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Why Brad Stevens' College-to-Pros Saga Will Be Different Than His Predecessors

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 01:  Head coach Brad Stevens cheers on his team against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first half during the home opener at TD Garden on November 1, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Michael PinaBoston Celtics Lead WriterNovember 2, 2013

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.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 23:  Head Coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on October 23, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

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.

 

Rick Pitino

LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 29:  Rick Pitino the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals gives instructions to his team during the exhibition game against the Kentucky Wesleyan Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on October 29, 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo b
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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.

 

Mike Dunlap

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 24:  Head Coach Mike Dunlap of  the Charlotte Bobcats watches his team against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on March 24, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
Marc Serota/Getty Images

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.

 

Reggie Theus

OAKLAND, CA -MARCH 13:  Minnesota Timberwolves coach Reggie Theus watches his team take on the Golden State Warriors on March 13, 2011 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

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! 

 

John Calipari

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 01:  John Calipari the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats gives instructions to his team during the exhibition game against the Transylvania Pioneers at Rupp Arena on November 1, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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.)

 

Larry Brown

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 4: Larry Brown head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats coaches against the Philadelphia 76ers during the game on December 4, 2010 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

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

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 8:  New coach of Boston Celtics Brad Stevens (R) confers with Daniel Ray 'Danny' Ainge, basketball executive, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics (L) during the 2013 Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League on
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

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. 

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