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. Former Michigan forward Max Bielfeldt holding off on school decision

    May 28, 2015, 9:02 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    Fred Hoiberg’s status has impacted recruiting in multiple cases for Iowa State this spring.

  2. Big 12 Tournament to remain in Kansas City through 2020

    May 28, 2015, 7:43 PM EDT

    Bob Bowlsby, Fred Hoiberg Bob Bowlsby, Fred Hoiberg

    Big 12 tournaments held at the Sprint Center have averaged more than 18,000 fans per session.

  3. SEC announces new men’s basketball scheduling format

    May 28, 2015, 6:41 PM EDT

    SEClogo

    Each team will have three “permanent” opponents they’re guaranteed to play twice every season.

  4. Misdemeanor charges against VCU’s Mo Alie-Cox dropped

    May 28, 2015, 5:46 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    Video surfaced showing that Alie-Cox wasn’t involved in the incident, contradicting a woman’s claim that he punched her in the face.

  5. Former VCU forward transferring to UConn

    May 28, 2015, 4:04 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    UConn’s now added three transfers to the program this spring, two of whom will be eligible immediately as graduate students.

  6. Former Clemson coach Bill Foster dies at 79

    May 28, 2015, 3:24 PM EDT

    ClemsonTigers.com ClemsonTigers.com

    Foster led Clemson to their only Elite 8 appearance in program history.

  7. North Carolina to visit Northern Iowa in homecoming game for Marcus Paige

    May 28, 2015, 2:07 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Paige went to high school an hour from UNI’s campus.

  8. #FredHoibergWatch officially commences today, as Bulls fire Thibodeau

    May 28, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    Iowa State fans shouldn’t freak out too much.

  9. Throwback Thursday: That time Matthew Dellavedova beat BYU at the buzzer (VIDEO)

    May 28, 2015, 12:24 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Dellavedova was a star with the Gaels before he became this year’s NBA Playoff star.

  10. Walter Byers, former NCAA director who coined ‘student-athlete’, dies at 93

    May 28, 2015, 10:47 AM EDT

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Byers created the term “student-athlete” and first sold TV rights for NCAA broadcasts, but later wrote a book blasting the NCAA for exploiting athletes.

  11. Big 12 schools to face penalties for court storming

    May 28, 2015, 9:52 AM EDT

    KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 22: Fans wear full bodysuits that read 'Airhead Moment' in the first half of the game between the Kansas State Wildcats and the La Salle Explorers during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Sprint Center on March 22, 2013 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Getty Images

    This is a step in the right direction by the Big 12.

  12. Former Michigan State, Notre Dame center goes on Twitter rant about NCAA

    May 27, 2015, 11:27 PM EDT

    Garrick Sherman AP

    It’s safe to say that Sherman is no fan of the NCAA.

  13. Kentucky’s John Calipari believes college basketball’s ‘gotten way too rough’

    May 27, 2015, 9:05 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    The shot clock won’t have as much of an impact on offenses as lessening the physicality of the game.

  14. Memphis commit reclassifying to 2015, will enroll next month

    May 27, 2015, 7:31 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    The 6-foot-11 center was originally expected to attend prep school before joining Memphis in 2016.

  15. St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin throws out first pitch at Yankees game (VIDEO)

    May 27, 2015, 5:38 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    The 6-foot-6 southpaw showed off his arm, and was accurate in doing so.

  16. Bill Self wins Hall of Fame’s humanitarian award

    May 27, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT

    150527_billSelf Getty Images

    Self and his wife created the Assists Foundation.

  17. Auburn center Trayvon Reed released from jail

    May 27, 2015, 11:09 AM EDT

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Reed broke a cop’s finger while resisting a shoplifting arrest.

  18. Nebraska and Tim Miles have agreed on a contract extension

    May 27, 2015, 10:28 AM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    Miles is 47-49 in three years with Nebraska.