right for a change. He accepted the Chicago job little more than a month after he underwent April surgery that replaced an aortic valve, his second open-heart surgery in a decade. His NBA playing career ended in 2005 after doctors decided an enlarged aortic root required immediate attention.
"I have a tremendous passion to coach, but if there was any danger to my health, I wouldn't be doing this," he said. "I've got four kids and a great family. That's the most important thing. The doctors have assured me the problem is fixed and I can have a long career in this."
He joins Boston's Brad Stevens (Butler) and Oklahoma City's Billy Donovan (Florida) on a list of recent college coaches who have attempted to make the NBA leap, with very mixed results through the years. Hoiberg points out the NBA's new "college guy" has spent far more time in the pro game than at Iowa State.
"I don't judge anyone from the experiences they have," Gasol said on media day last month. "He comes with a lot of validation. I'm open to the fact that he's a new NBA coach. He has had a great NBA career. He has great character. He's a great person. Now let's see if he can help us be the best team we can be and help us win the championship and achieve our goal. That's how we all should base how good a coach can be, regardless of his experience."
Hoiberg calls returning to the NBA — "Something I was looking to do at some point" — an opportunity he simply couldn't refuse. He said he had discussions with his former coach and longtime friend Flip Saunders about the Timberwolves' coaching job in 2014 and again last spring that "never really got serious," and talked with Golden State and Orlando, among others, the past two years about their jobs before the Bulls dangled everything he wanted.
The Bulls offered a chance to return to the NBA, where he played 10 seasons and worked another four in the Wolves front office, and coach a team with enough talented players to contend in the Eastern Conference. They offered a chance to return to the city where Hoiberg played four NBA seasons and reunite with Bulls GM Gar Forman, who was on the Iowa State staff when Hoiberg played there.
And the Bulls offered a chance to return, as odd as it sounds with an 82-game season plus playoffs, to perhaps a more normal lifestyle, at least compared to the year-round college coaching grind.
"The thing about the NBA, it's just basketball," Hoiberg said. "You just have to focus on coaching, getting your team ready to play. There are a lot of things in college and coaching is about half: You have to recruit. You have to make sure your guys go to class. You have so many things on your plate."
He returned to Ames in 2010, leaving the Wolves' topsy-turvy front office under new boss David Kahn after he was deemed not ready to manage the team himself. He accepted a five-year contract that guaranteed him at least $4 million to coach his alma mater. Losers each of the previous four seasons, Iowa State gambled on a rookie coach, bringing Hoiberg and his high school sweetheart, wife Carol, back home to lead a program that in no way resembled the teams for which he played nearly 20 years earlier.
The son of an Iowa State professor and a former ballboy for its football and basketball teams, Hoiberg had played professionally for Saunders, Kevin McHale and two accomplished Larrys — Brown and Bird — and considered himself ready, even though he had never coached. He rebuilt the Cyclones program in the next five seasons by taking chances on a series of transfer players, including the Gophers' Royce White.
"I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think we could turn things around," Hoiberg said. "I had too much respect for that university. I grew up there. I spent a lot of my time there. I wanted to do good, positive things. The one thing I'm very happy about walking away from that job is we left that program in great shape. Hopefully, they'll compete for championships for a long time."
Hoiberg's departure left the people of Ames saddened, but most understood his decision.
"I think at the end of the day they did," he said. "It was a tough decision, it really was. That was my home. I had a great situation, but to compete at the highest level, with a team that can compete for a championship, was just too good of an opportunity to say no."