T.J. Otzelberger does not need a tutorial.
For most college basketball coaches who land a new job and take over a new program, there is a buffer period. There is a process of learning about the school’s traditions, its passions and what makes it unique.
Those are the things you sell on the recruiting trail and it can be hard to sell something you don’t know or understand.
For Otzelberger, there will be no such transition.
He already knows what Iowa State men’s basketball is and what it means to the fanbase. He already knows what makes Ames, Iowa and Iowa State University special. He already knows how to sell those things.
Iowa State’s new men’s basketball coach does not need a script to read off of or a lesson on Hilton Magic, the campanile or anything else that this program has to sell.
He can hit the ground running — immediately.
“A lot of times somebody comes in as a head coach, and there’s so many things to learn how things go in a certain place,” Otzelberger said during his introductory press conference on Friday. “I’ve lived it. I’ve had this experience. My passion is real. My enthusiasm and pride for Iowa State is real. So, I do see it as a big advantage because whether it’s today as I visit with the team, or as we move forward to the weekend, and we’re making recruiting calls, I don’t have to learn anything. I don’t have to think of a script. I can just speak from the heart.”
That understanding is part of what made Otzelberger, who spent eight seasons as an assistant at Iowa State under Greg McDermott, Fred Hoiberg and Steve Prohm, an easy sell for Jamie Pollard.
He already knows how to sell Iowa State to prospective student-athletes and student-athletes are the biggest piece of winning basketball games.
Whether those student athletes come to Iowa State from high school, junior college or the transfer portal, Otzelberger is looking for ones that seem to have that same passion for this school in addition to being great basketball players.
He’s already done it before — many times.
We all know the names — Diante Garrett, Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang, Matt Thomas and the list goes on. Individuals who arrived in Ames looking to expand their ability on the court, but became crucial pieces of the school and community off of it.
“We want young men that play with tremendous passion and love Iowa State,” Otzelberger said. “We want student athletes that know our commitment to excellence, and what it’s going to take because the work is in front of us. I want young people here that embrace that work, and understand the impact that they have, not only on the court, but in the classroom and community. If you ask about the composition of the roster, are you going to recruit more high school guys or transfers or those sort of things, that will all become more clear to me as we move forward. What I can tell you is I’ve enjoyed conversation and dialogue with some of the greats that have played here over the last day. And when I think about some of the really successful times we’ve had with guys like Melvin Ejim and George Niang, Matt Thomas, Monte Morris, Naz (Mitrou-Long), those are Cyclones. There’s part of being a Cyclone for many of us that, if you’ve been one, you know, it is for life.”
Otzelberger’s prior knowledge of Iowa State will be helpful later in the day on Friday when he picks up the phone to call four-star Cyclone signee Tyrese Hunter. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound point guard is considered one of the best floor general recruits in the class of 2021.
Prior connections will come in handy there as well when you consider Otzelberger is a native of Milwaukee, Wis. and grew up less than 40 minutes from Hunter’s hometown of Racine.
“It’s funny, as I started thinking about Tyrese, you know, he plays that a school that was in the same conference I played in in high school,” Otzelberger said. “I grew up 20 minutes from there and in fact, not patting myself on the back because I didn’t have a whole lot of great games as a as an athlete. But I did happen to have 26 points in that gym one time.”
“His high school coach, Nick Bennett, is someone I’ve known for a long time. He’s cousins with Tony Bennett, who’s the coach at Virginia and been a mentor of mine. He has an older brother that played at (Wisconsin-Whitewater) a few years after I played there. There’s certainly a lot of connections and ties. We had interest in Tyrese at UNLV and started the process, didn’t get too far down the road, but identified his talent and thought he was special. So I’m excited with all those ties, to be able to communicate with him and connect with him today as well.”
Players like Hunter, ones from states surrounding Iowa and in the upper-Midwest, can be expected to be a focus of Otzelberger and his staff moving forward.
When Matt Campbell arrived at Iowa State five-plus years ago, he declared it the Big 12’s Midwest option. That has played out favorably over time on the gridiron.
Otzelberger hopes to bring that formula to the basketball court and he won’t need a tutorial to make it happen.
“It’s so important that we have the right guys, and geography is a part of that because I know what it feels like. I’ve grown up in the upper Midwest and this is home,” Otzelberger said. “Those Midwestern values, roll up your sleeves, work hard, embrace that work every single day. That’s what I’m about. So I know for me that the best fit is young people that have the same passion I have and they love this game.”