Skip to content

How have coaches fared making the jump from college to the NBA?

Jul 4, 2013, 2:00 PM EDT

Brad Stevens is not a typical college coach. Generally speaking, to run a successful college program, you need to be more of a CEO than a basketball mind. Recruiting the best talent is just as, if not more, important than being an x’s-and-o’s savant. But Stevens isn’t a shill. He’s not a salesman. He’s a basketball mind that cares less for the hoopla of recruiting than he does the thrill of drawing up a special sideline out of bounds play. Adrian Wojnarowski puts it best here:

Out of Butler University, out of a Norman Rockwell painting and Norman Dale’s gymnasium, Stevens comes to the NBA understanding that the saviors and superstars don’t wear wingtips, but Nikes. As NBA owners become more involved in the day-to-day basketball operations, as general managers become far more insistent on controlling personnel and systems, the NBA coach is becoming far less autonomous, far less the franchise’s central figure.

In so many ways, Stevens is a vessel for the evolution of the NBA coach. Partnerships over power trips, analytics over the cult of personality, a conduit over a conductor. To reach consecutive NCAA championship games at Butler was an historic accomplishment, but magic March runs don’t exist in the NBA – just the dreadful, daily death march that comes with the transition from contender to lottery loser and back again.

He’s not like many of the other college coaches that have tried to make the jump to the next level, which is why I think he’ll thrive in the league.

It’s also important to remember that the average coaching tenure in the NBA is about 2.3 years. So it’s not just college coaches heading to the league that fail. A lot of “pro guys” struggle to coach NBA teams as well.

Here are some of the other coaches to go pro from the college ranks:

  • Mike Dunlap: Dunlap turned an interim gig at St. John’s, filling in for cancer-stricken Steve Lavin, into the head coaching job with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012-2013. He only lasted one season before he was fired, however.
  • Reggie Theus: Theus coached for two seasons, leading them to an NCAA tournament in 2007, before taking over the Kings job. He lasted one full season before getting fired in Dec. 2008.
  • Mike Montgomery: Monty left Stanford after 18 years to coach Golden State. After back-to-back 34-48 seasons from 2004-2006, he was fired.
  • Leonard Hamilton: Hamilton turned three straight tournaments at Miami into the Washington Wizards job, but he quit the day after his first season, 2000-2001, ended and went back to college.
  • Lon Kruger: Kruger was the head coach at four different college programs before taking over the Hawks in 2000. He won 58 games his first two seasons and was fired midway through the 2002-2003 season.
  • Tim Floyd: Floyd took over Chicago after a successful run at Iowa State but won just 45 games in his first three years. After a 4-21 start in 2001-2002, he resigned. He led New Orleans to the Playoffs in 2003-2004, but didn’t return the next season.
  • Rick Pitino: Pitino bounced around between the NBA and college. He started at BU, went to the NBA as an assistant with the Knicks, returned to Providence, took over the Knicks head coaching job, returned to college to coach Kentucky in 1989, took over the Celtics in 1997 and, after a less-than-stellar tenure, has been at Louisville for the last dozen years.
  • John Calipari: After making the Final Four in 1996, Cal took over the Nets. He actually made the Playoffs in his second season, but was fired after a 3-17 start in 1998-1999. After a year as an assistant in Philly, he returned to take over Memphis.
  • Jerry Tarkanian: Few remember Tark’s 9-11 stretch as the coach of the Spurs in 1992, after leaving UNLV.
  • PJ Carlesimo: Seton Hall used to be good in hoops, and that was thanks to Carlesimo, who took them to the title game in 1989. He’s been in the NBA since 1994, but is probably best known for getting choked by Latrel Spreewell.
  • Lou Carnesecca: The legendary St. John’s coach went to the ABA and took over the New York Nets from 1970-1973, leading them to the ABA finals in 1972.
  • Gregg Popovich: Not many people know that Popovich began his coaching career at Pomona-Pitzer in California and spent a year on sabbatical learning under Larry Brown at Kansas.
  • Chuck Daly: Daly coached at BC and Penn before heading to the NBA in 1978. He’s won a gold medal and a pair of NBA titles with the Pistons.
  • Bill Fitch: Fitch coached in college until leaving Minnesota in 1970 for the NBA. He won an NBA title in 1981 with the Celtics.
  • Larry Brown: He’s been everywhere, but he’s also been successful everywhere.
Latest Posts
  1. While uncommon, Kentucky’s expected ten-man platoon isn’t unprecedented

    Oct 31, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Another SEC school used a similar system on its way to a national title game appearance in 2000.

  2. 2014-2015 Season Preview: Louisiana Tech the favorite in the ever-changing Conference USA

    Oct 31, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    AP AP

    Despite 29 wins (13 in conference play) Louisiana Tech missed out on the NCAA tournament. Michael White looks to change that this season, although, his team will have to go through the likes of UTEP and newcomer Western Kentucky, first.

  3. Sophomore guard decides to leave Kansas program

    Oct 31, 2014, 1:12 PM EDT

    Iona v Kansas Getty Images

    With the number of guards in the Kansas program, playing time was likely to be scarce for Conner Frankamp.

  4. All-Big West forward declared ineligible at Hawaii

    Oct 31, 2014, 12:45 PM EDT

    Isaac Fotu Isaac Fotu

    Isaac Fotu’s part of the NCAA’s investigation into the program, and other schools have attempted to poach some of Hawaii’s remaining players.

  5. Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers

    Oct 31, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    Malcolm Brogdon (Getty Images) Getty Images

    Virginia is coming off of a dual-ACC title and returns the majority of the key players from that team.

  6. Kentucky sits atop Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll

    Oct 31, 2014, 11:37 AM EDT

    AP AP

    No surprise that Kentucky’s on top. Also of note: No. 3 Wisconsin received more first-place votes than No. 2 Arizona.

  7. Foot injury to sideline Ball State guard eight to ten weeks

    Oct 31, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

    North Carolina State v Cincinnati North Carolina State v Cincinnati

    The Cincinnati transfer was expected to factor into a rotation that’s replacing five seniors from last season’s team.

  8. Illinois declares home floor fit for play following flooding issue

    Oct 30, 2014, 11:53 PM EDT

    Twitter/IlliniHoops Twitter/IlliniHoops

    Quick action by construction workers ensured that it was declared ready for play two days after being flooded.

  9. Officiating controversy results in multiple suspensions

    Oct 30, 2014, 10:41 PM EDT

    Chris Collins, Bo Boroski Chris Collins, Bo Boroski

    Some officials are in hot water after compromising a system used by 20 different Division I conferences.

  10. Canadian forward/center verbally commits to Saint Louis

    Oct 30, 2014, 8:58 PM EDT

    crews AP

    Saint Louis adds more depth to its front court with this verbal commitment.

  11. Transfer center will sit out upcoming season at Florida

    Oct 30, 2014, 7:26 PM EDT

    John Egbunu, Austin Nichols, David Pellom John Egbunu, Austin Nichols, David Pellom

    John Egbunu was an American Athletic Conference All-Freshman Team selection at USF last season.

  12. VCU’s Treveon Graham: From lightly recruited to leader of Havoc, the Atlantic 10 favorites

    Oct 30, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT

    AP AP

    The Preseason Atlantic 10 Player of the Year is looking to lead VCU deep into March.

  13. Canisius to be without two forwards due to ankle injury, suspension

    Oct 30, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT

    Jim Baron Jim Baron

    The Golden Griffins have to account for the loss of four starters from last season’s 21-win team.

  14. Kentucky, Xavier among those participating in #Layup4Lauren challenge (VIDEOS)

    Oct 30, 2014, 3:56 PM EDT

    Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 4.03.04 PM

    Feel free to take this as my challenge to you all.

  15. Top 25 Countdown: No. 7 North Carolina Tar Heels

    Oct 30, 2014, 2:32 PM EDT

    marcus paige Getty Images

    North Carolina should be a national title contender, but they do have some question marks.

  16. Dayton’s Elite 8 run, Archie Miller’s decision to stay help continue Atlantic 10’s success

    Oct 30, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Dayton head coach Archie Miller spurned high-major programs to remain at Atlantic 10. He’s not the only one in the league happy with where they are.