Editor's note: Over the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. On Monday, we unveil No. 15: Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg. On Tuesday, we release No. 14.
He had a plan, but he didn’t have the personnel to execute it.
Fred Hoiberg had no interest in the typical rebuilding project that requires the nurturing of young players’ minds and bodies. The Mayor wanted to win now. He craved a Big 12 title today. Not two or three years from the date of his return to Iowa State in 2010.
He had to have the players that would allow the Cyclones to compete with Kansas that season.
And the pool of young men searching for second and third chances -- transfers -- provided the firepower he sought.
They had game experience and maturity. They were talented and desperate. Some arrived with warning labels, but their talent surpassed the risk for Hoiberg and his staff.
“I really came into it with an open mind,” Hoiberg told ESPN.com. “The biggest thing was getting talent to compete for the Big 12 title. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of recruiting. [My staff and I] talked a lot about how we could get the talent level up.”
Today, Ames, Iowa, is a hub -- a successful one -- for transfers. They’ve been the soil that has sprouted a bountiful stretch for a Top-25 program and a head coach who is now recognized as one of the most coveted young coaches by the NBA.
Last season, former Marshall star DeAndre Kane earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors after guiding the Cyclones to a Big 12 tourney title and the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Connecticut.
Next season, former UNLV standout Bryce Dejean-Jones, former Northern Illinois star Abdel Nader and former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay could all crack the starting rotation for a Cyclones program that will seek its fourth consecutive trip to the Big Dance in 2014-15.
“The chemistry is great because it’s such an open program,” McKay said. “As far as blending with the team, honestly, I was surprised when I first got here. They all welcomed me when I got in. I never felt like a transfer or anything. I was welcomed from day one.”
The pursuit of transfers, some of whom had murky playing pasts, began with Royce White (Minnesota), a former All-Big 12 first-teamer and first-round NBA draft pick in 2012. He, Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Chris Babb (Penn State) helped Iowa State reach its first NCAA tournament since 2005.
They all came to Ames with some baggage, none more highly publicized than White’s.
White was a five-star prospect when he entered Minnesota, but he never played for Tubby Smith because of multiple legal issues. The 6-foot-8 forward had a unique set of skills. He also had the potential to mar everything that Hoiberg craved.
“Right away, right off the bat, when we first got the job, the guy we locked in on, that we knew would really help if it all worked out, was Royce,” said Matt Abdelmassih, an Iowa State assistant who has played a key role in the recruitment of transfers for the Cyclones. “Royce, I’d say, started it all for us. The reason why is getting a high-caliber player to buy in and trust us was really difficult because we were unknown. He trusted us. It took off.”
White flourished and avoided the drama that had delayed his progress with the Gophers.
His production impacted Kane, who wanted what White had in Ames -- a positive conclusion to his collegiate career and an NBA future. Kane enabled Hoiberg to lure additional ready-now talents to Ames.
“I got to see the success rate from the guys before, and I got to talk to DeAndre Kane,” said Dejean-Jones, who averaged 13.6 points for UNLV last season. “He told me how he was in the same position I was in and how comfortable he felt going into it and just how he loved going there, so I just felt like it was the right place for me.”
Hoiberg’s naivete helped him when he accepted the job. He admits that he initially didn’t know all the recruiting rules and nuances. But his stint in the NBA also made it easier to dismiss the stigma attached to the multitude of Division I prospects who would rather see other people. Sure, some had issues he knew he’d have to address. That wasn’t unusual in the NBA, though.
So he embraced that process. As an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Hoiberg vetted young men vying for multimillion-dollar contracts.
He has applied the same tactics at Iowa State. And those investigations have revealed some red flags about players that the program has rejected.
“I had done a lot of that leading into the draft,” Hoiberg said. “Not one time has [the former coach of a player we’ve signed] said, ‘You really shouldn’t go after that kid.’ ... But we’ve turned down some pretty good players.”
White had a variety of off-court issues. Hoiberg spoke to White’s former coaches and family members, however, and concluded that the young man just needed a new environment. He was right.
Allen was suspended multiple times by Tom Izzo during his time at Michigan State. Kane had a reputation as a selfish hothead.
Both admitted their shortcomings and asked for a fresh start.
“Someone confesses to you that they really screwed up, it’s worth the risk,” Abdelmassih said.
It hasn’t been a flawless mission, though. Babb was suspended for a violation of team rules at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. Nader is due to make an appearance in court later this month after pleading not guilty to a DWI charge stemming from an April arrest -- sophomore guard Matt Thomas was also cited Saturday for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
But Hoiberg’s first four years have not been defined by problems, although they could have been. That initial group of transfers had the potential to both reboot the program and scar it.
Hoiberg knew the possibilities. And he worried about them.
Shortly after he’d accepted the job in 2010, he attended an AAU tournament in the Minneapolis suburbs during a furious thunderstorm. He’d already targeted White at that point.
And he wanted to know if it was the right move. As he spoke with a local reporter about the pros and cons of chasing White, a rattling boom rocked the building. Then, the lights went out and the gym grew quiet.
In that dark facility, Hoiberg conversed about the light that White might provide if he could just lure the versatile talent to Ames and help him focus. Maybe the troubled power forward would be the answer and not the problem.
“There are times where you say to yourself we dodged a bullet,” Abdelmassih said, “and it’s a big bullet that we dodged because it could have backfired.”