Skip to content

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

Jul 4, 2013, 2:00 PM EST

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. Horizon League Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

    Mar 2, 2015, 11:25 AM EST

    Alec Peters, Valparaiso Getty Images) Alec Peters, Valparaiso Getty Images)

    In addition to the Crusaders and Phoenix, keep an eye on Cleveland State and Oakland.

  2. Report: Ex-Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon accused of sexual assault

    Mar 2, 2015, 10:00 AM EST

    Duke v Louisville Getty Images

    Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in January of this year.

  3. Bracketology: Villanova takes ahold of the fourth No. 1 seed

    Mar 2, 2015, 9:27 AM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    The latest bracket projections from our Dave Ommen.

  4. Weekly Awards: Sir’Dominic Pointer and Baylor shine in a wild week of hoops

    Mar 2, 2015, 8:30 AM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Baylor picked up two huge wins, while Pointer led the Johnnies into the tournament this week.

  5. College Basketball Talk’s Latest Top 25: How far will Wisconsin and Gonzaga fall?

    Mar 2, 2015, 6:10 AM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Kentucky is still No. 1, but there’s a bit of a shake-up in the rest of the top ten.

  6. Jordan Bell produced a highlight-worthy sequence in Oregon’s win at Stanford (VIDEO)

    Mar 1, 2015, 10:21 PM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Oregon is 6-0 in games decided by five points or less this season. Bell’s key plays factored into the Ducks getting that sixth win on Sunday.

  7. Late Night Snacks: No. 5 Wisconsin wraps up share of Big Ten title while Pitt, Stanford suffer damaging losses

    Mar 1, 2015, 10:05 PM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    Wisconsin hadn’t won the Big Ten since 2008, although they’ve never finished worse than fourth during Bo Ryan’s tenure in Madison.

  8. Austin Peay head coach Dave Loos to return for 26th season in 2015-16

    Mar 1, 2015, 9:57 PM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    The Governors have posted four consecutive losing seasons, but their top three scorers are expected back in 2015-16.

  9. Three-star small forward becomes California’s first 2015 verbal commitment

    Mar 1, 2015, 6:29 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Davon Dillard announced his commitment to Cal Sunday afternoon. The Golden Bears hope to reel in the two big men who were also on campus in Ivan Rabb and Caleb Swanigan.

  10. Memphis sophomore forward re-injures right ankle in overtime loss to Tulsa

    Mar 1, 2015, 5:11 PM EST

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Austin Nichols injured his ankle early in the second half of Memphis’ loss

  11. Northeastern’s Devon Begley avoids mop boy to still score against College of Charleston (VIDEO)

    Mar 1, 2015, 4:30 PM EST

    Coaches Vs. Cancer College Basketball Tripleheader Getty Images

    Northeastern’s Devon Begley had to deal with a unique defender, the mop boy, while scoring off of a steal against College of Charleston.

  12. Another Michigan point guard playing through injury

    Mar 1, 2015, 2:00 PM EST

    (Getty Images) Getty Images

    Michigan point guard Spike Albrecht has been battling a hip injury this season.

  13. Maryland big man will have MRI after missing Michigan game

    Mar 1, 2015, 12:45 PM EST

    Virginia v Maryland Getty Images

    Maryland might miss Michal Cekovsky for some time after the freshman big man was injured during warm-ups on Saturday.

  14. Kansas State lands guard commitment in 2015 class

    Mar 1, 2015, 10:15 AM EST

    (DMV Elite) (DMV Elite)

    Kansas State picked up a Class of 2015 guard commitment on Sunday.

  15. Late Night Snacks: No. 7 Arizona, No. 11 Wichita State and No. 19 Baylor among Saturday’s big winners

    Mar 1, 2015, 2:11 AM EST

    AP Photo AP Photo

    No. 1 Kentucky moved to 29-0, and No. 6 Villanova came back to win at Xavier.