Does College Coaching Success Translate to the NBA?

The modest success of Brad Stevens has spurred a new interest in bringing college coaches to the NBA. Is it the right move?

Whenever a coaching opportunity opens up in the NBA, inevitably some of the most successful coaches in the NCAA seem to always make it on to the list of candidates. 

For some, it has become a common belief that college coaches are destined to fail in the NBA.

Either the pro game is too different or they cannot handle the personalities, but whatever the reasoning is, we need to take a look at college coaches and see if there is any truth to the theory.

History of Busts

Over the last 30 seasons, numerous coaches have made the jump to the NBA.

As you can see below, it has not gone well.

Coach Teams NBA Record Winning % Postseason College record Winning %
Rick Pitino NYK/BOS 192-220 46.6 2 734-253 74.4
John Calipari NJN 72-112 39.1 1 648-182 78.1
Jerry Tarkanian SAS 9-11 45.0 0 761-202 79.0
P.J. Carlesimo POR/GSW/
239-315 43.1 4 277-259 51.7
Tim Floyd CHI/NOH 90-231 28.0 1 440-252 63.6
Leonard Hamilton
WAS 19-63 23.2 0 470-388 54.8
Lon Kruger ATL 69-122 36.1 0 576-355 61.9
Mike Montgomery GSW 68-96 41.5 0 676-318 68.0
Reggie Theus SAC 44-62 41.5 0 41-23 64.1
Brad Stevens BOS 87-119 42.2 1 166-49 77.2

Despite all of the accomplishments and achievements they earned in the NCAA, college coaches have struggled to find even the faintest taste of success in the pros. Of the 10 coaches who have joined the NBA, before the 2014-15 season, zero have a winning record.

In the past 18 seasons, they have managed only three postseason appearances, all first-round losses.

One theory for the long list of coaching flops is the differences between the NBA and NCAA is too immense to overcome. 

Too Different a Game?

There are few rule and style differences between the NCAA and NBA, but the primary distinction between the two levels is who seems to run the show.

In college, the coaches are unequivocally the face of the team. They can be bombastic and overbearing. They have biggest egos and personas and the players fall behind them. 

In the NBA, not so much. The players are men and expect to be treated as such, a rough transition for some coaches who are used to teaching up youngsters at the college level.

Players can also take precedent in the organization over coaches. Superstars, like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, are notorious for defying coaches' play calls. Time and time again, when it comes down to either a star player leaving or replacing the head coach, the front office sides with the player more times than not.

College coaches considering the transition are justifiably nervous about the uncertain job security of NBA head coaches. Currently, only three coaches -- Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, and Erik Spoelstra -- have been at their job for over five years. Of the 30 coaches in the league, 23 have been on the job for fewer than three seasons. In fact, in just the last year, there have been 11 coaches relieved of their duties. That's over a third of the league.

The fickle nature of the NBA coaching ranks plays a big part in why some of the prominent names in the NCAA fail in the pros. They simply aren't given enough time to turn a franchise around. Where in college, they can do so more quickly.

One of the essential skills needed of a good college coach is his ability to recruit. With the high-turnover of college rosters, the head coach needs to be able to bring talent into school if they are going to maintain any level of success. His personality, the respect of the program, and in turn, his reputation play a big part in convincing the nation's best prospect to come to their university.

In the NBA, there is virtually no recruiting. Granted, players will take into consideration who the coach of the team is when deciding where to go, but money, teammates, and countless other factors go into making their decision as well. Player rosters in the NBA are much more stable than in college, too, leaving some of the best skills used by a college coach essentially worthless at the next level. 

While most of their forays into the professional ranks have been a disappointment, a few of the college coaching elite have found some modicum of success in the NBA. 

Recent Successes

Rick Pitino took over a 24-win Knicks squad in 1987 and, two seasons later, had them knocking on the doors of the NBA Finals before leaving to take over Kentucky. John Calipari guided the Nets to a 43-win season and a playoff appearance in 1997-98. The biggest success story in recent years, however, has been Brad Stevens and the Celtics revival.

While, record-wise, his career in Boston does not appear to be a great achievement, Stevens might be the best coach to take over an NBA team straight from college if we look closer at the job he has done with the Celtics.

In his first season, the Celtics went 25-57 largely due to the start of an extensive rebuild. Gone were Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and left behind to lead the offense was the uninspiring duo of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, both of whom would be playing elsewhere the following season.

In his second season in Boston, Stevens transformed a mish-mash collection of young players into a playoff squad and a 15-win improvement. This year, the Celtics are finally above .500, have a top-seven offense (103.6 points per game), and own the second-best defense (101.5 Defensive Rating), all with no true star on their team. Sorry,  Isaiah Thomas.

His transformation of such a high-profile franchise spurred two other teams to dip into the college ranks to find their coaches for this season, albeit in very different circumstances.

Chicago and Oklahoma City both had winning seasons last year, but due to the high expectations by the front office, decided to part ways with their head coaches (Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks, respectively).

In came two, highly respected college coaches in Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan. As expected, both have their team seemingly locked in the playoffs. Their hires, in combination with Stevens', has created momentum in changing the view of the potential of college coaches in the pros and possibly leading to many more getting the call this offseason.

Final Word

With so much turnover in the NBA coaching ranks, it is hard to single out the coaches that have come from college as inevitable failures. Many coaches, including those with NBA experience, were not given a decent amount of time to turn around franchises.

Most new hires aren't handed Kevin Durant or Jimmy Butler in their first run, either. The overwhelming majority are given rosters without talent and in desperate need of an overhaul.

But after examining the likes of Stevens, Donovan, and Hoiberg, it becomes clear that coaches who succeed in the NBA can not be bigger than the players like they can be in college.They can not overshadow the stars of their team or they will be gone quickly. They need the right personality to mesh with their teams.

Like any new hire, the right fit and philosophy are more important than experience. While college coaching success may look good on the resume, it does not translate into success in the NBA.