CHICAGO -- Like many things did during his initiation as an NBA head coach, the question caught Fred Hoiberg a little off guard. The 43-year-old was near the end of a tough first season as coach of the Chicago Bulls, but this setting was supposed to be a respite. The Iowa media, many of whom had covered Hoiberg for years, were in town to cover Hoiberg's former team, the Iowa State Cyclones, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The group made its way to the United Center a couple nights before the Cyclones' game against Virginia to talk to their hometown hero before the Bulls' game against the New York Knicks.
Nine months earlier, Hoiberg left Ames for a chance to be a professional head coach, but the season that would see the Bulls miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons did not end the way Holberg and his new team envisioned.
"Does this feel right to you?" a reporter asked. "Being here, doing this?"
"It, it really, it's been -- yeah," he began, trying to find the right words. "I've enjoyed, I've enjoyed being here. I'll tell you one thing I have not missed is making recruiting calls at 10 o'clock in the morning. It's been a good group of guys to be around. I've enjoyed them and I think we've grown together as the season's gone on."
Nicknamed "The Mayor" during his time at Iowa State because of his popularity within the city and region, the proud Ames native gave the type of answer a politician would appreciate: He tried to put a positive spin on what was a difficult situation. Only to those who had watched him since his arrival in Chicago was Hoiberg's answer telling. The stress of his new job was written all over his face. How many times over the last year did he wonder if he had made the right decision to leave such a comfortable situation in his hometown?
As the Bulls get set to kick off their second season under Hoiberg on Monday, the spotlight will be brighter than ever on the young coach. While some fans are excited to see how veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo will fit in with Jimmy Butler and the rest of the team's young core, it will be up to Hoiberg to find a way to make it all work. He is the man who will be feeling more pressure than any of his players to make sure that everyone has learned from the failures of a season ago.
There are many reasons the Bulls underperformed during the 2015-16 campaign -- first and foremost being that the roster Bulls GM Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson constructed wasn't as good as the organization anticipated -- but at the center of any discussion about the Bulls' issues is Hoiberg. He was the handpicked successor to Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls' brain trust was convinced the players would adapt quickly to Hoiberg's style, but that wasn't the case. Hoiberg struggled to create an identity for his new team, and his players struggled to adapt to his message. Butler publicly ripped Hoiberg in December, saying the team needed to be coached "a lot harder."
As a person, Hoiberg is well-liked throughout the organization, viewed as an affable family man who is easily accessible. But as a coach, Hoiberg struggled to get his team to buy into what he was selling on a nightly basis. The single biggest knock on him, one heard both inside and outside the organization, was that Hoiberg was "too nice." He stuck with players longer than he should have during games, he wasn't tough enough on players for making errors, younger players didn't improve or regressed under his watch -- the list goes on. Any coach replacing Thibodeau was going to have large shoes to fill because of the success the Bulls had during his five-year tenure, but Hoiberg never seemed to find his footing within the locker room, a point hammered home when the Bulls missed the playoffs.
When asked after a March loss to San Antonio why the Bulls were able to establish a culture so quickly under Thibodeau and struggled to do so in Hoiberg's first season, Bulls veteran Taj Gibson paused for a while before giving a well-considered answer.
"Hmm. That's a good question," Gibson told ESPN.com. "It's -- it's a bit difficult [to explain]. The culture was different because at first we just had a bunch of veterans. From the jump we had a bunch of veterans. I was already mature, we had a bunch of guys that was already like into it. Now we have a new group of young guys, it's young guys. It's a bunch of young guys. They weren't accustomed to the old system. Even though we've been together, it's hard to say we've been together because we've always had this amount of guys healthy and we got another group of guys injured and it keeps flip-flopping. And then you keep flip-flopping units and mixing in different units, you don't really have the chemistry. ... Those first couple years, other than Derrick [Rose being hurt], we were rolling.
"We had guys off the bench that were basically starters. It comes down to mentality. And plus, we were feeding off of our coaching staff, too. At times, we feed off of Fred when he's fired up. It's a number of things you could say, but I really can't put a finger on it, to tell you the truth. We was into it. This group was into it. But it's just, it's -- some people that catch on quick [snaps fingers] and it's some groups [where] it takes a while. One thing I've seen that we've shown in film, we're still talking about things with our young guys that we were talking about early in the year. It's just growing, growing pains. But the coaching staff and the players are learning ... it's going to come, it's going to take time. But it's different when Chicago people are just expecting [us] to win. The culture -- we were hot. They expect it to just keep rolling. It takes time."
Time is one thing Hoiberg has on his side. He signed a five-year, $25 million deal last summer, so he has the financial peace of mind that many coaches dream about. The Bulls' front office believes Hoiberg will learn from his growing pains, pointing to the success former Butler coach Brad Stevens had in Boston after his first season. The difference is that Stevens, now regarded as one of the NBA's best coaches, came to a team that didn't have many expectations. He was able to grow into the job and with his team. The Bulls' front office is quick to point out that it has 10 players on its roster who are 25 or younger, but by adding Wade and Rondo it has increased the scrutiny on Hoiberg in the process.
When asked what they had seen from Hoiberg over the past year that led them to believe the coach was a long-term fit, Paxson never gave a specific example. Gibson, who was Hoiberg's biggest public defender last season, and who will be one of the main players Hoiberg leans on for guidance this year, tried to explain the challenges in adjusting to Hoiberg's style after listening to Thibodeau bark orders for so long.
"I wouldn't say he's laid back," Gibson said of Hoiberg. "[You got to] understand he's coming from college. You got to give him a break. He's coming fresh from college. He's dealing with grown men, pros. It's a new adjustment. You got to try to make everybody -- people don't understand how hard it is. You're coming from where you have a couple little guys that have a chance to play and then you go to the pros where everybody's an alpha. Then out of all those alphas you've got to pick certain guys that [will] be successful and keep playing. You got to try to make everybody happy. He's a new coach. He's doing a great job, I think. It's just at times it's tough because at the end of the day he's still dealing with a bunch of new rookies, second-year guys that he's trying to work with. You've got veterans that he's dealing with ... what Thibs dealt with in the past, a lot of injuries. Nobody ever talks about the injuries, but through all that he's still doing a good job. Look at how many injuries he's dealing with."
Injuries aren't expected to be an issue once Tuesday's first practice begins. It will be up to Hoiberg to mold the alphas -- Butler, Wade and Rondo -- with everybody else. As much as the Bulls are hoping some of those younger players take the next step in their development, if the group is going to improve, if the Bulls are to find sustained success, it is Hoiberg who must take the biggest developmental step of all.