We all know that Fred Hoiberg had never been a coach at any level of basketball prior to taking the Iowa State job. Any sports writer worth his salt has been quick to mention that fact when writing about The Mayor since he returned to Ames. Not to worry though, this isn't another story about how in just three years, he made himself into one of the hottest names in the coaching business.
Instead, this story is about what Hoiberg was experienced with; working in the front office of a professional basketball franchise. In his role in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Hoiberg did what front office types do. He scouted college talent, evaluated free agents and became familiar with the business side of managing a pro roster.
Three years into his tenure, I think we all may have underestimated and under-appreciated just how crucial that experience was for Hoiberg and how it has manifested itself in his program.
Although the university hasn't officially announced it, several media outlets have reported that freshman guard Nkereuwem "Kerwin" Okoro has decided to leave the program and transfer to Rutgers, which is closer to his New York City home. We all wish Okoro well and the best of luck with the Scarlet Knight program.
While losing the little-used Okoro isn't necessarily a headline-grabbing story, it is the next in line of a series of transfers that have left Iowa State in Hoiberg's three short years. Including Okoro, four underclassmen have left that still had eligibility (not including Calvin Godfrey who was dismissed from the program) and there's been rumors that to varying degrees, each may have been shown the door.
(The speculation train is about to leave the station. If you don't like rumors and widely-held message board "facts", you may want to wait for the next train).
According to NCAA rules, any athletic scholarship is only guaranteed for one year, meaning that after each athletic season, a coach can do as he wishes with that particular scholarship. Keep a kid in the program, offer it to someone else or "bank it" for future usage. That's the coach's decision. That's where the talent evaluation, roster management and scouting comes into play.
College athletics can often be a shameful business, or so it appears. Coaches spend months and monts convincing young men to leave their homes, travel across the country and put their trust in them, only to be called into that same coach's office months later and be told that they'd be better off pursuing their athletic dreams elsewhere. Those conversations can't be easy, but as harsh as they may seem, they're necessary in the world of competitive college sports.
I don't know how those conversations went with Eric McKnight, Jordan Railey, Tavon Sledge and Okoro, but in each case, I have to wonder and maybe even assume that Hoiberg encouraged them to find another school where their talents might be better appreciated. I'm no expert and I'm just a fan like each of you, but based on what I saw and especially what I heard, I don't know that keeping any of those guys on hand brought Iowa State any closer to a Big 12 championship.
Is that harsh? You bet. But winning big-time college basketball often comes at a price and sometimes, that means good kids get forced out. Just as Hoiberg learned in those front office discussions, it wasn't personal, it was business. Hoiberg is paid a lot of money to put the best possible basketball team on the floor and in doing so, he has to be able to admit that he might have missed the mark on a kid and look elsewhere to make the program better.
Now I know what you're thinking; does this mean there's a problem evaluating high school talent and is this staff capable of properly developing that talent once they're on campus? Valid questions and I don't know that we really know the answers yet. The fact is, with 13 scholarships available, a few guys aren't going to play. Most coaches rely on an 8-9 man rotation and you can see why the numbers don't add up. Kids don't want to wait to play. They don't want to spend 2-3 years developing before they make an impact on the floor. In today's college basketball, you either got it right away or you don't.
Of course there are exceptions to that rule, but because of that attitude, coaches and players may see themselves differently, but they're essentially the same. The player thinks he should play right away and knows that if he doesn't, he might have made a mistake. The coach expects the player to be able to play right away and if he can't, the coach knows that he might have equally made a mistake, because that player isn't going to wait around to help the program.
It's this dynamic that leads to the decision to transfer in many cases. Whether that decision is initiated by the coach or by the player is a case-to-case basis. Bringing this back to Iowa State, these are the types of decisions Hoiberg has to make every year. You redshirt a guy like Sherron Dorsey-Walker because you see his long term value. You allow a guy like Kerwin Okoro to play those garbage time minutes because he probably won't be back. It's not an exact science, but in Hoiberg's case, he appears to have made the right calls on who to retain so far.
So when it was announced that Abdel Nader, formally of Northern Illinois, was joining the Cyclone program although no scholarship was available, it came as no surprise when Okoro's name started popping up as the odd man out. Now in Okoro's situation, there were extenuating life circumstances that really made it tough on him to be away from his family. The kid went through a tragic year as both his father and brother passed away. I can't imagine what he went through and applaud his courage and perseverance to stick it out and finish the spring semester at Iowa State. I would have loved to have him stick around, redshirt and continue to develop, but that just didn't appear to ever really be an option. Okoro apparently wanted to be closer to home and Hoiberg wanted to land a scorer in the frontcourt.
Going forward, the only thing that matters is that it appears as if Hoiberg has improved the roster and improved the program. Had Railey, McKnight, Sledge and Okoro stuck around, there would only be one open scholarship available to hand out for this class (not including those given to Matt Thomas and Monte Morris). So between, Richard Amardi, Dustin Hogue, Daniel Edozie, K.J. Bluford and Abdel Nader, only one of them would have wound up in Ames. I realize the somewhat absurdity of that hypothetical, but at the very least, I think it illustrates that Hoiberg felt he could upgrade each of the past few seasons.
It's a delicate balance and although most of us prefer to view college sports through an almost naive sense, in the end, it's still business and I'm glad Iowa State has Fred Hoiberg to head up the operation.