In 1987, the New York Knicks hired a hotshot college coach who had just led Providence to the Final Four. The new coach was smart, energetic and extremely promising.
In his first year, he led the Knicks to a 38-44 finish. Although that record wasn’t great, it sure beat the 24, 23 and 24 games New York won the three prior seasons .
In year two, he took the Knicks even higher. They went 52-30, their best record in 16 years.
But, despite his success, the coach wasn’t totally happy in the pros, and he left for the University of Kentucky. NBA commissioner David Stern even chided him after he left, implying the coach couldn’t handle the challenges of the Association.
“He’s leaving the stress of the pros and all the traveling for what really is an easier job,” Stern said. “In the end, who wouldn’t do that?’”
That coach was Rick Pitino – perhaps the most famous example of a college coach failing to successfully jump to the NBA, but also arguably the most recent example of a coach who did it well.
Since Pitino left the Knicks with a 90-74 record, 13 NCAA Division I coaches have been hired to become NBA head coaches. Just two of them have had a winning record with the NBA team that plucked them from the college ranks.
New Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whom Boston hired from Butler, will do his best not to follow in those footsteps. Here’s the history he’s trying to escape:
Hired by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012 from St. John’s
Dunlap is a unique case, because he was a St. John’s assistant when the Bobcats hired him.
But the reasons he failed in his lone season were hardly unique for a former college coach. Associated Press:
Dunlap struggled at times with game management, transitioning from the college game to the NBA and handling professional athletes, often benching veteran players for weeks at a time after they’d irritated him in some way.
Hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2007 from New Mexico State
Strangely enough, Theus credited Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian, both whom will appear later on this list, for helping to get him the job. Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof sounded pretty excited on his own to get Theus despite his small-time accomplishments after his playing career ended. “He’s very well thought of and revered in Las Cruces,” Maloof said.
Ultimately, Theus clashed with the Maloofs – who exercised the type of oversight not often seen by college coaches – and was fired early in his second season.
“I was dead man walking before I even took the job,” Theus said. “I wish I had known that.”
Hired by the Golden State Warriors in 2004 from Stanford
Montgomery was very mindful of the difference between the college and pro games when he was hired. Associated Press:
Coaching in the NBA has always been something Montgomery has considered as the next logical step. For several years now he has been talking to other coaches about the differences.
“Obviously there will be somewhat of a transition going from college to the NBA, but I’m prepared to meet those new demands and am confident in my abilities,” Montgomery said.
Perhaps, Montgomery overly compensated for those differences, though. Michael Deuser of Sporting News:
At Stanford, Montgomery built his program on tough defense and an offense based on tightly controlled half-court sets. Many of Monty’s point guards chafed under his direction, complaining that their creativity was squelched by a coach who called plays every time down the court. With Davis, Montgomery has behaved differently. He has given Davis free rein over the Warriors offense, allowing his All-Star to pass and shoot at his discretion. Somewhere along the line, Montgomery decided that the only way the Warriors could win was by letting Davis do his thing. In doing so, he has abandoned the discipline that made him a successful coach at the college level, and he has lost the respect of his players and control over his team in the process.
Mike Dunleavy Jr., in particular, has been vocal about the changes to the Warriors offense under Davis, telling reporters, “We can’t just go throw the ball out there and play street ball, and that’s what we rely on. You can’t just let your All-Stars, your best players, go one on one. As good as those guys are, the other guys are good, too. I’ve been trying to explain this to everybody since the first game of the season.”
Montgomery lasted just two seasons in the NBA before getting fired and retreating back to the Pac 10, where he took a job with Cal.
Hired by the Atlanta Hawks in 2000 from Illinois
The Hawks hired Kruger because they thought he could bring college sensibilities to the pro game. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually let him steer the ship like he could have in college. Michael Baldwin of The Oklahoman:
Kruger discovered one major difference between coaching in college and the NBA: He didn’t have the final say on personnel.
“It’s different, there’s no question about that,” Kruger said. “I was a little naive going into that situation. It was very much a learning experience, a very good experience other than the losing. The losing got old.”
Kruger had a couple losing seasons and was on his way to his third when Atlanta fired him.
Hired by the Washington Wizards in 2000 from Miami
Hamilton’s only pro season went so poorly, an assistant coach had to cover the standard postgame press conference following Washington’s final game, because Hamilton met with Michael Jordan immediately after the game about to end the coach’s tenure.
At least Hamilton looks back on the experience as a positive. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel:
Career mistake, right?
“It was a decision that I made that I don’t regret,” Hamilton said.”It was a great experience for me. Sometimes, change is necessary and can be a good thing. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things.”
Actually it opened up his bank account to a lot of money.
This is when I realized why my “career mistake” question was so silly.
Hamilton may have only coached one season in the NBA, but he collected the entirety of the 5-year, $10 million contract he signed with the Wizards.
The FSU coach smiled when he saw the light go on in my head and he knew that I’d finally figured out why going to the NBA was actually a great career move. It gave him financial security for the rest of his life and he was still able to come back and get a good college job at Florida State.
“Now,” Hamilton said, “you’ve got the picture.”
Hired by the Chicago Bulls in 1998 from Iowa State
Floyd: The coach so bad he made Michael Jordan retire. College coaches must gain respect from NBA players, and Floyd had a particularly difficult time doing that. Associated Press:
Jordan has made no secret of his unwillingness to play for the 44-year-old Floyd, who has no NBA coaching experience and compiled a 243-130 career record with five NCAA tournament appearances. He has been at Iowa State for four years and his team went 12-18 last season – his only losing season in 12 as a college coach.
In his most recent public comments, Jordan reiterated that he won’t play for any coach but Jackson, who left at the end of the season after the team won its sixth championship.
Jordan said he wouldn’t announce a decision on his future with the Bulls until after the NBA’s lockout ends.
He has ridiculed Floyd by calling him “Pink” – as in the rock group Pink Floyd. Dennis Rodman also has called the possible hiring of Floyd “a joke.”
Floyd tried to control how injured Bulls dressed on the bench (this was before the league-wide dress code), and he clashed with Ron Artest and Charles Oakley.
“Every day has been hell,” Floyd said during his fourth season. “It hasn’t been fun.”
He resigned on Christmas Eve of that year.
Hired by the Boston Celtics in 1997 from Kentucky
This is the coach whom Stevens will be constantly compared to, because Pitino also coached in Boston.
After leaving the Knicks for Kentucky, Pitino made his triumphant return to the NBA with great fanfare, a 10-year, $50 million contract and the best chance to land the No. 1 pick and choose Tim Duncan in the upcoming NBA Draft.
But lottery luck wasn’t in Boston’s favor, and Pitino said he would have never accepted the Celtics’ opening if he knew they wouldn’t get Duncan. NBA jobs are tough when you can’t pick your own players like in college.
Pitino’s style also didn’t really fit in the NBA. Mike Wise of The New York Times:
Pitino’s recipe for success at every level — constant pressing and trapping on defense and end-to-end transition on offense — often collided with the nouveau defensive-minded N.B.A. While more and more coaches stressed taking away options and cutting off areas of the court — using reams of videotape to show their players how to better defend their opponents — the Celtics kept running and pressing.
Pitino lasted longer with the Celtics than he did the Knicks, but now at Louisville, Pitino isn’t getting a third NBA opportunity anytime soon.
Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1996 from Massachusetts
Calipari was a familiar trope: the overbearing college coach who tried to remain overbearing in the NBA. Chris Broussard of ESPN:
From day one, Calipari’s talk of “changing the culture” rubbed members of the organization the wrong way. Sure, he was right (after all, the Nets had won just 30 games in each of the previous two seasons), but the holdovers, who had essentially run the place like a mom-and-pop operation, took offense at the way the savvy young hotshot pooh-poohed their way of doing things. He was also demanding to the point of absurdity, driving secretaries and underlings crazy.
“He would ask you to do something that can’t be done in three days and he’d want it done in three hours,” said one former member of the organization who was there for Calipari’s final season. “You’d tell him it can’t be done, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it [bleeping] can.'”
And, accustomed to being the kingpin on a college campus, Calipari would stick his head where it didn’t belong. He’d offer advice to those on the business side of the franchise, telling them a better way to do things. Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich can do that. But a 30-something pretty boy from the Atlantic 10?
His enemies within the organization began piling up.
Maybe Calipari could have overcome those issues if he had just drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996. Ian O’Connor of ESPN:
“John wanted to take Kobe Bryant in the  draft,” John Nash, Calipari’s general manager at the time, said Thursday by phone. “And he got faked out.”
“Everybody knows I was talked out of that,” Calipari said of his desire to select Bryant
And Calipari had him. He had Kobe Bryant out of Lower Merion High School as much as he had John Wall last season and as much as he’ll have Michael Gilchrist next season.
Calipari worked out Bryant three times at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and three times came away mesmerized. “If you watched the workouts,” Calipari said, “you would say either this kid was taught to fool us in these workouts or he’s ridiculous.”
Or both. Nobody knew it at the time, but Bryant and his agent and sneaker benefactor were about to fool Calipari in a staggering way.
The night before the draft, Calipari and Nash had dinner with Bryant’s parents, Joe and Pam, at the Radisson in Secaucus, N.J. Kobe’s mother and father were thrilled that their son would be playing within commuting distance of their suburban Philly home.
Only Bryant wasn’t about to wait years for his liberation. He called Calipari after the coach’s lunch with Taub, and Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, called Nash. Prospect and agent declared they wanted no part of Jersey; Tellem even threatened that his client would play in Italy if the Nets ignored their wishes.
Nash met with a panicked Calipari and tried to calm the coach. The GM made some phone calls and figured out that the Lakers’ Jerry West had reached an agreement with Charlotte, holding the 13th pick, to trade Vlade Divac for Bryant; West was confident that Kobe would make it to No. 13 if the Nets passed at No. 8.
Sneaker maven Sonny Vaccaro would later admit he worked with his good friend, Tellem, to maneuver Bryant to a franchise that would maximize his marketing charms. But Nash thought the Nets should hold firm and call Bryant’s bluff.
“Kobe wasn’t going to play in Italy, and he had nowhere else to go,” Nash said. “But I firmly believe a call from [agent] David Falk, who was representing Kerry Kittles, made the difference.”
Nash said Falk leaned hard on Calipari to take his client. As coach and executive VP of basketball operations, Calipari had final say. About 90 minutes before the draft, he told his owners he would select Kittles at No. 8.
Nash lobbied his coach one last time. From his time running the Sixers, Nash had extensive connections in the Philly area, and he was hearing and seeing the same things West was hearing and seeing — Bryant might be a once-in-a-generation player.
“John, you’ve got a five-year deal,” Nash told Calipari. “If you miss on this kid, you’ll get a couple of more chances.”
Calipari wouldn’t take the risk of having his first draft blow up on him in his own building. He took Kittles
NBA players – with their armies of agents, advisers, “sneaker mavens,” etc. – come with different challenges than college players, but Calipari couldn’t understand that web at the time.
Hired by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1994 from Seton Hall
Carlesimo is one of just two coaches on this list who had a winning record in an NBA job he took directly from coaching a college team, but he was still fired after just three seasons because he couldn’t get the Trail Blazers out of the first round of the playoffs.
At one point during his tenure, Carlesimo benched Rod Strickland for missing a flight, seemingly a reasonable punishment. But that just made their relationship worse, and Strickland demanded a trade. Typically, college players don’t (can’t) push back to discipline with that level of furor.
Hired by the New Jersey Nets in 1994 from Howard
Beard had been an NBA assistant for a while when he left the league to coach Howard, and he’d always had a reputation for being outspoken. But it’s doubtful his time at the relatively small-time school taught Beard how to defer in a players’ league. The Associated Press when the Nets fired Beard:
The outspoken Beard almost guaranteed his dismissal two weekends ago, criticizing his bosses and calling his team a bunch of “second-line players” who might never get better.
Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1992 from UNLV
Oh, boy. This one ended nearly as quickly as it began, because Tarkanian just could not make the transition. Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of The New York Times:
A professional coaching career that began with the jitters and included bouts with chest pains, team dissension and unaccustomed underachievement came to an abrupt end yesterday afternoon when Jerry Tarkanian was dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs hours before the team’s 21st game of the season, against Dallas at home.
The 62-year-old Tarkanian, hailed for his coaching achievements as Tark the Shark during 19 tumultous seasons at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had seemed to be a fish out of water almost from the moment he joined the Spurs this year after his rancorous departure from the college ranks.
Tarkanian acknowledged preseason jitters at the prospect of making the often treacherous transition from college to the pros and had every reason to be concerned.
There were injuries to Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings, plus the defection of Rod Strickland to Portland, which left the Spurs without a first-rate point guard. Tarkanian was forced to resort to a makeshift lineup that included the use of rookie forward Lloyd Daniels in the backcourt.
By the end of November, the pressure on Tarkanian was so intense that he was hospitalized briefly while suffering from chest pains, and by early this month some of his players, in particular Dale Ellis, were in open rebellion, complaining publicly about Tarkanian’s tactics.
Tarkanian may have actually brought about his own dismissal with a letter he sent to [Spurs owner Red] McCombs on Monday urging the acquisition of a point guard and arguing that the team could simply not win without one. “All I wanted was a point guard,” he said.
What fantastic last words. “All I wanted was a point guard.” If only he could have recruited one.
Hired by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 from Loyola Marymount
Westhead successfully brought his high-scoring offense from Loyola to the Nuggets. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize his team would also need to play defense to win in the NBA.
In Westhead’s first season, the Nuggets scored a league-best 119.9 points per game. But they still lost three quarters of their games, because they allowed a league-worst 130.8 points per game. That is incredible.
Larry Brown Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1988 from Kansas Record: 153-131
If Brown were a college coach when the Spurs hired him, it was in name only. He was a true professional coach. Before leading Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title, Brown had already won more games in the NBA and ABA than everyone else on this list combined entering their college-to-NBA job.
Stevens isn’t really like Brown in that sense. The new Celtics coach has absolutely no NBA experience.
Really, Stevens isn’t exactly like any coach on this list. He deserves a chance to blaze his own trail, an opportunity to rise or fall on his own merits.
But there are several lessons in these examples Stevens should heed so he won’t follow his NCAA-to-NBA predecessors lengthy track record of failing.