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Hoiberg Return Here Makes Sense

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January 9, 2019

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Fred Hoiberg could have a future in Minneapolis, and perhaps not with the Timberwolves like most everyone is speculating.

If Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino moved on after this season, it doesn’t require much imagination to think athletic director Mark Coyle has Hoiberg’s name on a list of potential candidates who interest him. Coyle, who didn’t hire Pitino, has shown a willingness to change coaches in his department since taking over as Minnesota’s AD in the spring of 2016.

Pitino, 36, has a 33-61 Big Ten record in five-plus seasons, and one NCAA Tournament appearance. Going into this season basketball media considered him a coach on the “hot seat.” Minnesota’s overall record this season is 12-3 and 2-2 in conference games after last night’s home loss to Maryland.

In past years rumors had other schools pursuing Pitino for head coaching jobs. He has East Coast roots and maybe it’s possible an impressive season this winter by the Gophers will prompt a job opening that interests him more than Minnesota.

It’s common policy for athletic directors to maintain lists of potential replacements for coaches leaving their positions. Hoiberg’s qualifications make him a “layup” for the job at Minnesota, if it opens and he is interested.

Hoiberg’s name is known throughout this state for his playing career with the Timberwolves and front office work with the franchise. His first entry into coaching was a huge success at Iowa State, where he made the team a Big-12 power with an up-tempo offense led by transfers from other schools including ex-Gopher Royce White. While at Iowa State, Hoiberg’s name was prominently connected to the Gophers’ coaching opening in 2013 but apparently he wasn’t interested at that time in leaving the Cyclones.

Iowa State was a homecoming for the Ames native who had been a legendary player for the Cyclones. He won about two-thirds of his games (115-56) in five seasons before leaving for the NBA’s Bulls. He never got the Bulls into the playoffs and in December was terminated because the club was playing so poorly. His supporters argue he never had the personnel to turn the Bulls into a winner.

Hoiberg told ESPN on Monday he prefers to pursue college or pro coaching opportunities, rather than work in an NBA front office. Zach Lowe wrote that Hoiberg’s passion is with coaching, and that he isn’t prioritizing either the NBA or college coaching for his next stop.

Hoiberg also has the name recognition, appearance, charm and communication skills to be a TV basketball authority. At 46, he has considerable hoops experience and yet he is young enough to be attractive to potential employers.

“The Mayor,” as he is known in Ames, has options and they’re not in politics. Last I heard he still had connections to Minnesota including a lake cabin in the state. My impression years ago was that he and his family liked living here—a lot. While there are rumors UCLA wants him for its basketball opening, the Midwest seems like home for the “one of us” Hoiberg.

The Gopher job (if it becomes available) is attractive because the state is almost oozing with talented high school players. Keep most of them home and the Gophers could just about be Big Ten title contenders each year. The decades ahead might be special for the program.

At Iowa State Hoiberg had to fight off Iowa and other nearby programs for talent. The Gophers, though, are the only Division I basketball program in the state of Minnesota. That means a leg up in recruiting and support from the public including ticket buyers and donors. The program has a high ceiling in every way including an iconic arena and state-of-the-art practice facility.

Think of the recruiting pitch Hoiberg could make to recruits if he returns to a college program. He can talk about his own playing career, success in college coaching and extensive experience in the NBA. Known for his expertise in player development, Hoiberg could convincingly tell recruits he knows the formula for getting them to the NBA.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor may have deliberately taken a proactive step regarding Hoiberg when he fired coach Tom Thibodeau on Sunday. Taylor has known Hoiberg for about 15 years and I am sure likes him. Both are gentlemen and it’s easy to see how strong their bond could be in working together.

Taylor has to know admirers are already lining up at Hoiberg’s doorstep. It could be the two have already had conversations about a Hoiberg role with the organization. It’s easy to imagine the comfort level and rapport they might have.

Coming back to Minneapolis to work for Taylor and the Wolves is likely appealing to Hoiberg, who would be an expensive hire. He reportedly had a five year, $25 million deal with the Bulls so he’s already established a potential market price on his next job. In either a coaching or front office position with the Wolves, he will need to earn his money and that will be challenging because the team is far from being an NBA champion.

The roster has one future title level piece on the roster in 23-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns. With his versatile skills at both ends of the court, including outside shooting, he seems like a perfect fit in a running, free flowing offense like Hoiberg would be expected to use.

Hoiberg won’t take a job with the Timberwolves without assurances regarding his authority. He might not have dual titles like Thibodeau had as coach and president of basketball operations, but there is no doubt his word on personnel decisions would be considerable. However, if Hoiberg is coaching he can only do so much, and current general manager Scott Layden, another likeable fellow, might be someone Taylor and Hoiberg want around.

Thibodeau was the Bulls coach before Hoiberg succeeded him in 2015. Now it seems like a strong possibility Hoiberg will again follow Thibodeau’s path, and perhaps soon.

That might be the direction Hoiberg wants to follow, but it appears he could more easily establish a winning team in college basketball where he can identify and recruit talent, rather than being in the NBA system of drafting players, and trying to sign and retain free agents. UCLA or other college programs should make that pitch.

As of this week 32-year-old Ryan Saunders is the Wolves interim coach. Despite his youth and inexperience (Wolves Summer League team was his only previous head job), Saunders has been respected in the organization for years and viewed as an ascending talent. He could turn out to be a “players’ coach” and if he can improve the club’s defensive performances he might get another title, too: “Genius.”

Much to the delight of his supportive players, Saunders won his debut game last night against the Thunder, 119-117.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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