The history of NCAA coaches who used their wave of success at the collegiate ranks to find long-term triumph in the NBA isn’t much of a history at all. The track record is ugly, filled with unfortunate flameouts and brief dalliances that ended in disappointment.
Almost all had high expectations, and none lived up to them. They didn't inherit great talent, and none were given it during their tenure. They also struggled to adapt their collegiate strategy to the professional ranks. They’re remembered for poor records and, in some cases, downright tragic personnel decisions.
Brad Stevens has these predecessors to thank for everyone who viewed his hire as an impending disaster. Is Stevens' job the most difficult? Not necessarily, but it won’t be easy either. With 17 banners up in the TD Garden’s rafters, the long-term expectations will literally hang over his head at least 41 nights each season.
But Boston showed significant commitment when they signed Stevens to a six-year, $22 million deal. They’re all about a long-term renovation for Stevens to oversee, and Danny Ainge has a history of turning promising assets into viable talent. Unless an unhappy superstar such as Kevin Love announces his desire to play in Boston, the first couple of seasons will be rocky. That’s expected, and it’s OK.
Stevens could go 8-74 this year, and Celtics ownership wouldn’t second guess his hire. Here are some other coaches who made the transition, and how what they faced compares to Stevens.
The most popular comparison is Rick Pitino, but the two coaches enter Boston under vastly different circumstances. The Celtics expected Pitino to turn everything around overnight. And before the ping-pong balls popped up in San Antonio's favor, sending Tim Duncan to Texas instead of New England, so did Pitino.
He sacrificed long-term success for short-term stop-gaps—something this Celtics franchise has no interest in doing again—trading Chauncey Billups just 51 games into his borderline Hall-of-Fame career. After winning a National Championship with the Kentucky Wildcats, Pitino tried bringing the same on-court strategies to the NBA (such as the full-court press), but they didn't work, and he never had a winning record in four seasons coaching the Celtics.
Pitino tried to do too much, serving as both the head coach and general manager for the most successful franchise in league history during what felt like a never-ending championship drought. He wanted to win right away, but that only set the organization further back than it needed to be. His "right now" master plan turned out to be the wrong one.
In 2012, Mike Dunlap took over as the head coach of a Charlotte Bobcats team coming off a season in which they posted the worst winning percentage in NBA history. Dunlap was an unheralded assistant coach at St. Johns, and despite facing low expectations, he was fired after one season with the team. (Charlotte went 21-61 under Dunlap.)
Charlotte's roster wasn't any more talented from 2011 to 2012, and the team's decision to let Dunlap go was surprising. It was also doomed from the start. Team owner Michael Jordan doesn't appear to have a long-term plan in place, and it showed after his decision to let Dunlap go. The former St. Johns assistant was not the right decision in the first place.
A former NBA player, when Reggie Theus was hired by the floundering Sacramento Kings in 2007, he preached long-term targets. He knew, coming from the University of New Mexico, that turning around the Kings wouldn't be an overnight process. But just a year and a half into his tenure, Sacramento's ownership group—the oft-maligned Maloof brothers—decided to part ways.
But the decision to hire Theus, who at the time was "stunned" he got the job, was surprising in its own right. The Kings were only two years removed from employing the highest paid coach in basketball, Rick Adelman. From that annual $6.875 million salary, Theus was set to make less than a third.
It was the beginning of the Maloof brothers cutting costs every chance they got and not Theus' fault that he was stepping into a corrupt situation with no experience as a head coach at the professional level. That's precisely why he was hired!
Before John Calipari solidified himself as one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, the NBA chewed him up and spit him out. Coming off an amazing eight-year span at the University of Massachusetts, leading the Minutemen to a 193-71 record, Calipari replaced Butch Beard as head coach of the New Jersey Nets after the 1996 Final Four.
Facing incredibly high expectations over the next three seasons, Calipari would go 72-112. The Nets barely qualified for the playoffs in 1998 before getting swept by the Chicago Bulls, and Calipari was fired 20 games into the following season after starting 3-17.
Ironically, once he returned to college, first with the University of Memphis and now with the University of Kentucky, Calipari was back to being a successful coach. Why? For starters, recruitment. During his tenure at Memphis, 11 of his players were drafted into the NBA, including Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose, both of whom won the Rookie of the Year trophy.
At Kentucky he's become a caricature for victory. Not only do his players go to the NBA, but they become franchise pillars when they get there. From John Wall to Eric Bledsoe and from Anthony Davis to DeMarcus Cousins, Calipari hand-picked the best players, which is something he couldn't do 15 years ago in New Jersey. (No NBA coach can, to be fair.)
The exception to the rule. Larry Brown is the only coach in basketball history to win a championship in both college and the NBA, first with the University of Kansas in 1988 and the Detroit Pistons in 2004 (the latter being the one team in recent memory to win it all without at least one bonafide top-10 player).
Brown may be known more for his work in the professional ranks (he also coached the Denver Nuggets in the 1970s and the New Jersey Nets for two years in the early 1980s). He remains the only coach in league history to take eight different organizations to the playoffs, but he is notoriously reputed as a hard-nosed practitioner whose style wore thin on adults rather quickly.
Many of his runs were brief, spending only a year or two with the San Antonio Spurs, Pistons, New York Knicks (a catastrophe that left his name in tatters) and Charlotte Bobcats. Now back in college, Brown's career is mercurial. He squeezed the most out of the talent he had, but more times than not, his grip ended up being too tight.
Summing it Up for Stevens
Stevens' situation is different from Pitino, Dunlap, Calipari, Brown, Theus and just about every other college coach who embarked on a more difficult journey in the NBA. He has unbridled support from ownership and his general manager, an analytical outlook and will be graded on process more than results.
As he stuck with Doc Rivers six seasons ago, when "Fire Doc" chants were becoming a nightly tradition during Celtics games, Danny Ainge will do the same with Stevens. Ainge knows the responsibility is on him more than anyone in the organization to turn things around, and he won't put the burden on Stevens until he feels championship level talent is in that locker room. And that won't be for quite some time.