The end of Sunday’s game was impossibly frantic, but the Mayor kept his cool. Fred Hoiberg is such a fixture in Ames, Iowa, that he has been called the Mayor since his playing days at Iowa State, and Ames is not a town with a lot of fixtures that do not contain stocks of grain. (One of the other fixtures is the quadrennial Iowa Presidential Straw Poll, which is what Thomas Jefferson would have invented had he been big on corn dogs.) Hoiberg gathered his Cyclones around him. They were tied at 83 with North Carolina, in a game that offered relief from the low-scoring rock fights elsewhere in the bracket. (Saint Louis and Louisville may still be fouling each other and missing free throws, for all I know.) Hoiberg looked around the huddle. “I told them,” he said later, “that they should all look around and smile, because we were going to win the game.” A variation on the old Jeremy Larner movie.
Smile, he said.
Then the Mayor called the play for his star, DeAndre Kane, a heavily onioned guard from Pittsburgh. Kane was isolated at the top of the circle, shook himself free down the gut, and dropped the ball through the basket, putting Iowa State up by two points with 1.6 seconds left. Which is about when the game fell down the rabbit hole. North Carolina tried to get the ball up the floor while its coach, Roy Williams, was frantically trying to call timeout. The clock ran down to zero, and the referees huddled for what seemed like most of the evening. Finally, Williams hugged Hoiberg, and everybody knew the game had ended.
“Let me say, what an honor it was to coach against Roy Williams,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a man that I admire greatly. Played against him back in the old Big Eight Conference when he was at Kansas and I was at Iowa State. He’s a guy that I have as much respect for as anybody in this business, so it was an actual privilege for me to go up against a Hall of Fame coach and a person of that caliber.”
That’s the old yada yada that you get from all the members of the lodge at this time of year. (Wait until next week, when Rick Pitino and John Calipari play each other. The plucked harps of artificial sanctimony are going to be audible on Mars.) There’s nothing about college basketball that makes my teeth itch quite as badly as the cult of the coach does. Never mind that the coaches get rich while the players see no profit from their labors. The cult of the coach deprives the players of even the singular recognition of the feats that win games, like Kane’s effort on Sunday, which earned him the last of his 24 points. Kane himself is a story; he’s 24, and he left Marshall in a kind of haze after his father died of a brain aneurysm. Sunday night, after the Mayor told everyone to smile, he gave the ball to Kane.
“I look around a little bit just to see if the lane is clogged,” Kane said. “But Coach drew up a great play in the huddle. It was a little isolation for me to try to attack the basket. If any guys were going to help me, I was going to try to kick it out to one of my teammates. But nobody helped, and I made an acrobatic shot and it went in. Give a lot of credit to Coach. He drew up a great play for me to finish the game at the end.”
Which is the way it should be. Coaches and players operate in different universes. Fred Hoiberg has operated in both of them. He has been a player and a coach in college, where the coach has the upper hand, and he has been a player and an executive in the NBA, where the situation is completely reversed, so he sees better than most people where those universes collide with each other, where design gives way to execution, and strategy to talent. And he recognizes his place in both universes, and his place in the world. He is Fred Hoiberg, coach of Iowa State, the semiofficial Mayor of Ames, and the Mayor wants his players to smile, and so they smile, even before they win the game.
Buzz Williams, formerly of Marquette and now of Virginia Tech, was on the television over the weekend talking about how “humbled” he was by the lessons learned on his old job, and how “excited” he was to be moving on to his new one, and, remarkably, his nose did not grow nor his tongue turn to flame. Of all the distasteful elements that run through this annual spring spectacular, the yearly coaching carousel is one of the most obviously venal. Millionaire coaches, to whom relatively uncompensated teenagers have plied their troth, see a chance to be $1.01-millionaires, and jump across the country without even a decent good-bye. Lesser breeds of lampreys line up to replace them, and even lesser breeds line up to replace them, and down the endless food chain we go. Of course, if players try to do this, there’s all kinds of hell to pay, and Mark Emmert, NCAA president, gets to fulfill the primary function of all seven figures he gets paid by deploring what the player has done. Deploring is right there in the job description and has been for years. Mark Emmert is a first-class deplorer.
It wasn’t always this way. Ray Meyer coached at DePaul for 42 years, Big House Gaines at Winston-Salem State for 47, and John Wooden spent 27 at UCLA, and doing not half badly, if dim memory serves. About the only coach following a similar path today is Jim Boeheim, who walked onto the Syracuse campus in 1962 and has never left. Not even the Mayor can say that, because he took 10 years away to play in the NBA before a heart ailment ended his career in 2005, after which he spent five years in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves before returning to Ames to coach in 2010. But he is as close to another Boeheim as we have, with one important difference: As a player, Jim Boeheim wasn’t much. As a player, Fred Hoiberg was a star.
His basketball career in Ames did not begin auspiciously. Working as one of the first ball boys the school ever had, Hoiberg somehow got tangled up with then–Cyclones star Jeff Hornacek, and Hornacek sprained his ankle and had to miss the rest of the game. By the time he got through at Ames High School, though, Hoiberg was one of those local heroes who either explode out of town or wind up boring people at the local country club with tales of past glory. Hoiberg led Ames to the state high school basketball championship and was also the state’s football player of the year. (Was he a quarterback? Of course he was a quarterback. Why would you even ask such a thing?) Once he stayed home, and began to play just as well at Iowa State, his teammates called him the Mayor, which stuck. He even once got write-in votes to be the actual mayor. He exploded.
He spent four years building his legend, scoring 1,993 points, helping the Cyclones to three NCAA tournaments. Then he went off to the NBA, and then he came back, and that was how he happened to be standing there in a huddle, surrounded by his team, as the game began to come completely unstrung, and telling them all to make sure to smile.
Dustin Hogue is a junior forward at Iowa State who comes from Yonkers, New York, and, next week, when the Cyclones move along to the East Regional in Madison Square Garden, Dustin Hogue is going to find out he has dozens of cousins he’s never met before. “I think I might have to steal some of my teammates’ tickets,” Hogue said. “They’re going to have to understand that I have so many people that want to see this game.”
The distance between Yonkers and Ames covers a lot more than geography, and Hogue has traveled every inch of it, with the Mayor as a guide. “He’s the most popular guy in the whole city,” Hogue said. “He’s definitely the Mayor. Being with him, you kind of get overshadowed, you know? They love the coach more than the players. It’s something special being around him.
“It’s definitely a long trip. Iowa is the complete opposite of me. I didn’t know that when I first got there, but Iowa kind of grew on me.”
The Mayor may not be there forever. He still has considerable cred in the NBA from his days with the Timberwolves, and the rumors are that his next step will not be to a bigger college job, but back up into the Association, which at least would be a logical — and considerably more honorable — career path. For now, though, all books are balanced. Neither Iowa State nor Fred Hoiberg owe the other anything more than they’ve already given. “They know what’s at stake after a great run to a Big 12 conference tournament championship,” he said of his team the other day. “You’re always a little worried after an emotional week like that how your guys will bounce back. Our guys have done a tremendous job all year after a heartbreaking loss, after big, emotional wins, of finding a way to get back to focus, and there’s been no exceptions to that this week.”
And they will go to New York smiling, because the Mayor said to smile, and they smile, even before they win the game.