MIAMI -- Fred Hoiberg prides himself on keeping a calm and cool demeanor. The 43-year-old head coach of the Chicago Bulls doesn't want to show too much emotion during games, whether things are good or bad. As his team has slid almost all the way out of playoff contention in recent weeks, though, that outwardly relaxed shell has started to crack.
"It's tough," Hoiberg said recently of holding up emotionally in the face of his team's struggles. "It's tough. I've always been a guy -- I was a long shot to make it in this league. I made it. If not for heart disease, I would have played. I might still be playing, having more fun. Went into a tough job and succeeded at a very high level at Iowa State. I want to get us to a point where we're competing for a championship and it hadn't happened. I take it very personal. I'm the first guy to look at every night in the mirror and try to figure out what I can do better. So it's been tough, it's been tough, but just got to continue to try and prepare these guys to go out and play. It starts with competing, try to challenge them every single day that you can and get them ready to play. That's what I'm trying to do."
Hoiberg knew from the moment he took the job last summer that he would have a lot of pressure coming his way after all the regular-season success the Bulls had over the past five years under former coach Tom Thibodeau. He did his best to embrace those winning habits early in the year, but the signs of the mental grind every NBA coach goes through during an 82-game season were apparent early and have become more pronounced in recent weeks as the Bulls have faded down the stretch. The easygoing coach picked up the first technical foul of his career during a March 10 loss to the San Antonio Spurs and has admittedly struggled to get through to his players during his first year as a professional head coach.
"He's been very positive, man," Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. "Not showing any frustration when we come in the locker room, talking to the players. So that's one thing I can take from him. It seems like he's always at peace with himself. Of course we know that he's frustrated, but always holds it in and just trying to be a leader."
On a personal level, Hoiberg seems to be well liked by many of his players. He tries to stay upbeat and excited about what's to come for his group. On a professional level, some of Hoiberg's messages are not getting through to his players. They continually make the same mistakes and there are times, especially on the offensive end, in which players seem to freelance on their own. Bulls management knew there would be some growing pains with Hoiberg as a first-year coach, especially replacing a taskmaster such as Thibodeau, but nobody in the organization believed that this group would head into Saturday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the brink of playoff extinction.
All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler has wondered what went wrong for what many in the league thought was one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference.
"Obviously, it's not the way that we want it," Butler said. "I think everybody thinks about it each and every day. It probably keeps everybody up late. I know it does for me. But you can't change it now. It is what it is."
Hoiberg has been open about the fact that he has had several sleepless nights during the year. The stress involved with a coaching job is enormous, especially one with as high a profile as the Bulls' top position. Hoiberg came into the year with championship expectations for himself and his team and now has to face the reality that the Bulls are likely going to have their streak of seven consecutive postseasons snapped.
As he spoke to reporters late Thursday night after another loss to the Miami Heat, Hoiberg had the same look on his face that he has worn for the better part of two months. A dejected, colorless countenance without much energy or inflection in his voice. Hoiberg isn't as outwardly combustible as his predecessor, but he takes the losses just as hard. When asked why his team continued to struggle to put a 48-minute game together, the coach offered a familiar refrain.
"It's been the message," he said. "To go out there and to play a full 48-minute game, it's what you have to do in this league if you want to fight and be in a position to win championships. We were too inconsistent in that area this year."