Former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg and general manager John Paxson talk during the NBA draft combine Thursday, May 16, 2019 at the Quest Multisport Complex.

Former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg and general manager John Paxson talk during the NBA draft combine Thursday, May 16, 2019 at the Quest Multisport Complex. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Fred Hoiberg is sitting in the lobby restaurant of the hotel that is serving as his temporary home. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is playing on a large, wall-mounted TV eight feet away, but Hoiberg is only half-watching.

He's more focused on sharing how he just met the student-manager from the first three Nebraska teams that his grandfather, Jerry Bush, coached from 1954 to 1963.

"That stuff is emotional for me," Hoiberg says.

Hoiberg met Lloyd Castner on the final stop of Nebraska's "Big Red Blitz," a tour that visited small towns - Norfolk, Fremont and Ashland - affected by March floods that devastated the region.

For close to 10 hours and 300 miles, Hoiberg, football coach Scott Frost, athletic director Bill Moos and three other coaches and school support staff rode a bus emblazoned with Nebraska's distinctive large red "N" on the side, stopping for three 90-minute rallies moderated by former Cornhuskers offensive lineman Brenden Stai.

The bus barreled through towns with single-digit populations, strengthening an already substantial bond with the Huskers faithful. At each stop, pictures were posed for and autographs were signed.

"This is the only show in town," Hoiberg says about Nebraska athletics' status in a state with no professional teams.

If Hoiberg misses the NBA, he isn't showing it.

Given his walk-on-water status in Ames, Iowa, it sounds odd to hear Hoiberg refer to Lincoln as home. But it's true.

Ames is where Hoiberg moved at age 2 and later starred as both player and coach at Iowa State. It's also where he earned his nickname of "The Mayor" after receiving write-in votes during a local election.

But Lincoln is where Hoiberg was born. His parents grew up here, began dating in high school and later went to college at Nebraska. His father, Eric, received a doctorate from Nebraska. Fred sat in Bush's lap as an infant. His other grandfather, Otto Hoiberg, did community outreach and engagement for Nebraska for 30 years. The Hoibergs would return here from Ames on holidays to visit family.

So when Hoiberg's former college roommate, Nebraska golf coach Mark Hankins, told him he better accept Moos' offer to replace Tim Miles because of the school's facilities and family atmosphere, the job that many view as a major project - Nebraska has never won an NCAA Tournament game - felt more and more right.

"Family was a big part of it," Hoiberg says.

___

'Part of my journey'

Hoiberg is sitting on a couch in a back room of Ashland's Strategic Air Command Museum, the last stop on the "Big Red Blitz." In 15 minutes, he'll ask Castner to stand and be acknowledged by the crowd of 1,000 who paid $20 for heavy hors d'oeuvres, a cash bar and plenty of jokes and insight from Hoiberg, Frost and the others.

But for now, three days shy of the four-year anniversary of his hiring by the Bulls, he's reliving his December 2018 firing.

"It's not fun. I'll say that," Hoiberg says. "There were a lot of sleepless nights when it happened. It's hard on your family. I'm proud of my wife and kids for how they fought through it with me.

"I'm going to be a better coach because of it. Most people I've talked to who have been in this business, it's happened to them at some point. You have to do the best job you can of reflecting and enjoying the good times and figuring out how you could've done better. I wasn't one of those guys who looked back and said: 'Man, I got screwed. I did everything right.' I looked at what I could've done better. And I'm going to apply that to this job."

Hoiberg won't detail which specific areas he wants to improve. But he expansively details what he's most proud of from his Bulls tenure.

"That second season (2016-17), nobody predicted that team would be in the playoffs," he says. "We went through ups and downs that year. There's no denying that. But we played our best basketball when it mattered most. We were playing as well as anyone in the conference when those playoffs started. I still would've loved to see what would've happened had (Rajon) Rondo not broken his thumb. But it happens.

"That third season when we went through the rebuild, those six weeks where we had the second-best record in the conference, those are times I look back on with pride. I thought we did a good job of developing guys like Lauri (Markkanen), who had a great rookie season. Kris (Dunn) played at a high level when healthy.

"This last season, it was tough the way it went down. So many unfortunate things happened to us leading into that December when (the firing) happened."

Asked if he felt he got a fair shot in his fourth season, which featured a healthy Markkanen and Dunn for only one game each, Hoiberg takes the high road.

"I didn't look at it that way. I really didn't," he says. "And I talked to a lot of people who had been through what I was going through. That helped a lot. I look back on it as an important part of my journey. It's how you respond to it. And I'll always be thankful for the opportunity that Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorf) and John (Paxson) and Gar (Forman) gave me. And I'm going to be a better coach here because of it."

Through next season, the Bulls owe Hoiberg the difference between his Nebraska salary - reportedly $2.5 million in the first season - and the $5 million left on the five-year, $25 million deal he signed in June 2015. Typical contract offset language prohibits disparaging remarks about a former employer or the contract is voided. It's not Hoiberg's nature to be critical anyway, and he repeatedly offers answers of introspection when asked about his firing.

But it's also clear Hoiberg is proud of what he accomplished while coaching three completely different rosters in his first three seasons.

Earlier this month, Hoiberg visited the NBA draft combine in Chicago to support Nebraska's Isaiah Roby, who was wrestling with whether to return for his senior season. While there, he had amicable talks with Paxson and Jim Boylen, his lead assistant who replaced him.

"Jim was an important part of my staff. I wish him luck, wish him the best," Hoiberg says. "I enjoyed coaching at the highest level. I wish it would've kept going, but it didn't.

"You do have some of that (feeling of failure) when you get let go. It's difficult, especially when it's never happened to you before. It's all about how you handle it. I did the best job I could to get through it. And I'm really excited about this opportunity."

___

'Everything is here'

Hoiberg is standing outside Norfolk's DeVent Center, an event, meeting and exhibition space that has housed everything from wedding receptions to trade shows. The barn-like building is minutes from Johnny Carson's boyhood home.

He's talking to local reporters about Roby's decision to remain in the NBA draft and how he'll need to build his Nebraska program similarly to how he took Iowa State from afterthought to perennial NCAA Tournament participant.

In seven dizzying weeks, Hoiberg received 11 commitments. Next season's roster will feature five transfers from other four-year schools, two junior-college transfers, four freshmen and two returnees. Only one, junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson, played last season, averaging two points.

Hoiberg is undaunted.

"I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we could win," he says. "We have everything you need. It starts with the facilities. We have as nice an arena as any in college basketball. Our training table, the way we feed our athletes, is incredible. Our training facility is as good as I've ever seen. When you get kids on campus, you show them that.

"The support we have is incredible. Every season ticket has been sold already for next year. We'll have 15,500 at every game, win or lose. Kids love seeing that. We play in a great conference. Everything is here for us to be a consistent winner."

Eldon Peters hopes so. The retired banker, who dabbles in farming, is sitting at a circular table with a white tablecloth among the crowd of 800. In between bites of his free hot dog and potato chips and sips of his bottled water with the Nebraska logo on it, Peters is soaking up every bit of Hoiberg's folksy charm.

Hoiberg points out his cousin in the crowd. He jokes about hoping he can remember all of his new players' names. He's mixing family history with self-effacing humor.

"I think it's a good hire. I think he's going to be really respected here and will do a lot for the program," Peters says. "He's got different ideas. He's a native, right? That's a big factor. Nebraska appreciates that, just like they do with Scott Frost."

Just as it's odd to hear Hoiberg refer to Lincoln as home over Ames, it's jarring to hear him describe his love for college coaching given how often he detailed his distaste for recruiting during his three-plus seasons coaching the Bulls.

At least Hoiberg always applied two qualifiers - that most college coaches feel similarly and that it's the lifeblood for success.

"I love recruiting," Hoiberg says later, laughing, when reminded of those comments. "It's the most important thing we do. The part I do enjoy about it is the part where you build the relationship with the family, the kid and the (high school) coach.

"People say a lot, 'Why Nebraska?' For me, it has everything you need. It's got the support and facilities. The one thing it doesn't have is tradition. I think we can change that. When they see everything we have to offer, it's an easy sell. Plus, kids want to go to a place where someone has a personal connection at the NBA level."

And if those recruits, their family members or their coaches ask about his firing, Hoiberg doesn't flinch.

"People say: 'You got fired. How the hell are you a better coach?' You're coaching against the brightest minds on a nightly basis," he says. "One night, you're coaching against (the Spurs' Gregg) Popovich and then (the Bucks' Mike) Budenholzer the next night and then (the Rockets' Mike) D'Antoni the night after that. You're going against different styles and you don't have a lot of time to prepare.

"That will help me here. And the Big Ten has as good a group of coaches as any conference in the country."

___

'Frosting on the cake'

Hoiberg exits the Nebraska bus, walks past empty hog barns and into Fremont's Christensen Field Arena. A smaller crowd of roughly 300 sits in rows of white folding chairs. The fans eat free "Big Red Blitz" bags of popcorn and drink bottled water. This event, like the one in Norfolk, is free.

During the question-and-answer portion, one fan shares how Hoiberg's Aunt Jane was her third-grade teacher. Another asks how much Frost can bench-press, to which the football coach and local legend quips less than the moderator Stai, the former offensive lineman, but more than Hoiberg.

"I bet I can jump higher," Hoiberg retorts.

Moos' two high-profile hirings since the athletic director arrived in October 2017 enjoy such easygoing banter throughout the day, it's in stark contrast to the task at hand: restoring the football program to national championship contention and creating an NCAA Tournament profile in basketball.

"He's about as perfect a fit for Nebraska as we could've found," says Frost, a Wood River, Neb., native who quarterbacked Tom Osborne's 1997 national co-champions. "He's a Midwestern guy. He understands this area and these people. He's also coached and played at a really high level. I can't wait to watch his teams play."

Neither can Moos.

"I think we'll be competitive right away," he says. "I can see him doing things a lot like he did when he was at Iowa State. We can make some noise while he's getting the next wave (of players) coming in. We'll get that momentum going, get in that tournament and get a win or two and be off and running."

Hoiberg's first Iowa State team went 16-16 before the Cyclones made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

"He's a proven college coach and has a ton of NBA experience," Moos says. "Sometimes it's good to scratch that itch and you don't have to worry about it again. And I saw that in Fred. But I also believe that knowledge and expertise will resonate with young prospects. He has experience at every level - player, coach, front office - and these kids all aspire to get there.

"He's an incredible individual with a great family. He has Midwest roots. The Nebraska piece, that was added frosting on the cake."

Multiple outlets, including the Tribune, reported that Hoiberg's first preference after the Bulls fired him was to remain coaching in the NBA.

"I didn't feel that when I talked to him," Moos says. "I know that he's competitive enough that if he feels he failed in doing that, maybe he'll want to give it another try. But he told me through the process - and I could see it with (wife) Carol - that he wants to settle down and really do something at a special place. It's never been done here at the caliber that I think he's capable of doing."

Nevertheless, Hoiberg's Nebraska contract carries buyout protection should he leave for an NBA job.

"I'm not looking at it that way. I'm really not," Hoiberg says. "I'm committed to Nebraska."

It certainly feels that way as Hoiberg runs through his roster while sitting back in the hotel restaurant. Even after his long day, his excitement for his new job is palpable.

The third quarter of the NBA Finals game ends. Six months ago, Hoiberg devised game plans to stop players such as Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry. Now he excuses himself to head to his room for some sleep.

In just more than a week, Nebraska begins its summer workouts in advance of a trip to Italy. With the frenzy to field a roster behind him, there's more to do, professionally and personally.

In October, his family closes on its new home on his 47th birthday.

"Since I've been here, it's been really cool to see all these personal connections to my family," Hoiberg says. "Like with Lloyd, he talked about the influence that my grandfather had on his life. That's a big part of our job as college coaches is to help these guys transition from 18-year-old kids to 22-year-old grown men when they leave. I love that part of college coaching.

"I'm excited to see what this next chapter holds. I hope I'm here for a long time."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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