Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim is one premier coach who has resisted taking an NBA job.
March Madness is typically dominated by head coaches. While 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast has grabbed the spotlight, we often emphasize the brains — not the muscle — behind successful programs.
The puzzling question is why have so few outstanding college coaches done well in the NBA — the highest level of competition?
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim are institutions. They have listened to pro offers, but neither has taken the leap.
Carmelo Anthony, who won a national championship with Boeheim, said Boeheim would “absolutely not” become an NBA coach.
“He wouldn’t ever consider it,” Anthony added. “College coaches build these little communities which they don’t want to leave.”
Other accomplished college coaches like Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Leonard Hamilton have coached in the NBA with mediocre to disastrous results.
There have been exceptions. Jack Ramsay had a successful coaching career at Saint Joseph’s and later led the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA championship.
Dick Motta enjoyed success at Weber State and won an NBA championship with the Washington Bullets. Larry Brown led Kansas and UCLA to NCAA championships and then led the Detroit Pistons to an NBA title.
But highly successful college coaches are often too consumed with control to consider sharing power with players. Others are bullies.
“It’s a different game,” Lionel Hollins, the Memphis Grizzlies coach, said. “You’re in control in college. In colleges, coaches are the face of the university. In the NBA, it’s players.”
Talented young athletes are aware of the millions of dollars to be made in the NBA. Previous generations used to be content simply to be on a college athletic scholarship and play on television.
Gary Williams, who has been a head coach at multiple colleges, most notably at the University of Maryland, said: “I’d be the first one to say players should get a stipend. At a big-time program you’re generating not just the dollars you bring in but the interest of your alumni that will give money to the school, not just to the athletic department. And the applications increase, which is really important to the school.
“It used to be if you went into a parent’s home, you’d better have for a pretty good fact that the kid could play basketball and graduate from your school,” he added. “Now the question becomes: ‘If my kid goes to your school, will he be able to play in the NBA?’ Or, ‘Would you mind if he left early?’ The questions are different now, but at the same time, my job as a college coach isn’t different — to prepare the players who won’t reach the NBA for the rest of their lives.”
Williams had a volatile coaching style, which would not fly at the NBA level.
“I don’t think the pros ever looked at me, because I’d get on players,” he said. “Part of what you get with 18- and 20-year-olds is a chance to instill discipline when, in a lot of cases, they have not had any discipline at all in their lives.”
But the mentoring never stops; it merely changes form. The NBA coach must be more diplomatic, more respectful and more mindful of a relationship that is a two-way partnership.
J.R. Smith came to the New York Knicks with a reputation as a talented but undisciplined player. Coach Mike Woodson has tried, with some success, to channel Smith’s talents.
“You’ve got to put him in the right positions, and you’ve got to be demanding of him and not let him off the hook,” Woodson said. “I’m trying not to do that. Sometimes I can get away with things that I saw with him. Sometimes I can’t; he fights it. That’s just a part of coaching — player relationships. It’s give and take sometimes.”
“I had an opportunity to coach a lot of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old players when I first became a head coach,” Woodson said. “Young players are different than veteran players. You’ve got to be able to coach them, and then you’ve got to pat them too.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean said he learned from his NFL coaching brother-in laws, John and Jim Harbaugh, to treat players as equals and not solely as business partners.
“I think what those two have done and what I’ve continued to take from them is they don’t come in with a business mindset,” Crean said. “They don’t treat their players like it’s business. There is a business aspect to it, but they really do try to build one-on-one relationships,” Crean said.
Many of Crean’s colleagues have a “my way or the highway” approach to coaching. But Crean does not have a problem with relinquishing control when it comes to solving basketball problems.
Before his team fell to Syracuse on Thursday, Crean agreed with his players that they needed to change the way they defended a particular play. The players were right, and their solution made sense.
“If they’re locked in and absorbing it, I’m all for it,” Crean said. “I don’t know if college coaches look at it this way, but I don’t care. That’s how I look at it. If you have a player-run program you can run into an issue, but when it comes to how we’re going to play that pick and roll, I’m all for it.”
Some successful college coaches shy away from the pros because they relish the role as teachers. As the NBA continues to get younger, there will be a need for talented young college coaches who speak the players’ language. The two must meet on a common ground of mutual respect.
“You treat them like men, but you never forget you’re playing a kids’ game,” Crean said. “To me, if you turn the game into too much of business, then I think you’re running into problems. Let’s never get away from the fact that this is a game that they are supposed to enjoy.”
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