Thursday, July 4, 2013

What the Brad Stephens Move Means for College Basketball

The big sports story of the weekend -- at least so far -- has been the surprising decision of the Boston Celtics to hire Brad Stephens of Butler University as their new head coach.  Most of the interest surrounding the story relates to how Stephens will attempt to rebuild a Celtics team that has just offloaded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.  In my opinion, this part of the story is irrelevant.  History shows that when young coaches leave a successful program for the NBA, the results are usually mediocre.  I can think of four great college coaches who left a successful program for an NBA job (one of whom did it twice).  Here is what they did:

1.  After taking UCLA to the Final Four in 1980, Larry Brown left to coach the New Jersey Nets for the 1981-82 season.  He lasted only two years, and never got past the first year of the playoffs.  He returned to college coaching at Kansas, where he won the National Title in 1988.

2.  After winning the National Title at Kansas, Larry Brown left for the NBA again, this time going to the San Antonio Spurs for the 1988-89 season.  He lasted three and a-half years without going past the Conference Semi-Finals.  He then spent a year and a half with the Clippers, four seasons with the Pacers, and six seasons with the 76ers before he finally won the NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.  Significantly, Brown coached 2,002 games in the NBA, and only 238 games at UCLA and Kansas.  But he won just as many NCAA titles (one) as NBA titles.

3.  P.J. Calesimo coached at Seton Hall from 1982 to 1994, and took the formerly hapless Pirates to the 1989 NCAA title game.  He was two-time coach of the year in the Big East, and took Seton Hall to six NCAA Tournaments -- including four in a row from 1991 to 1994.  He then left for the NBA, where he coached six different games for 554 games.  His all-time record as an NBA coach is 239-315, and he never got past the first round of the NBA playoffs.

4.  Rick Pitino was on top of the college coaching world in 1997, having led the Kentucky Wildcats to a national title and two consecutive appearances in the NCAA Finals.  He then left to coach the Boston Celtics, where he went 102-146 in three and one-half seasons.  He later coached the University of Louisville, and he has led the Cardinals to three Final Four appearances and a National Championship.

5.  John Calipari took over a dreadful UMass program in 1988, and took them all the way to the NCAA Final Four in 1996.  He then went off to coach the Nets, where he lasted only two seasons and 20 games.  His all-time NBA record was 72-112.  He then returned to college, where he took Memphis to the 2008 title game and led Kentucky to the 2012 NCAA Title.

Now I understand the dangers of small sample sizes, but these five examples tell a pretty vivid story.  Larry Brown, P.J. Carlesimo, Rick Pitino, and John Calipari are four of the very best college coaches I've ever seen.  They were all at least as good as Brad Stephens, if not better.  And except for Brown -- who spent decades plugging away until he got the chance to coach great players -- none of them made much of an impact on the NBA.  The nature of professional basketball is such that over a very long season, it is almost impossible to prevent the teams with the most talent from rising to the top.  And while a college coach can recruit his own talent, a pro coach is dependent on the vagaries of the NBA lottery, his general manager, and his owner.

So I do not expect Brad Stephens to have much of an impact in Boston.

But history also shows that Brown, Calipari, and Pitino call came back from the NBA and won NCAA championships.  For reasons I never understood, Carlesimo never came back, but chose to become an NBA lifer, thus effectively ending his chance to do anything significant.  My guess is that Stephens will not follow Carlesimo's path.  Instead, I believe that in about three or four years, he will be ready to return to the college ranks -- and whoever gets him will probably be in the Final Four soon thereafter.

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