LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ames, Iowa, has an actual mayor, and she spent Wednesday on the phone tracking an unwanted piece of rental-housing legislation in the Des Moines statehouse, rooting against its passage.
Almost 500 miles to the southeast, the Ames man known as “the mayor” oversaw a basketball practice, chatted with broadcasters, answered questions and behaved mayorally, as actual mayor Anne Campbell deadpanned from Ames, “I know my place.”
Other than his near-entire childhood about a hundred dribbles from campus, his ball-boy turn during that childhood, his prep quarterbacking, his “Mr. Basketball” turn in 1991, his celebrated years at Iowa State (1991-95), his parents living in town, his wife being from town, his in-laws living in town, the keen Iowa State fandom of his four offspring and his five years as Iowa State head basketball coach, Fred Hoiberg’s rarefied coach-to-town ties to Ames do suffer a gaping hole.
He somehow failed to live in Ames from ages 0 to 2.
“What do I not love about Ames?” the 10-season NBA veteran said one day before his No. 3-seeded Cyclones would play Alabama-Birmingham here. “It’s God’s country. It’s a place that was phenomenal to be raised in. My Dad took a job in Ames, Iowa, when I was 2 years old. He had two job offers (as a professor).
“One was at Kansas, and one was at Iowa State. He moved the family to Ames from Nebraska, and I grew up four blocks from campus. I used to walk to the basketball games, walk to the football games. I was a ball boy for both programs and just fell in love with Iowa State athletics.”
If there’s a head coach among the 68 in the NCAA Tournament more intertwined with the setting in which he coaches, he’s not named John Calipari or Bo Ryan Jay Wright or Sean Miller or Bill Self or Tony Bennett, or even Mike Krzyzewski or Mark Few or — almost, but not quite — John Thompson III.
He’s also not named Larry Brown.
He’s also unlikely to field as many inquiries from the NBA as Hoiberg in the coming years, given his 10 NBA playing seasons (until an enlarged aortic root curtailed his career), his four NBA front-office seasons and his four consecutive NCAA tournament seasons at Iowa State, whose hopes soared such last year that the cruel second-round injury to forward Georges Niang “left a lot of hunger,” Hoiberg said.
If ever he does depart, it would qualify as uncommonly wrenching.
“He’s kind of led our team, in a sense, for a very long time, both as a player and as a coach, and I think the town has just kind of become accustomed to him being a leader,” said Travis Pullin, a senior marketing major from Adel, Iowa, who sat among friends watching practice on Wednesday. “He came and ate at the restaurant I worked at, and it was just a huge deal for everybody. I mean, it’s really cool, whenever you see him around, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Fred Hoiberg!’ He’s Iowa State’s biggest celebrity, probably. The waitress got a picture with him.”
“My grandmother didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to Iowa State or sports,” said James Hauser, a Louisville pastor and Iowa State fan from Keokuk, Iowa. “She kind of knew just because of my grandfather, but the thing that was interesting about Grandma is even though she didn’t know much about Iowa State basketball, she always knew something about Fred.”
“I feel sorry for him at times,” Mayor Campbell said, “because I’m sure he’s a modest-enough person that it would be delightful to walk down the street and be anonymous. He doesn’t have that luxury,” yet has been “a very good champion for Ames.”
Even during his well-traveled NBA career, he would list Ames (pop. 60,000) as his favorite vacation spot.
He even likes — in addition to loves — his parents.
“I do,” he laughed in the hallway before practice. “I actually like them a lot.”
“Even in college,” said his opposing coach for Thursday, Jerod Haase, who played at Kansas, “he had the nickname ‘The Mayor,’ and I didn’t have any good nicknames in college. I jokingly say that I put him in the NBA because he had so much success when I was guarding him that he ended up having a great NBA career . . . He was always a very, very smart player. I always remember Coach (Roy) Williams talking about, outside of his current team, he probably liked coaching against or maybe had the greatest deal of respect for Fred Hoiberg.”
Add up all of it and, Hoiberg said of the NBA question, “I get it a lot. But look, I’m really happy where I am. Again, the uniqueness of my situation, it’s really, I don’t know many other people that have that. There’s probably only a handful of us (coaches) that are in their alma mater, and the town that they grew up in.”