Stay in School
On-the-job training can be tough for college coaches entering the pros
A decade ago, when the Celtics tried to hire Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Pistons coach Chuck Daly was asked if the adjustment from college to pro coaching was a significant one. Daly answered, "My trainer, Mike Abdenour, knows more about the NBA right now than Mike Krzyzewski does."
Wonder if anyone shared that anecdote with Tom Izzo, the coach of national champion Michigan State, who last Saturday turned down a five-year, $15 million offer from the Hawks to fulfill his five-year, $5.5 million contract with the Spartans. Or with St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, who interviewed with Michael Jordan last week for the Wizards' vacancy. Jarvis knows there's skepticism in the pros about college coaches, who are often dismissed as overly emotional control freaks. "It's nerve-racking anytime you make a move," he says. "I don't know if that stigma makes it any worse. Do I have doubts I can [coach in the pros]? No. Does [the idea of coaching there] make me anxious? Yes."
In the 1970s and '80s former college coaches Daly, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Mike Fratello, John MacLeod and Jack Ramsay successfully made the transition to the pros. But the recent track record of college coaches in the NBA has been poor: John Calipari, P.J. Carlesimo and Jerry Tarkanian couldn't survive, and though Bulls coach Tim Floyd is earning his peers' respect, his record with a decimated team over two seasons is 30-102.
Why have college coaches struggled? "Most of the time they're offered a really bad job," says Calipari, who inherited a Nets team in 1996-97 that had gone 30-52 the previous season. Yet Calipari also acknowledges mat there's a steep learning curve with the pro game. "One of the big things I had to figure out was, How do the other guys coach?" he says. "If you are going to war, it helps to know the enemy. With no NBA background, I had to learn through games, and most of the time it was a bad experience. You come out of a loss saying, 'So that's when he uses the three,' or, That's when he changes tempo.' You can't get that off a scouting report."
Carlesimo went from Seton Hall to the Trail Blazers before the 1994-95 season, and he won 44, 44 and 49 games over the next three years. But CM. Bob Whitsitt, who came to Portland after Carlesimo, wanted his own man in the job, and he let Carlesimo go. "If you have good players, you win," says Carlesimo. "If you don't, you struggle, and inevitably they're going to say, 'He's a college guy. He can't relate.' The whole thing is spin. It's a joke, really. Basketball basketball. Are you going to tell me that if Coach K decided to retire at Duke, they shouldn't hire Pat Riley because he coaches pro basketball? Don't be ridiculous. He's a basketball genius."
SI asked six general managers if they would be open to hiring a college coach. Each of them said yes, though one added, "We all know there's an adjustment period, and sometimes you don't have time to wait. You need to be good now?
Some free advice for Jarvis if he is offered the chance to make the jump: Sixers coach Larry Brown, who won a championship with Kansas in 1988, says having veteran players who are open to change is critical. Tarkanian, now at Fresno State, recommends coaching in an NBA summer league to get a feel for the rules and substitution patterns. Carlesimo suggests hiring experienced NBA assistants. Calipari advises choosing a team with a stable front office that will be supportive during the dark days.
"Like I tell all the college coaches who ask me," says Calipari, who recently signed on to coach Memphis, "When you are winning in the NBA and the players and the organization are behind you, it's the best job in the world. But when you're losing and have guys who don't care, and you and ownership aren't on the same page, there's no more miserable situation on this earth."
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