The Best NBA Coaches Who Got Their Starts in College Basketball
When Brad Stevens left Butler to take over as head coach of the Boston Celtics, he walked head-on into an ugly tradition.
No, not the Celtics'. After all, Boston is the most decorated franchise in the NBA.
The scary history that Stevens joins is the one dooming college basketball coaches to ignominious failure in the professional ranks.
Before Stevens, no NBA team had hired a head coach with zero pro experience since the Golden State Warriors brought Mike Montgomery up I-280 from Stanford in 2004. With notable flops like John Calipari, Jerry Tarkanian and Leonard Hamilton littering the past 25 years, general managers have plenty of precedent discouraging the hiring of college coaches.
There are, however, a few cases of college coaches succeeding in the NBA. Success in this case is defined as either a winning career record or at least one NBA championship.
When you finish the list, however, you'll notice one thing: None of these coaches plied their trade very recently.
Still, best of luck to Brad Stevens. Recent history suggests he'll need every bit of it he can get.
Stan Albeck was never a smashing success at any of his coaching stops, but he was a consistent winner, at least in the NBA.
Albeck started his head coaching career at Adrian College, which is currently a member of NCAA Division III, before moving to Division II Northern Michigan.
His first D-I job was at the University of Denver, where he won 15 games over two seasons as an independent. At that time, being outside a conference was no deterrent to success for a college basketball program. Albeck's second season at DU was 1969-70, a year in which three of the Final Four participants (Jacksonville, New Mexico State and St. Bonaventure) were independents.
Albeck stayed in town to coach the ABA's Denver Rockets, taking over early in the season and guiding the team to a one-game playoff loss. After bouncing around the ABA and serving with the Lakers as an assistant, Albeck finally landed an NBA head coaching position in 1979 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That one season in Cleveland was the only year in Albeck's career in which he missed the playoffs. That includes his final season as a head coach, the 1985-86 season in Chicago. With second-year guard Michael Jordan down for 64 games with a broken foot, the Bulls went 30-52 and still scraped into the playoffs in a dismal Eastern Conference.
Albeck was no stranger to coaching superstars, spending three years in San Antonio and making two Western Conference finals behind George "The Iceman" Gervin. After leaving the Spurs, he spent the aforementioned difficult season with Jordan, then returned to his alma mater Bradley University and coached All-American sharpshooter Hersey Hawkins.
Albeck returned to the NBA as an assistant after leaving Bradley, but never again became a head coach. He finished with a .535 winning percentage in the pros.
Bill Fitch is best known for winning an NBA title with the Boston Celtics (1981) and a Western Conference title with Houston's Twin Towers, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon in 1985. Fitch's career does have two lesser-known aspects, however: Fitch spent 12 years working in the college ranks and in the process managed to stumble onto some interesting family connections.
Fitch's head coaching career started at his alma mater Coe College. He toiled in the lower divisions before being hired at Bowling Green State in 1967. Fitch reached the NCAA tournament that year behind star forward Walt Piatkowski, whose son Eric would one day become a legend at Nebraska.
Fitch then spent two years at the University of Minnesota, crafting a 25-23 record thanks to the play of forward Larry Mikan, son of original NBA giant George.
The pros came calling in the form of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers, who were named via a newspaper contest in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Winner Jerry Tomko would later sire a son named Brett, who went on to pitch for 10 major league teams.
Fitch's Cleveland teams made gradual improvement before crashing through to the 1976 Eastern Conference finals. Unable to repeat that playoff run, Fitch left the Cavs in 1979, joining the team that had kept him from the NBA finals, the Boston Celtics.
The struggling Celtics were instantly revitalized by rookie Larry Bird, winning 61 games and getting back to the conference finals. The following season, Boston won 62 games and its 14th NBA title.
Fitch took on reclamation projects with the Rockets, Nets and Clippers, managing to take each to the playoffs at least once. He retired in 1998 with 944 wins, currently ninth on the NBA's all-time list.
One final family connection: That Houston team that made the 1985 Finals also featured a guard named Mitchell Wiggins, later the father of college basketball's Next Big Thing Andrew Wiggins. With all these family ties running through his career, it's surprising that Fitch never coached the Phoenix Sons...er, Suns.
Speaking of the Phoenix Suns, they're the team most closely identified with the coaching career of one Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons. By the time he got to Phoenix, however, Fitzsimmons had already crafted a legacy that would put him in the Hall of Fame.
At the age of 26, Fitzsimmons was hired as the head coach at Moberly (Mo.) Junior College. He coached there from 1958-67, winning NJCAA national titles in his final two seasons. That success led to his hiring at Kansas State University, where he won 34 games in two seasons and made the 1970 NCAA tournament.
The Suns hired Fitzsimmons to take over in their third season of existence, and he recorded the franchise's first two winning seasons. The solid records still weren't strong enough to put the team into the playoffs.
He left for Atlanta in 1972, swayed by the chance to coach Hawks guard Pete Maravich. Unfortunately, Maravich only played two years under Fitzsimmons, and Cotton's first season with the Hawks was his only winning year there.
Fitzsimmons spent seven years with the Buffalo Braves/Kansas City Kings, winning one playoff series, and two mediocre years in San Antonio. It took a return to Phoenix to revitalize his career.
Back with the Suns, Fitzsimmons won no fewer than 53 games in any of his four seasons, twice advancing to the Western Conference finals. A third tenure would follow in 1996 before he finally retired.
Oh, yes, about the Hall of Fame. Aside from being nominated for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame's 2013 class, Fitzsimmons was inducted into two different Halls of Fame back in the 1980s. The National Junior College Hall of Fame inducted him in 1985, and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame followed suit in 1988, both honoring his long-ago junior college work at Moberly.
Before the LeBron, before the Air Jordan, but shortly after the Chuck Taylor, there was the Joe Lapchick. A lesser-known shoe pitchman today than those other legends, Lapchick was still one of the biggest names of pro basketball's early days.
A center with the Original Celtics during the 1920s and '30s, Lapchick walked immediately from the low post to the sideline, becoming coach at St. John's in 1936. His teams went 180-47 during his 11-year tenure with no losing seasons, and he steered the Redmen to NIT championships in 1943 and 1944.
In only its second year of operation, the Basketball Association of America convinced Lapchick to turn down a $12,000 offer from St. John's to join the New York Knickerbockers. As Knicks coach, Lapchick once again never endured a losing season, although the team was one game over .500 when he left in 1956 and would finish two games under.
The Knicks reached three straight NBA Finals under Lapchick from 1951-53, and would not see another one until 1970.
When Lapchick left the Knicks, he immediately returned to his old stomping grounds at St. John's. He picked up right where he left off, winning another 154 games in nine seasons. SJU still proved dangerous in tournament play, as well, winning the 1959 and 1965 NIT championships. Lapchick did, however, endure his one and only losing season in 1962-63.
Lapchick was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1966.
Like Cotton Fitzsimmons, John MacLeod began his Division I collegiate head coaching career in the Big 8 Conference and spent his best professional seasons with the Phoenix Suns. Unlike Fitzsimmons, MacLeod managed to steer the Suns to an NBA Finals.
MacLeod secured his first head coaching position at the University of Oklahoma in 1967. Though the Sooners struggled in his first two years, they would rebound for back-to-back 19-win seasons in '69-'70 and '71-'72 behind star center Gar Heard.
MacLeod won 90 games over six seasons in Norman—though he never made an NCAA tournament—before being hired to coach the Suns in 1973. His first four seasons were largely forgettable, aside from a stunning run to the 1976 Finals against the Boston Celtics. Although the Suns lost the series, Heard managed to get off one of the most iconic shots in league history.
Starting in 1977-78, Heard and young center Alvan Adams, who also played for MacLeod at OU, helped launch a run of eight straight playoff seasons for the Suns. The highlights were a pair of trips to the conference finals, including another Cinderella run after a .500 season in 1983-84.
MacLeod was let go in the middle of the 1986-87 season, but landed in Dallas the following year. In that season, he would ultimately rack up his final playoff wins in taking the Mavericks to the West finals.
After washing out of the NBA with a rough partial season in New York in 1990-91, MacLeod returned to college, taking over at Notre Dame. While he oversaw the Irish's move from basketball independence into the Big East, he still never made an NCAA tournament and finished 18 games under .500.
In total, MacLeod won 707 games in the NBA, finishing 50 games over .500.
Long before latter-day stars like Harold "The Show" Arceneaux (sorry, Tar Heel fans) and Damian Lillard were even born, there was a time when Weber State was a fixture in the NCAA tournament. A run of six straight bids began in 1968 under future NBA coaching great Dick Motta.
Motta was a high school coach in Idaho before taking the job at Weber, and he hit the ground running in college. Over five seasons, he compiled a sparkling 98-29 record, winning three Big Sky championships and making that aforementioned first NCAA tournament trip in '68. Weber's star guard Justus Thigpen would later have a son, also named Justus, who starred with Iowa State in the early 1990s.
Hired to coach the Chicago Bulls in their third season of operation, Motta needed only one season to make them a playoff team. He won NBA Coach of the Year honors after his first 50-win season in 1970-71 and reached Western (yes, Western) Conference finals in 1974 and '75.
Motta left the Bulls in 1976 to take over the Washington Bullets. There, he started fast with three winning seasons, including an Eastern Conference title and a surprising NBA championship in 1978. Led by veterans Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge, the Bullets knocked off the East's two best teams in Philadelphia and San Antonio before besting the equally surprising Seattle SuperSonics for the title.
And yes, at one point the Bulls were in the Western Conference and the Spurs were in the East. Realignment didn't occur until 1980, the same year David Stern became the league's executive vice president. Apparently, he was the only man in basketball who could read an atlas.
Motta left for the expansion Dallas Mavericks in 1980, molding them into a playoff fixture by the middle of the decade. After that, however, success was fleeting. Motta stumbled through Sacramento, a return to Dallas and a partial season in Denver before retiring in 1997 with 935 wins.
Motta remains 11th on the league's all-time wins list, although Gregg Popovich will be due to pass him this coming season.
In case you wondered why Jack Ramsay is referred to as "Dr. Jack," it's not a mere nickname. The legendary coach actually holds a doctorate in education. He received the Ed.D. from Penn while coaching at St. Joseph's, demonstrating some impressive time management skills.
Ramsay took over at his alma mater St. Joe's in 1955, and a program that had quietly toiled away in the independent ranks quickly became a national factor. Three years into Ramsay's tenure, the Hawks were invited to join the Middle Atlantic Conference, competing against the likes of Rutgers, Temple and La Salle, the latter still only a few years removed from a national title.
St. Joe's won the MAC title seven times over the next eight seasons, even reaching the Final Four in 1961. The Hawks met defeat against a loaded Ohio State team led by the famed triumvirate of Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried.
Two years after leaving St. Joseph's to become the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Ramsay took over as coach. The team's fortunes declined after Ramsay's trades of stars Wilt Chamberlain and Chet Walker, and Dr. Jack went down with the ship after four seasons. He took the Buffalo Braves to three playoffs in four seasons, but it was in Portland where Ramsay achieved his greatest success.
The education background may have paid off with a young Trail Blazers team that featured only one player older than 27. Led by inside powers Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, the Blazers marched to what remains the team's only NBA title. The following season, Portland won 58 games but stumbled in the Western semifinals against Seattle. Dr. Jack kept the Blazers above .500, but could never win 50 again.
Ramsay took over the Indiana Pacers in 1986, leading the team to only its second non-losing NBA season. Less than two years later, though, he resigned after an 0-7 start to the 1988-89 campaign.
Dr. Jack's 864 career wins currently rank 13th all-time.
Similar to Stan Albeck, Fred Schaus didn't coach many years in the NBA, but he was a consistent winner when he did. Unlike Albeck, Schaus took charge at his alma mater to begin his head coaching career rather than end it.
Schaus starred as a player at West Virginia and spent five years on the court with the Fort Wayne Pistons and New York Knicks. After his retirement, Schaus headed home to coach the Mountaineers.
WVU reached the NCAA tournament in each of Schaus' six seasons there, but his greatest accomplishment may have been luring in-state star Jerry West to Morgantown. The Mountaineers lost only 12 games over West's three varsity seasons, reaching the 1959 national championship game.
When West left for the NBA, so did Schaus. The two were reunited in Los Angeles, preparing to lead the newly relocated Minneapolis Lakers. The seven years Schaus and West spent together in L.A. were consistently strong, yet never truly dominant. The Lakers recorded only two 50-win seasons, but reached four NBA Finals.
Schaus headed upstairs in 1967, becoming the Lakers' general manager. There, he set about assembling a team that could finally win a championship. Schaus made deals to acquire Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston while drafting Jim McMillian. The four would form the nucleus of the 1972 NBA championship team.
With ring in hand, Schaus went back to college coaching, heading to Purdue University. His success at Purdue was not as spectacular as at WVU, but he still won 104 games in six years. The Boilermakers won the 1974 NIT and made the NCAA tournament in 1977. Schaus was responsible for recruiting Purdue icons like Walter Jordan, Eugene Parker and Joe Barry Carroll.
For his career, Schaus' winning percentages were .563 in the NBA and .720 in college. He remains the only coach to lead teams to the NCAA, NIT and NBA finals.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Coming soon: the 32 in 32 conference preview series.
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