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. Report: Baylor forward will leave the program

    Aug 3, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT

    (Getty Images) Getty Images

    Baylor is losing a reserve forward to transfer.

  2. Report: Four-star forward could choose a school soon

    Aug 3, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT

    (Kelly Kline/adidas) (Kelly Kline/adidas)

    Mamadi Diakite, a four-star forward, could decide between three schools soon, per a report.

  3. Fixing his flaws: How Kris Dunn has attacked the two weaknesses in his game

    Aug 3, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    There are two glaring weaknesses to Kris Dunn’s game. Here’s how he’s gone about trying to fix them this summer.

  4. Penn State lands their most important recruit in a decade in Tony Carr

    Aug 3, 2015, 2:40 PM EDT

    chambers Getty Images

    Tony Carr is a four-star point guard that picked Penn State over Maryland, SMU and Providence.

  5. Investigation funded by Illinois clears Illinois women’s coaches of racism claims

    Aug 3, 2015, 12:29 PM EDT

    Matt Bollant (AP Photo) AP

    The investigation was conducted by an outside law firm and paid for by the university.

  6. Five-star guard Rawle Alkins cuts his list to ten

    Aug 3, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Alkins might be the best player from New York City since Lance Stephenson.

  7. Michigan announces non-conference schedule

    Aug 3, 2015, 9:20 AM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    The schedule isn’t the best you’ll see this season, but it’s pretty solid nonetheless.

  8. Four-star 2016 combo guard cuts list to four

    Aug 2, 2015, 9:45 PM EDT

    Kelly Kline/Under Armour Kelly Kline/Under Armour

    St. John’s remains under consideration for the Brooklyn native.

  9. 2018 power forward Jontay Porter commits to Washington

    Aug 2, 2015, 6:37 PM EDT

    Lorenzo Romar AP

    He’s the younger brother of five-star 2017 forward Michael Porter Jr., and Michael Sr. considered joining the Washington staff this spring.

  10. UTEP adds four-star forward Brodricks Jones, former San Diego State commit

    Aug 2, 2015, 5:10 PM EDT

    Tim Floyd AP

    With Vince Hunter in the professional ranks and Matt Willms dealing with a foot issue, this is an important pickup for the Miners.

  11. Report: Two official visits set for five-star Class of 2016 shooting guard

    Aug 2, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    markelle fultz

    Markelle Fultz will take two official visits once he leaves adidas Nations.

  12. POSTERIZED: Wenyen Gabriel dunks on defender at adidas Nations

    Aug 2, 2015, 2:45 PM EDT

    (adidas) (adidas)

    Wenyen Gabriel’s tremendous summer only got better with this off-handed throw down on a defender.

  13. Xavier gets commitment from four-star guard

    Aug 2, 2015, 1:45 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Xavier added another piece in the 2016 class with a guard commitment.

  14. N.C. State secures commitment from four-star 2015 wing

    Aug 2, 2015, 12:33 PM EDT

    Mark Gottfried (AP Photo) Mark Gottfried (AP Photo)

    N.C. State added a dynamic wing scorer late in their 2015 recruiting efforts on Sunday as reclassified 6-foot-7 wing Maverick Rowan committed to the Wolfpack. A three-level scorer, Rowan was previously committed to Pitt and later backed off of his pledge to the Panthers before deciding to move up a grade by taking two summer…

  15. Texas A&M finishes 2015 recruiting efforts with late guard commitment

    Aug 2, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    Texas A&M finished off a tremendous 2015 recruiting class with one more combo guard.

  16. 2017 power forward/center verbally commits to Arkansas

    Aug 2, 2015, 10:15 AM EDT

    Mike Anderson AP

    After a rough July that included suspensions and a recruit heading to prep school, Arkansas received some good news on the first day of August.

  17. Three-star shooting guard becomes Wake Forest’s second 2016 commitment

    Aug 2, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Danny Manning AP

    Brandon Childress, son of Wake Forest great Randolph Childress, was the first commit in the class for the Demon Deacons.

  18. Former Weber State, D-League assistant Phil Beckner joins Nebraska coaching staff

    Aug 1, 2015, 9:15 PM EDT

    Robert Casey/Weber State Athletics Robert Casey/Weber State Athletics

    Praised for his ability as both a coach and recruiter, Beckner also helped develop Damian Lillard into a lottery pick.

  19. Three-star power forward trims list to five

    Aug 1, 2015, 7:59 PM EDT

    Rivals.com Rivals.com

    Childs played well with the Utah Prospects in Las Vegas during the final evaluation period.