- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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For years, while one 18-year-old after another was deemed fit and ready for the rigors of the NBA, the grown men who coached them were deemed unsuitable for the pro game.
Too controlling, too accustomed to being the centerpiece of the program or historically lousy at making the transition, college coaches remained an untapped pool of candidates.
And then two years ago, the Boston Celtics stunned everyone by hiring college wunderkind Brad Stevens from Butler to lead their storied franchise.
Last month, the Oklahoma City Thunder, one year away from Kevin Durant's free agency, tabbed Florida coach Billy Donovan. On Tuesday, the Chicago Bulls, a week removed from their playoff exodus, announced the hiring of Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg.
So what gives? Why are college coaches, once considered risky hires, more attractive to NBA general managers? Equally compelling, what's making the pro game so much more appealing to seemingly made-for-college lifers?
And maybe most important, is this the beginning of a trend, or are these simply three unique individual cases?
"For me, Brad Stevens should have been a trend by himself,'' said one NBA GM. "This was a light year [in the hiring cycle]. Next year, there may be seven or eight openings. They've got to come from somewhere, and this is a copycat league. If David Blatt wins the Finals, you may see more guys from Europe being hired. Or if Billy and Fred have success, teams will be going one of those two ways. Retread NBA coaches are going to be far less attractive moving forward.''
If being the biggest word in that entire quote.
The notion that college coaches couldn't succeed at the pro level wasn't built on a hunch, but on results. Of the last eight coaches to move into the pro ranks, only two -- John Calipari and P.J. Carlesimo -- took their teams to the playoffs. None lasted more than four years.
Yet each -- Calipari, Carlesimo, Rick Pitino, Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd, Mike Montgomery, Reggie Theus and Leonard Hamilton -- were wildly successful in the college ranks before and/or after their NBA runs. Calipari, for example, took UMass to a Final Four, and then took over the New Jersey Nets. His crash -- New Jersey won just 72 games in his three seasons -- was so epic, he needed to rehabilitate his image and his resume as a one-year assistant with Larry Brown before getting hired at Memphis. Since then, he's led the Tigers to another Final Four and Kentucky to three more plus a national championship. Now, he's headed to the Hall of Fame. Carlesimo, meanwhile, was dubbed the "Coach of the Century" at Seton Hall before leaving for the Portland Trail Blazers. He's held three NBA head-coaching gigs (and one interim) in all, but none more than three seasons, let go each time for failing to win. So, the theory went, it must be them.
College coaches were too tightly wound for a player-centric league, too used to putting their fingerprints on every decision to succeed as middlemen between the front office and the huddle. That argument, though, overlooked one critical bit of information: College coaches were routinely handed lousy jobs, inheriting teams bogged down by losing or rife with dysfunction. Of those eight coaches, only Floyd, who went to the Bulls from Iowa State, took over a team with a winning record. But he came to Chicago on the heels of the Bulls' epic breakup.
"I reiterated to Billy, the mistakes that college coaches make is they take bad jobs and then they get branded they can't coach in the pros,'' said Pitino, who left a successful, high-profile gig at Kentucky for an unsuccessful, high-profile Celtics job nearly 20 years ago. "If you go to the pros, you have to make sure you do what Phil Jackson did -- go where you can win.''
Donovan and Hoiberg, though, take over franchise winners. Oklahoma City, stymied by injuries, finished 45-37 this year but a season ago reached the conference finals; the Bulls finished 50-32 and made the conference finals before parting last week with coach Tom Thibodeau.
Stevens didn't inherit the same direct success, but he did get the winningest franchise in NBA history, one just five years removed from an NBA championship.
They should win. And should they win, general managers might be more enticed to look to the college ranks.
"There is no doubt that these guys can help dispel that notion -- which was unfounded -- that college guys can't make the adjustment to the NBA,'' another NBA GM said. "In many ways, they are more equipped. But you have to find the right ones. I'd much rather hire a college coach who has had success than an NBA guy who has been mediocre and has had opportunity after opportunity.''
It's not as if NBA teams haven't at least shopped in the college store already.
UConn's Kevin Ollie is an automatic addition to virtually any and every coaching candidate list. Calipari is a popular name, too. Villanova's Jay Wright was at least intriguing to the 76ers six years ago. And, in 2010, Michigan State's Tom Izzo went through a protracted tap dance with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Multiple sources have said the Celtics weren't the first to make overtures at Stevens, either.
How Stevens, Donovan and Hoiberg fare, though, could cut two ways. Should they succeed, more college guys, encouraged by their peers, might be less apprehensive to make the jump. Two years ago, Kansas' Bill Self started a huge tempest when he candidly answered that the NBA at least intrigued him. Odds are, he's not alone.
"I talk to people all the time, on Nike trips, traveling around, and I do think there are more guys who would be interested, many who actually are interested,'' Carlesimo said. "With Brad and now Billy, it's definitely on people's radars now.''
Talk to any college basketball coach, and they will say virtually the same thing about their job -- they love coaching basketball, but they hate the college basketball business. With its myriad of off-court obligations -- from alumni and development functions to endless recruiting to the seedier underbelly of the sport -- it wears people out.
"One thing here, the workload is heavy but it's different,'' Donovan said. "The workload is dealing with the team, making the team better. It's basketball. You have a chance to coach in the summer league, to go to different places and work with your players. It's a lot of work, but it's more basketball work.''
Stevens, a basketball tinkerer, was attracted to the intellectual freedom the pro game allowed.
"The people I met in the NBA, the ones with the front office and especially the coaches, were able to spend a lot of time evaluating the game, thinking about the game,'' he said.
Each, however, cautioned that there is no cookie-cutter answer to why a coach leaves and each reiterated how difficult and deeply personal their own decisions were.
In 2007, Donovan memorably accepted and then rejected the NBA life, taking the Orlando Magic job only to turn it down immediately after. With hindsight, he says now that he wasn't ready because he felt like there was both more he could do at Florida and more that he owed the school -- mostly stability and continuity.
But now, after 19 years, his thinking has changed. Donovan left because he felt like he had done everything that he could do as a college coach. Though he could have stayed in Gainesville for as long as he wanted, at only 50 years old, he feared complacency more than he welcomed comfort.
"Do you look back and say you didn't try to take on a different challenge, or do you grow in a different way?" Donovan said. "Choosing comfort, familiarity, that's always easy to do. But I wanted to stretch myself.''
After taking Butler to back-to-back Final Fours, Stevens had his pick of the college litter, seemingly cementing himself as a Bulldog lifer each time he turned down a bigger brand-name job.
And so when the Celtics announced his hiring, it was out-of-left-field stunning. He was not, he said, at all soured on the college game. Like Donovan, he made the move to challenge himself.
"The allure for me was just the opportunity to see what it's like to coach against the very best of the best,'' he said.
Hoiberg is the anomaly among the trio -- his head-coaching experience is all in the college game, but his background is really in the NBA. He spent 10 years as a player in the league and two more as an assistant GM with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Four consecutive NCAA tournaments has clouded the memory, but when Hoiberg was hired at Iowa State, more than a few people wondered if athletic director Jamie Pollard was making a mistake, foolishly allowing sentiment for a native son to overshadow a lack of obvious coaching savvy. Now, regardless of his resume, he is just another ex-college coach trying to make a go of it in the NBA. Will he, along with Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens, be trendsetters or, the latest in a long list of flops?
ESPN.com insider Jeff Goodman contributed to this story.
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