Fred Hoiberg fits at Nebraska like overalls on a Cornhusker.
But his introduction Tuesday as the university's new basketball coach should be celebrated in Chicago as much as it is in Lincoln, Neb.
And that has nothing to do with the way Hoiberg's seven-year, $25 million deal with Nebraska eases the financial burden of Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
The occasion underscores how this disastrous Bulls season will go down as a blessing for Hoiberg and the franchise that fired him Dec. 3 after a 5-19 start.
The timing surprised many people, including Hoiberg, who expected more patience considering injuries to starters Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. The playoff optimism when the Bulls opened training camp quickly faded.
In retrospect, the early unraveling improved the ability of the Bulls and Hoiberg to each achieve long-term success.
A refreshed Hoiberg got a chance to sign a contract likely bigger than any he would have been offered had the Bulls waited until after the season to make a coaching change. The Bulls, meanwhile, got the chance to escape NBA purgatory by descending and undergoing a necessary culture shock under successor Jim Boylen.
Not that Hoiberg necessarily would agree. The competitor within Hoiberg always will push back at the perception he failed as an NBA coach - as his 115-155 record with one first-round playoff exit suggests. That drive compelled Hoiberg to believe he could succeed if given a second chance in the league. And maybe one day he will. He's only 46.
Taking the Nebraska job allows Hoiberg to earn a $3.5 million salary over the next seven years, wealth he would be hard-pressed to find in the NBA after four inconsistent years coaching the Bulls. There are worse ways for a young coach to rehabilitate his career than on a Big Ten bench at a university that employed his grandfather and graduated his parents.
A Midwestern guy who went 115-56 with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances at Iowa State gives Nebraska basketball fans ample reason for hope.
Over time, the Bulls will benefit too. Had the Bulls avoided injuries that accelerated Hoiberg's exit, they could have flirted with a .500 record. They probably would find themselves fighting for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth and drafting somewhere between 12th and 16th.
The Bulls have been there before, an NBA nebulousness teams desperately try to avoid. All but bottoming out increased the Bulls' chances of drafting a franchise-changing player such as Duke forward Zion Williamson or Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
Williamson looks like the most transformational NBA teenager since LeBron James - a lock for the No. 1 overall selection - but nobody at the Advocate Center would complain if the Bulls finish second in the draft lottery and must settle for Morant. Settle, in this context, would mean dancing on the table and high-fiving strangers.
The Bulls can finish no higher than the fourth-worst team in the league, guaranteeing them at least a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 selection at the NBA draft lottery May 14 in Chicago - which could be one of those epic Where-Were-You-When-They-Found-Out-They-Could-Draft-Zion nights.
Firing Hoiberg hit reset for a Bulls organization that had become complacent before earning the right to be. The first couple of months under Boylen fell somewhere between experiment and embarrassment, with the first-time head coach operating like the Bull in the NBA china shop.
But a funny thing happened to the Bulls on their way to the theater of the absurd: Zach LaVine started believing in Boylen and his old-school methods. And when an NBA team's best player with the strongest personality buys in, his endorsement is like Tiger Woods selling golf clubs. It carries credibility.
Nothing illustrated that more than LaVine offering to pay Boylen's fine last month after an ejection. The growing pains the Bulls underwent this tumultuous season will serve them well next year, when a playoff push again sounds realistic.
They already have raised the standard for preparation and instilled a toughness a soft team needed. They already addressed one of the top offseason items on the agenda when pulling off a shrewd trade of Bobby Portis and the miscast Jabari Parker to the Wizards for Otto Porter Jr., a floor spacer with a smooth shot who looks like a keeper even if he is overpaid. Porter is one of four core players 25 or younger - with LaVine, Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. - who make the 2020 playoffs a legitimate goal for the Bulls.
What if the Bulls get Williamson or Morant in the draft? What if they sign a veteran free-agent point guard with the salary-cap space remaining after the Porter trade? Aren't those questions more fascinating for the Bulls at the end of this season - at this stage of their growth - than whether they can earn the right to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs?
Be happy for Hoiberg. He's in a better place as this NBA season ends with him back on campus, and so are the Bulls.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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