Chicago Bulls, Like the Rest of the League, Leaving No-Bull Coaches Behind

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls courted, for the second time since 1998, a new coach from Iowa State. The Bulls reportedly inked “The Mayor,” Fred Hoiberg, to a five-year, $25 million deal.

“Fred Hoiberg can deal with anyone. He knows how to get along with everyone,” says one NBA team source on the new hire.

The team source’s comment is exactly why Tom Thibodeau, killed by Jerry Reinsdorf on the way out the door, is gone, and Fred Hoiberg, appropriately nicknamed “The Mayor,” has come.

But the coaching change in the Windy City begs the question: Is the “coach’s coach” glacially falling from grace in the NBA?

Tom Thibodeau is the consummate coach’s coach, and the author of, and main character in, a fascinating grinder’s tale.

Beginning as an outstanding small-college player at Division 3 Salem State, Thibodeau assisted and later served as head coach for one year at his alma mater before catching a Division 1 break at Harvard during the late ’80s.

But at the end of the Reagan Era Bill Musselman, who met Thibs through New England-area player agent Frank Catapano, took a flyer, hiring the hungry unknown as an assistant coach during the expansion year for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Now twenty years into the woods, while remaining a tireless and exacting defensive mind branched from the John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers coaching trees, Thibs won his big chance in Chicago. He lost it there, too.

If only “he added a little humor,” says the NBA team source, the no-bull workhorse would still man the sidelines during the running of the Chicago Bulls.

Perhaps the league’s wallets now categorize Thibodeau in the same vein as Mike Malone, the former gap-help general under Mark Jackson in Golden State whose canning as Sacramento Kings head coach came mid-2014 after a combative relationship with offensive-minded GM Pete D’Allesandro and majority owner Viviek Randieve.

Jackson and Malone, like Thibs, don’t suffer gladly from fools, or in their cases, analytics-driven front offices. A quick glance at the recent coaching carousel proves NBA owners take greater umbrage towards those they cannot control than those who cannot coach.

While head coach of the Kings, like Bay Area-mentor Mark Jackson, Malone was a renegade personality winning walking papers before he could win “his way.” Once Warriors and Kings, Malone and mentor Jackson, and their “army of one” mentality, exit as the coaches of none.

“Sacramento whacked Brendan Malone’s kid,” said the veteran league executive, later calling the Sacramento Kings owner an “analytics addict.”

Jackson, the former back-you-in-and-dish NBA point guard, whose disregard for front-office wisdom and understandable disdain for sting operations (see former Golden State assistant’s Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman and their attempt at NBA Watergate) sent him into exile going on two years. Malone, too, remains out of a job.

The veteran league executive forecasts a bleak outlook, at least for Thibodeau, arguably the game’s best defensive mind.

“Tibs damaged badly by Reinsdorf. Owners hire coaches. Owners’ private club can be exclusive when the wrath of one comes down hard,” says the veteran league executive.

Yet, Lionel Hollins gives the aforementioned triumvirate of rogue basketball coaching wizards, Jackson, Malone, and Thibodeau, hope.

The 2012 Coach of the Year, Hollins, who after leading the Memphis Grizzlies to the 2012 Western Conference Finals before falling to the 2012 NBA Champion San Antoino Spurs, was sacked. He publicly warred with a team VP over the playing time of computer print-out favorite Austin Daye.

Yet, after spending one season as an assistant under Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, Hollins is back where he belongs as the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets while Daye flickers in and out of the NBA Developmental League.

Gregg Poppovich and Doc Rivers are the two remaining head coaches possessing an aura warranting full autonomy. Yet overall it’s evident that the passive, non-threatening yet successful college coach holding a squeaky-clean bio, is the safe play for today’s owners.

Following recent offseason hiring trends beginning with Brad Stevens, Fred Hoiberg proves those culled from the college ranks ditch a command-and-obey governing philosophy for a “new school” rapport with players, but more importantly with owners.

Past failed college-to-pro experiments Rick Pitino and John Calipari enjoying carte blanche in Boston and New Jersey validate the idea that while NCAA coaches can dominate boys they need to put up with men to last in the pros. Hoiberg satisfies this axiom through a body of work in Ames, Iowa, qualifying for four consecutive NCAA tournaments with a team full of castoffs, JuCo retreads, and grey-area transfers with questionable character.

“His personality is perfect to please them all. He’s done a great job of taking some talented kids with some issues and he’s had success with them,” the NBA team source tells Breitbart Sports,

Allowing the small flare-ups of millionaires to achieve large returns remains part of the job in the pros. Oklahoma City’s hiring this May of the University of Florida’s Billy Donovan to coach Kevin Durant’s team appears as a recent move in this direction. Moreover, yes-men head coaches acquiescing to the insecurities and input of the biggest bank-account holder, the owners, survive the execution squads every spring.

Winning, which Hoiberg’s predecessor did (Thibodeu, 255-139) without congeniality, appears as malignant as losing in the eyes of many owners.

After playing a decade in the NBA but before taking over the Iowa State Cyclones and leading them into consistent Big 12 relevancy, Hoiberg, like Thibodeau, caught his NBA break in Minnesota, as vice president of basketball operations. Perhaps working “with” and not just “in” the front office gives Hoiberg an edge over Tom Thibodeau right out of the gate in Chicago.

“Coaching has its own headaches. I think he realizes that, because he was an office guy in Minnesota,” adds the veteran league executive.

When Chicago names Fred Hoiberg the head coach on Tuesday, he’ll quickly learn that he’s not the “Mayor” anymore. Because while coaching in the Windy City, he’ll function more like a publicly-appointed town meeting member, still listening to the outbursts of crazies, but answering to some egos in suits, with a lot more invested into winning with “their” team than any booster in Ames, Iowa.

Follow Sean Flynn on Twitter @coachsflynn


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