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Leistikow: Hawkeyes' hiring of Matt Gatens stirs comparisons to another native Iowa son


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IOWA CITY — Matt Gatens was mowing his lawn recently when his cell phone started buzzing. Like many of us, he was probably tempted to let the phone stay in his pocket and let the call go to voice mail. After all, the mission of procuring a beautifully manicured sheet of grass has a way of producing an intense focus.

But one look at the caller ID, and Gatens excitedly took the call. Fran McCaffery was the one interrupting this quest for yard-care satisfaction with a job offer.

That was when Gatens found out that he had been hired to return to Iowa City as the newest Iowa men’s basketball assistant coach. At age 33, just 10 years removed from an accomplished playing career with the Hawkeyes, he would be heading home.

Gatens chose not to immediately go inside and tell his wife, Erin, the news. More than likely, he was overcome with some emotion and … hey, you can’t blame the guy for wanting to finish the lawn. Because once he shared some of the happiest news of his life, there would be no turning back.

As you might imagine, this day would not produce a Twitter-worthy backyard picture of pristine lawnmower craftsmanship.

“My lines were all over the place,” Gatens said Wednesday to a sea of Hawkeye media members. “My mind was just running.”

More: Matt Gatens to Iowa basketball: What the Hawkeyes are getting in young assistant

Being an assistant coach at Iowa clearly means a lot to Gatens, who committed to Iowa (and then-coach Steve Alford) as a high school freshman. His father, Mike, played for the Hawkeyes. He has always been a Hawk, through and through, and that included during an overseas professional career — when he would try to catch every Iowa game. Even as an assistant coach at Drake last season, with the Missouri Valley Conference tournament complete, he was cheering the Hawkeyes on the way to a Big Ten Tournament championship.

“To come back and put (Iowa gear) back on to and to really be all-in being a Hawk again, it’s really cool,” Gatens said on his third day on the job, wearing a long-sleeved gray Iowa T-shirt ahead of the team’s second summer practice. “It feels great.”

The hiring of Gatens to replace the retiring Kirk Speraw, a 12-year McCaffery assistant and former Hawkeye himself, was a home run. Gatens knows what it means to be a Hawkeye. Gatens knows how it feels to see the program at rock bottom, as he experienced under Todd Lickliter in his freshman and sophomore years. Lickliter was fired in 2010, but Gatens remained loyal to the Hawkeyes.

Some Iowa fans might not like this comparison, but this is the one that keeps coming into my mind: Gatens’ return to Iowa City is reminiscent of someone else who was hired in our state in 2010. While Iowa was bringing in a Philadelphia-influenced outsider in McCaffery that spring, Iowa State was also hiring a new coach. The Cyclones brought in Fred Hoiberg in April of 2010, an unconventional hire with no coaching experience.

But in Hoiberg, the Cyclones were counting on a native son to revive a program that had fallen on hard times — four straight losing seasons under Greg McDermott.

Hoiberg led Ames High School to a state championship in 1991 before joining the Cyclones as a player. Gatens led City High School to the 2008 state championship before joining the Hawkeyes.

Hoiberg became known as “The Mayor” in Ames, for his smooth and productive basketball exploits. Gatens became one of the most prolific shooters in Iowa history, including a memorable four-game stretch in 2012 in which he canned 24 3-pointers, scored 106 points and helped deliver riveting wins against Indiana and Wisconsin.

I don’t know Gatens well enough to know if he’d appreciate the comparison to Hoiberg, but the parallels are hard to miss — down to the measured-yet-personable voice in interviews and the right-to-left part in their light-brown hair. (Even their college sizes were within one inch and nine pounds of one another — Gatens at 6-5, 212, and Hoiberg at 6-4, 203.)

Hoiberg would have great success directing Iowa State (reaching four NCAA Tournaments in five years and winning two Big 12 Tournament titles) before bolting to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. While Gatens isn’t coming back to Iowa as a head coach like Hoiberg did, he could be here a while. If all goes well, perhaps when he's about 37 — the same age Hoiberg was when hired at Iowa State — he'll be a viable candidate to succeed McCaffery (who turned 63 in May).

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As he talked Wednesday, Gatens sounded like someone who was prepared to (re)plant roots here and stay for a while. He and Erin (who is from Marion) have two young children, with grandparents nearby.

“To actually get to live here and raise my family here, it’s special,” Gatens said, “and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

It struck me how confident Gatens sounded when it comes to every aspect of the job. There's little doubt he'll be great as a shooting instructor, and his ability to jump on the court with the Hawkeyes is a major bonus. He looks like he could still go for 25 at Assembly Hall.

My biggest concern was about Gatens’ ability to replace what Speraw (and departed Billy Taylor) in the scouting department. But he expressed zero worries about that.

“I’ve been a part of doing that at my last two stops (Auburn, under Bruce Pearl, and Drake). Scouting is a huge part of every school,” Gatens said. “Here, Coach McCaffery is pretty thorough. I remember that. I’ll lean on Coach Speraw (on the clock through June 30) and keep learning in that area. But I’m confident to be able to tackle it.”

That’s the type of confidence McCaffery loves and instills in his players. Gatens has some Hoiberg elements to him, but he has a lot of McCaffery in his blood, too. It feels like a terrific recipe for success. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.