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Hoiberg's last homecoming ahead of NBA debut

Fred Hoiberg posseses elements of both the classic and modern pro coach

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By Sam Smith | 10.23.2015 | 9:50 a.m.

The Bulls finish the preseason Friday against the Dallas Mavericks in Lincoln, Neb., where it all started for native Fred Hoiberg.

So while the Bulls contemplate the salient issues of the 2015-16 NBA season with Derrick Rose’s health, the status of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and the development of their young players, perhaps the most significant development is how the team will perform under new coach Hoiberg.

Hoiberg replaced Tom Thibodeau, who had an excellent five-year run as Bulls head coach, which is pressure and expectation enough. Does Hoiberg have the right stuff to help the Bulls expand beyond their game’s gravity? The team’s production and record will ultimately answer.

But Hoiberg appears to maintain and believe in the elements of both the classic and modern coach that could make him a star in the pro coaching business.

Obviously, the talent will have to be there.

Great coaches, even like Red Auerbach and Pete Carroll, didn’t succeed when their talent wasn’t at a high level. But Hoiberg seems to embrace and promote the characteristics that have endured through the years for the great coaches, and perhaps are even more important with players in this era.

“The guy I probably took more from than anyone was Kevin McHale,” said Hoiberg, who had his best pro season playing for McHale in Minnesota. “He was so good defining roles and communicating. He had a very clear, simple spacing plan on the floor. I thought he utilized guys to their strengths as much as anybody I’ve been around. I loved the way he communicated to us; whether it was best player or last on the bench he always had an open line of communication with you.”

It’s no surprise and sounds much like how I’ve heard Boston Celtics players over the years talk about Auerbach.

Auerbach essentially invented the modern NBA with the Celtics fast break game that created the greatest dynasty in American team sports history with eight straight titles and 11 in 13 seasons.

Auerbach was ahead of his rivals as an executive. There are famous stories about how he outmaneuvered others for players like Bill Russell and Larry Bird. But equally vital it was Auerbach’s connection with his players that produced the success of his teams.

I remember talking to Hall of Famer Wayne Embry about that. He was a top center with Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals and played late in his career as a role player with the Celtics. He might get two rebounds, and he said Auerbach would be talking to him after the game, telling him how important those two rebounds were and how they started fast breaks that changed the momentum of the game.

Similarly, Tommy Heinsohn would tell stories of last minute huddles in the NBA Finals. Auerbach would turn to the players in the huddle and ask them what play they thought would work. Not that Auerbach didn’t have any ideas. He’d seen them all. But it’s both a brilliant and not-often-enough used management tool that should apply in every business.

Employees are most productive when management not only shows it cares, but asks them to take ownership of their own future.

Hoiberg has brought that philosophy with him to the Bulls. It’s not something that develops seamlessly. It’s also not to say it’s the only way to coach or have success. It’s difficult to suggest the NFL’s Bill Belichick practices that method.

Steve Kerr received considerable credit for coaching with that positive, optimistic, open style last season with the championship Golden State Warriors. He admits to borrowing much from the Seattle Seahawks effusive Carroll. Hoiberg also has brought music into the Bulls warmups to start practice, talks casually with his players ate practice and radiates optimism. The positive vibes thing can look fraudulent. But not when it’s earnest. You see it in baseball’s Joe Maddon as well.

The image of the coach often is the demanding, hard charging, tough drill sergeant who wills his players to his methods. It’s obviously not new, as Auerbach demonstrated, to have a more democratic enterprise.

But—and this is more my theory here—it may be even more important in this era with the so called millennials. These are supposedly the latter 20th Century and somewhat beyond kids who grew up with the internet and social media. Which gives a voice to everyone. They tend to be more likely to expect their view to be considered than the Baby Boom group coming out of the structure of the middle of the century.

Though the more advanced coaching thinkers and some of the most successful coaches have practiced this philosophy for years. Bill Sharman probably got more out of the moody Wilt Chamberlain than any coach. Sharman was coach of that 1971-72 Lakers team that won 69 games and 33 straight. The sensitive Wilt long rebelled under orders. So Sharman would go over similar play after similar play or similar role after similar role with Wilt until Wilt would accede and make it sound like it was Wilt’s idea.

“I try to talk to them a bunch,” Hoiberg said about working with the Bulls. “I’ve talked with (assistant) Jim Boylen a bunch about this, him being around (Gregg) Popovich and the championships. Popovich had so many things they did to make the team think and adjust on the fly. McHale is like that. I talked to Kevin (recently) about that, about getting guys reacting as opposed to running to a spot.

“Kevin’s big thing is (saying), ‘Guys, we’ve got Dwight Howard running down the floor and he’s got a 6-6 guy guarding him,’” recalled Hoiberg. “He said, ‘If I have to tell you we’ve got to find a way to get the ball to him in the post, we’ve got bigger issues.”

That was the essence of Auerbach with his fast break offense in the 60’s, and really Phil Jackson’s triangle. For all the media generated mysticism about Jackson, the triangle was simply a way to induce players to think and react on the floor. It didn’t have plays. It has actions. That was the tai chi part Jackson referenced. You react to your opponent’s action. He doesn’t know what’s coming. The message: You trust your players and you care about them to make decisions, take a part in their own future rather than following orders.

You need structure with a team; but you want commitment and enthusiasm.

Jackson used to let me ride with the team when he’d take bus trips between nearby cities, like Houston and San Antonio and Portland and Seattle. He said he wanted the players to see more than basketball, experience more. That’s what the books were about, the Staten Island ferry ride in the playoffs. It wasn’t gimmicks. And they weren’t just employees to be ordered about. They were individuals with beliefs and needs and desires, and Jackson cared. They became his congregation as much as his team.

So when Iowa State had a blowout loss one time, Hoiberg took the team bowling the next day.

Coaches do that from time to time and media and fans declare it some form of creative genius.

But it is merely a part of that human connection the truly great coaches make with their players. You can have success and win in many ways. But it makes sense that when your employees believe you care about them and their success, they are going to do more for you and your company.

The Bulls rookie coach was born in Lincoln, where his grandfather, Jerry Bush, was basketball coach from 1954 to 1963. Hoiberg’s father was a student at the U. of Nebraska, completed his doctorate and accepted a job in Ames at Iowa State when Fred was a child.

Hoiberg became a star Iowa athlete, the state’s Mr. Basketball while also the Gatorade Player of the Year in state football. And then the dream offer, to play quarterback at the U. of Nebraska.

“I was a huge Nebraska football fan growing up with them winning championships,” Hoiberg says. “Tom Osborne recruiting me was really cool. Playing there was a dream. The problem was I would have been there when Tommie Frazier was quarterback. They probably would have made me gain 40 pounds and made me a tight end.

“They recruited me as a quarterback,” Hoiberg recalled with a laugh. “They said they’d throw more if I went there, change things in the offense. Having become a recruiter I know they tell guys anything. I’d been in a run and shoot offense in high school. My linemen were all about your size (me, 5-9). I took a pretty good beating. We’d throw it 40 times a game and if I wasn’t throwing it, I’d be running it. It was a fun offense, but I took a beating. I had a little bit of back trouble and thought basketball was a better option for me.”

The Bulls may long be the beneficiaries. His class begins next week.