Just how important is perception in the world of college athletics? From a recruiting stand point, it's arguably among the most important things a recruit considers. Going to Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky or Kansas means something. Whether or not we want to admit it, when the blue bloods of college basketball come calling, it carries a greater significance.
The same can be said for scheduling. It's why arenas will sell out when certain programs come to town, yet plenty of seats can be had when others come to your building. While professional sports tend to lean toward being more star driven, college sports is and always will be about the program.
There are exceptions to that rule, however, and there are certain individuals that transcend the sport and create their own draw and gravitational pull. For the non-elite of college basketball, getting one of these stars into your program is challenging enough, but retaining them is arguably just as difficult.
By now, you've probably figured out that I'm talking about Fred Hoiberg and more accurately, how the perception of Iowa State basketball has changed with him at the helm and the potential seismic shift that could be in store should he choose to leave for the NBA.
Hoiberg has guided Iowa State to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, consecutive Big 12 Tournament championships and returns a loaded roster for the '15-'16 campaign that will be among the pre-season top ten.
The perception is that as things currently stand, Iowa State is one of the top programs in all of college basketball. Unfortunately, the reality may be that sustaining that status among the best of the best could be as fleeting as catching a glimpse of a shooting star.
This leads me the crux of what I wanted to write about; perception versus reality.
Perception can and usually is more important than reality and the current perception is that while Fred Hoiberg has turned Iowa State into one of the top programs in the country, the program's continued success hinges on Hoiberg remaining in Ames. The reality is that the Cyclone brand is as strong as ever and "Hilton Magic" pre-dated The Mayor, lived on while he was playing in the NBA and will never die so long as the Iowa State faithful continue to turn out in droves.
There's a different perception that says that the Cyclone program will never be viewed the same should Hoiberg decide to leave and on the surface that makes sense. In only five years, Hoiberg has become arguably the hottest name in the business and simply put, there will never be another Mayor. But weren't similar things said when Johnny Orr retired? Orr is the Godfather of Hilton Magic and was the only coach in the history of the program that had achieved any type of sustained success. It was almost an impossible role to step into, but Tim Floyd accepted the challenge and guided Iowa State to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances in his first three years in Ames. Winning is all that matters.
...or is it?
The roster Iowa State returns for next season is Final Four quality. Who guides that team to those possible heights shouldn't matter, but we'd all be lying if we said we didn't have a preference.
Now, let's explore that last point at greater length. We all want Fred Hoiberg to remain Iowa State's head coach until he ultimately decides to retire. If The Mayor opts to hold office permanently, it will mean that he would have attained a great deal of success, avoided any type of scathing scandal and possibly even cemented his status as a fixture among the conversation including the greatest coaches in NCAA history (though that last point is ambitious, but represents the type of potential Hoiberg holds for the program).
We can all agree that the story lines with Hoiberg at the helm will always be better and it's because of the same hometown hero rhetoric we've all seen and heard for years.
But shouldn't the success of the program be what matters most? This is a dangerous question to ask because many believe that the program's future success depends solely on Hoiberg. I'm not so sure. While I agree with the position that there will never be another Fred Hoiberg, I vehemently disagree with the notion that he's the only coach that can have success in Ames. Johnny Orr, Tim Floyd, Larry Eustachy and even Wayne Morgan have all guided Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament. In Floyd's case, you can make the argument that his short-lived tenure in Ames might have even been just as successful as Hoiberg's to date and had he stuck around, he had already secured a commitment from Kirk Hinrich and it was rumored that Nick Collison would have pledged to Iowa State as well.
The point is, Hoiberg is going to do what he'll do, but Iowa State basketball does not die with his departure. If anything, this holding pattern that Hoiberg has Iowa State in is significantly more crippling than him leaving would ever be. The program can't advance, nor can it evolve as long as this saga remains in flux. That's not an indictment against Hoiberg, but is simply an unfortunate reality of the business. He can't become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls because at the present time, they already have a man that holds that title.
Hoiberg or not, the abilities of Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Monte Morris and the rest are no more or less. These are exceptional basketball players that will likely still do exceptional things on the court next season regardless of who is coaching them.
Then again, that is only next season. What happens when Niang, McKay, Abdel Nader and Naz Long (and possibly Morris) all exhaust their eligibility after next season? Does the '16-'17 team and those that follow come falling back to the middling levels of the pre-Hoiberg era?
Truth be told, it's impossible to know, but it is important to point out that those concerns exist even if Hoiberg remains in Ames and that leads me to my final point; the perception of Hoiberg and his future will not change until he makes a declaration about his ultimate intentions for the future.
On the recruiting trail, Hoiberg himself is both Iowa State's biggest selling point and its biggest red flag. There is not a coach in college basketball right now that's easier to recruit against than Fred Hoiberg and that's an unfortunate consequence of this supposed NBA dream of his.
I'm not asking him to come out and detail word-for-word his five-year plan, but for the good of the Cyclone program, Iowa State basketball can't be held hostage annually from April through June while Hoiberg flirts with the NBA. If Hoiberg ultimately decides to commit to Ames, there has to be a definitive statement on his part that puts these persistent NBA rumors to bed for the foreseeable future. If he chooses to pursue a position at the next level, then it has to be done this off-season, and that is where the perception and reality intersect within the Iowa State program.