- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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AMES, Iowa -- As the men finished up their lunches at the Harlan Golf & Country Club, they watched the still-boyish-looking man work the room -- patting backs, kissing babies and smiling for pictures -- and tried to explain the depth of the love affair between the state of Iowa and Fred Hoiberg.
Russ Crawford graduated from Iowa State in 1968, four years before Hoiberg was even born, but he remembers watching the kid dubbed "The Mayor" play. He told stories about Hoiberg as a player -- how hard he worked, how hard he played and how now, even 15 years later, he had no equal in the state.
Finally Mike Rasmussen, Crawford's college roommate, piped up. "As far as his popularity in this state, God probably beats him, but that's about it," Rasmussen said.
The rest of the basketball world might have scratched its head and raised its collective eyebrows when athletic director Jamie Pollard tabbed Hoiberg, a 37-year-old with exactly zero coaching experience, to lead Iowa State out of its funk of insignificance.
Not in Iowa. Here they nodded their heads, high-fived and let out whoops of joy.
Here, Hoiberg is Elvis.
"If you wanted something for free, you go with Fred," said Hoiberg's teammate and roommate Julius Michalik, who came to Iowa State from Turkey.
Joan Bowles, the longtime associate athletic director for development at the university, once invited Hoiberg to come by for dinner to get away from the hubbub on campus. Her sons zipped up and down the street on their bikes, telling their friends, "Fred Hoiberg is at our house! Fred Hoiberg is at our house!"
When donors Norm and Arlene Tasler's daughter, Janice, was in hospice care with cancer, the nurses brought her Hoiberg's autographed picture to lift her spirits.
But here, Hoiberg also is Iowa. In a lifetime in the spotlight, he has never done anything to embarrass his state or his alma mater. He's a superstar without the baggage, perfectly content to pull up a chair and chat as though he's just one of the guys, not the high-profile head coach.
"He's one of the most revered people in the state, yet he's also just an everyday Iowa kid," said Mitch Osborn, the athletic director at Harlan High School. "Hiring him has mobilized and re-energized Cyclone Nation. People are excited about this program again."
It has been a rough few weeks to be an Iowa Stater. Last Monday as the Cyclone Tailgate -- loaded with Hoiberg, wrestling coach Kevin Jackson, women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly, football coach Paul Rhoads and athletic director Jamie Pollard -- rolled across the highway, televisions turned to ESPN continuously reported on the rumors and upheaval in the Big 12 conference.
Iowa State was not in the conversation, part of the castaways, not the coveted.
In the end, ISU received a stay of execution, saved from an uncertain future after Texas and the others decided to remain in the Big 12 and keep the league alive.
But if the university learned anything from the affair it is just how wobbly its stake in the college landscape is.
There is only one way to change that: make money.
There is only one way to make money: win.
And that, the faithful hope, is where Hoiberg, the golden boy of hoops and hope, comes in.
About 75 people fill the dining room inside the Harlan Golf & Country Club, where white, twinkly lights dance across the ceiling and fans line up for the lunch spread of pulled pork sandwiches, macaroni salad, potato salad and chips.
There is something delightfully simple and charming going on here in this down-home alumni stump, as Hoiberg and the other head coaches walk from table to table and hand-deliver the gifts to the door-prize winners.
These are the people Hoiberg talks about when he retells the story about deciding to come to Iowa State instead of Arizona or Stanford.
"They told me at Arizona, I'd have 10,000 people supporting me overnight," Hoiberg said. "Well I have 10,000 here, and I know all of their names."
It's because of that down-home cocoon that Hoiberg has gotten his coaching chance, and he knows it. "I'm pretty sure this is the only job I would have had a shot at," he said.
Four years ago after Wayne Morgan was fired, Hoiberg called Pollard and told him he'd like a chance at the Iowa State job. Pollard decided to pass. He knew who Hoiberg was, but he didn't know him personally. Besides, Pollard was fairly new to the ISU administration himself and wasn't ready to take a leap and hire someone who had zero experience as a coach.
"I thought he was just another ex-player trying to become a head coach," the athletic director said.
In between Greg McDermott's hiring and decision to leave ISU for Creighton, Hoiberg didn't exactly go out and stock his coaching résumé. Yet this time, Pollard made the choice without hesitation.
In fact, as soon as McDermott intimated he might leave, Pollard called Hoiberg to gauge his interest.
Pollard knows how outsiders perceive the hire -- as a public relations decision for a team and program in dire need of an energy injection -- but insists that is nothing more than an added bonus. "His basketball knowledge is the least of my concerns -- he has that," Pollard said. "To be a good head coach you have to be able to handle people and be a great leader. Fred can do all of that. Hiring him is a great feel-good story, but we didn't hire him because it's a great feel-good story. He was hired because he's been around the right people. He's learned. He's ready for this job."
Paul Beene played just two years at Iowa State, averaging 5.1 points for his career.
Even die-hard Cyclones fans would be pressed to remember the guard from Chicago.
Not Fred Hoiberg. Beene's picture used to hang on Hoiberg's bedroom wall.
"Other kids had Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," Hoiberg said. "I had Paul Beene and Iowa State players."
Short of Akron's LeBron James re-signing with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, there aren't many stories quite like Hoiberg's. His dad, Eric, was a sociology professor at the university, and his mother, Karen, worked in the Ames school district.
As a kid growing up in Ames, Hoiberg would walk the three blocks to the Hilton Coliseum, where he was a ball boy. (It was Hoiberg's foot that Jeff Hornacek stepped on, spraining his ankle before an exhibition game.)
By the time Hoiberg's senior season rolled around at Ames High, boys were hanging his picture on their bedroom walls. Hoiberg quarterbacked the football team and earned all-state honors -- he was good enough that Nebraska made him a scholarship offer. He also led the basketball team to a state championship, ran the 200-meter leg of the winning medley relay team and leaped a 6-foot, 6-inch high jump to finish second as Ames won its sixth consecutive state track title, and somehow had the time to meet Carol, the girl who would become his wife.
With Stanford and Arizona trying to lure Hoiberg away for basketball, thousands of Iowa State fans signed a petition, all but begging him to stay home.
Naturally, he did, and naturally, he was a star.
Playing for the colorful Johnny Orr, Hoiberg led the Cyclones to three NCAA tournament berths, became an All-American, an academic All-American, Iowa State's male athlete of the year, the Big Eight's co-athlete of the year and the Cyclones' all-time third-leading scorer.
"He's been a success in everything he's done, and I don't see any reason to believe that won't be the case now," Iowa State donor Rod French said.
And therein lies the rub. Basketball people like to talk about the risk Iowa State is taking. Hoiberg is taking every bit a leap of faith.
He is the state's golden child, his reputation pristine and his iconic place secure.
And he is putting all of that on the line.
"Fans here had a love affair with Johnny Orr, and I think the same can happen with Fred," Mike Sullivan, a Des Moines alumnus from the Class of 1974, said during a tailgate stop at the Kenworth Trucking dealership in Omaha, Neb. A small group of fans and alumni shared cookies and ice cream there, gathering at the business owned by French. "I just hope they'll be patient," Sullivan continued.
They'll need to be.
Hoiberg is walking into a mess. Iowa State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2005 and hasn't sniffed a Big 12 championship since Larry Eustachy's downfall.
Hoiberg has never recruited and never even evaluated high school talent, thanks to NBA rules that don't allow league personnel to evaluate high school talent because of the age limit. But he believes the combination of an experienced staff -- he's in conversations with a former head coach whom he hopes to hire as an assistant -- and his own NBA experiences will make up for that.
The 52nd overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft managed to carve himself out a 10-year career and believes that, as a good long-range shooter, he'd still be playing if it weren't for a heart defect.
In 2005, a routine physical revealed that Hoiberg had an aortic root aneurysm, which had led to the ballooning of his aortic valve.
A month after finishing up with the Minnesota Timberwolves and leading the league in 3-point shooting, he was having open-heart surgery, a dizzying scare made all the more frightening when a rare combination forced doctors to insert a pacemaker.
Hoiberg thought about playing again, but when a doctor for the Phoenix Suns decided it would be too risky, he hung up his sneakers.
He was only 32.
The Timberwolves offered him a position as an assistant general manager, and three years later, he was promoted to vice president of basketball operations.
It is not the career path he would have chosen, but he believes it is one that will now resonate with high school players.
"I've been in the NBA, and I've worked in the NBA," Hoiberg said. "I have every GM in the NBA in my cell phone. That's what kids want to know -- 'How can I get to the league?' I can help them do that."
Iowa purportedly has a bumper crop of talent in the rising junior class, and fans here are convinced that Hoiberg, with his ability to win the living room, will persuade them to stick around.
Many here are still stung after losing Ames native Harrison Barnes to North Carolina. And as pie-in-the-sky as it might seem, they are convinced that if Hoiberg had been the coach recruiting Barnes and were able to share his similar story, the nation's top prospect would have stayed.
"I think they'll be patient," said Osborn, the high school coach. "I just hope they don't think he's a magician."
Fred Hoiberg was actually born in Nebraska, and his grandfather, Jerry Bush, was the Cornhuskers' head basketball coach from 1955 to 1963.
But when Hoiberg was 2, his father took a job at Iowa State. The family crossed the river and never looked back.
That's a popular story on either side of the Missouri River, where pockets of Cyclones fans live among their hated Nebraska rivals.
The tailgate winds down on the wrong side of the Missouri on this Monday afternoon, finishing at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, deep in the heart of Huskers territory.
It is just days before Nebraska announces its decision to move to the Big Ten.
A sea of red-and-yellow clad fans gather to cheer on their coaches, but the crowd is fairly subdued and the buzz in the air explains why. Almost every conversation begins or ends with questions about conference realignment and where Iowa State fits in the mix.
In the end, the handwringing proved premature. The Armageddon of college athletics didn't happen. The Big 12 lost two members but didn't crumble, and Pollard's day-long promise -- that the 'sun will come up tomorrow' -- has come true.
But Iowa State moves forward without its rose-colored glasses, well aware that to survive in the high-stakes game of college athletics it has to get relevant in a hurry.
It needs to get back the magic, the Hilton Magic. That's what they called it back when Hoiberg played, when the Coliseum was rocking, the fans were jumping and the Cyclones were winning.
That's really what makes Hoiberg so special here. He is happy memories and a promise of hope wrapped into a familiar package.
And if Iowa State is really lucky, he has a little of that magic pixie dust left over in his pockets.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.