'Failure' part of NBA coaching

Updated: May 21, 2004, 4:26 PM ET
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

As Mike Montgomery takes over the Golden State Warriors, there is a rush to preface his hiring with the sweeping statement that college coaches fail at the NBA level. Well, I chuckle each time I hear people opine that college coaches have a poor track record in the NBA, and therefore, are not suited for the job.

The company line goes something like this:

  • Lon Kruger failed in Atlanta.
  • P.J. Carlesimo failed in Golden State.
  • Rick Pitino failed in Boston.
  • John Calipari failed in New Jersey.
  • Tim Floyd failed in Chicago and in New Orleans.

    (Heck, the argument even goes back to Jerry Tarkanian, as if his few days in San Antonio were a true measure of his coaching ability.)

    Somehow, almost magically, the NBA has gotten a reputation as being the most complicated and difficult game to comprehend, and all its coaching candidates had better be longtime members of MENSA to figure it out. It has become almost accepted logic that college coaches are doomed to fail.

    Well, that's baloney.

    The truth is, almost every coach in the NBA is doomed to fail ... eventually.

    Magic Johnson failed miserably in Los Angeles. Jerry West had mixed results as a head coach in the NBA. Tex Winter couldn't win his way out of a paper bag in the league. Fred Carter, M.L. Carr, Dave Cowens, Don Chaney, Randy Wittman, Paul Silas, Frank Johnson, Brian Winters, Darrell Walker, Matt Goukas, Dick Motta (and a long list of others) would have a tough time arguing that their records were significantly better than the college coaches who have "failed" in the NBA.

    Lenny Wilkens has won more NBA games than any head coach in the history of the game and is in the Hall of Fame because of those 1,372 victories. But he too failed in Toronto.

    Heck, Pat Riley failed as the head coach of the Miami Heat.

    And, before this season, Hubie Brown would have been considered a failure under the standard which college coaches are now judged in the NBA.

    The NBA is a league that fires coaches before first addressing any of the problems that got those coaches fired in the first place. It is a cosmetic measure, and it is taken way too quickly and way too easily.

    The players know the coach goes and they stay, so tanking is not out of the question. The media and fans know that if they complain enough, the coach will eventually go as a result of the unrest. Most of the coaches in the old days who ultimately reached success would not last long enough to do so now.

    Here's a good one for you: Bernie Bickerstaff has yet to coach a game as the head coach of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, but is the fourth longest tenured coach in the Eastern Conference.

    The NBA changes coaches like most of us change socks. Sure, you have to be able to coach your tail off, but true success follows the best players in the NBA.

    As for the "failures," well remember something when grouping college coaches together. College success is usually rewarded with the worst NBA jobs. When a head coaching position opens in the NBA, it does so because the prior coach "failed" to turn the franchise into a winner.

    Pitino inherited a loser in Boston, and if the ping-pong balls had come up Tim Duncan, do you think Pitino would be back in Louisville?

    Kruger took over a money hemorrhaging joke in Atlanta.

    Calipari inherited a miserable loser in New Jersey.

    Carlesimo was choked by one of his players in Golden State, and will be an NBA head coach again soon because he is really good.

    Floyd, meanwhile, took over a gutted Chicago franchise that Red Auerbach couldn't have resurrected with John Wooden and Clair Bee as his assistants. Floyd won with New Orleans with nothing better than decent talent, and he got canned anyway.

    Most, if not all, coaches would lose in the same situations. And I'm pretty sure Pitino, Calipari, Floyd and Kruger would have done pretty well with Kobe and Shaq, or with Michael and Scottie.

    Make no mistake, the NBA is a tough league, and a coach must be very good to succeed. But let's be fair. College basketball is a tough league, and you have to be very good to succeed there, as well.

    If college basketball is so easy, and the pro game is so hard, how come pro coaches don't just "come down" to college and dominate? The money is really good, and you have long-term security relative to the NBA. Ask Bob Hill and John MacLeod, who spent their time in college getting their tails kicked, all the while talking about how nobody in college "runs anything."

    Again, I laugh out loud when I hear the fallacies about the NBA compared to college basketball. The uninformed consider the NBA to be superior in developing players, while college and its coaches are blamed for every player's failure.

    When a kid goes to college with an overinflated reputation and falls short of expectations, the college coach didn't develop him, or didn't run the right offense to showcase his skills. When that same kid goes into the NBA and fails, it is the player's fault; he's just not good enough or tough enough. If Kwame Brown had gone to college and failed, the blame would have fallen to his coach. When he fails in the NBA, it is his fault. How about "developing pros?"

    A lot of college coaches are excoriated for not developing players and putting them consistently in the lottery. Why don't you ever hear similar things about NBA coaches? You never hear how many All-Stars an NBA coach produces, or whether an NBA team produces Hall of Famers? How many more pros did Larry Brown develop at UCLA and Kansas relative to his peers in the college game? Please.

    Most of the successful coaches in the NBA started in college, trained in college, and developed in college. The NBA is not so complicated that it cannot be figured out by college coaches. Similarly, college basketball is not a game that pro coaches cannot successfully navigate. Basketball is very much the same game in college as it is in the NBA. College coaches can make the adjustment, given time and the right job.

    Neither game is easy, and a coach has to be good to succeed. But, he also has to find himself in the right circumstances.

    The Golden State Warriors have a tough road ahead to be competitive in the Western Conference, which would be just as true if an NBA lifer had taken the job instead of Montgomery. Will Montgomery have to make adjustments in the NBA? Sure. He will have to be more of a manager than a dictator. He cannot be as acerbic over 82 games with an NBA team as he could with a team of teenagers. He will have to be a quick study of the league, and rely upon good assistants and upper management.

    Dr. Jack Ramsay, one of the NBA's all-time great coaches, and a terrific college coach, provided some sage advice to Montgomery on ESPN.com, and you should check it out.

    But I ask you: Wouldn't Dr. Jack give the same advice to a guy taking a college job?

    Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

    Jay Bilas

    College Basketball analyst
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