Ex-NBA coaches enjoying return to college

Updated: November 9, 2005, 3:07 PM ET
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

2.3 years.

That's the average time an NBA head coach lasts with a franchise these days.

Jeff Bzdelik knows this by heart. He was 2.3 not so long ago. It helped shape his current career choice. It made his decision to embrace the Air Force job this season and hold on like he was controlling an F-14 Tomcat at warp speed easy.

2.3 will do that to a guy.

"I'm staying at the academy," said Bzdelik, "until they boot me out."

First, the obvious: The circumstances some NBA coaches inherit might be cruel, but the money they're paid to try to turn bad teams into good ones (to, in essence, spin straw into gold) isn't. You can become famously wealthy despite notoriously dreadful results.

Being paid millions to produce a below-average performance on a ridiculously consistent basis? It's like being Freddie Prinze Jr. without the benefit of waking up to Buffy every morning.

Yet it shouldn't surprise anyone when a coach whose NBA stint ends with a swift kick to the sidewalk -- probably one where a stretch limousine awaits -- often looks first to the college landscape rather than within other professional circles.

Makes sense. For the most part, other than the number of zeroes on a paycheck, coaching college is a better and more secure gig.

Jeff Bzdelik
After a stint in Denver, Bzdelik's doing wonders in Colorado Springs.

Three of the bigger programs out West -- in addition to Bzdelik, there's Lon Kruger at UNLV and Tim Floyd at USC -- will be directed this season by coaches who have left the NBA and returned to the life of grade checks and recruiting trips. Returned to a place where control of a roster falls on the coach rather than the general manager and owner. Where you never (well, almost) have to contact a player through his agent. Where how much your team succeeds is based more on comprehensive execution than contract negotiations.

Where there is actually some semblance of hope for teams that have otherwise stunk up the gym.

"Winning feeds off itself so much more in the NBA than in college," said Kruger, entering his second season at UNLV after -- hey, what do you know? -- almost 2.3 seasons coaching the Atlanta Hawks. "The differences between winning and losing franchises are huge, and you just don't have the chance to cross over very often. When you're winning in the NBA, a guy's injury lasts two days instead of two weeks. Guys on winning teams want to get back and enjoy that success. It is reinforced in everything you do. Guys on losing teams don't want to get back. They don't want to be blamed for the losing.

"The two levels are starkly different, and yet some of the things basketball-wise are exactly the same. But NBA players have different priorities, different lifestyles. In college, a coach has a better chance to affect a player in terms of attitude and work ethic. In the NBA, you have what you have and you're not going to change them much, especially the veterans."

Translation: It's all about control. And there's a lot more of it in college.

Kruger went 69-122 with the Hawks and lasted 27 games into his third season. Bzdelik went 73-119 with the Nuggets and lasted 28 games into his third. Floyd went 93-255 with the Bulls and Hornets over four seasons. It's not a surprise that each at times struggled convincing pros to buy into his message.

But it's not just that. Practice time in college might be regulated by the NCAA, but at least you are afforded a substantial amount during the season. Time to observe. Time to instruct. Time to improve.

Once an NBA preseason ends, a coach's life essentially becomes preparing for a game, playing it and being handed tape on the next night's opponent. It's a whirlwind existence with little to no time for detail. Try riding Space Mountain for six straight months with no breaks to check for mechanical problems.

"In the NBA, you're maybe practicing two of every 12 days and the rest of the time is game preparation," said Floyd. "I'm looking forward to the [practicing] phase of the college game.

"I'm glad to be back. I noticed the first week of practice here that when I told a player, 'Pick up your darn feet and get back on defense,' that I reflected back to the NBA when I would say, 'Pick up your darn feet and get back on defense, please, sir.' There is obviously a vast difference in how you approach a team in college than the NBA. I enjoyed the NBA. I'm glad I did it. It helped me in coming back to college now in a lot of different areas. I grew as a coach.

"I guess I just didn't want to have any regrets, to look back at 70 and say I didn't coach [in the NBA]."

Bzdelik tells the story of when he was an assistant for seven years in Miami under Pat Riley. He tells about the character of those teams, about players like P.J. Brown and Dan Majerle and Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway and Bruce Bowen and Terry Porter. About men who approached the game as if study hall was as much part of their day as working out, as if they still played at the collegiate level, as if they truly loved the game more than the riches.

"Each situation is unique and different and always comes down to the type of men you have," said Bzdelik, who last coached Division I at Maryland-Baltimore County in 1988. "You have guys in the NBA who will always work hard and guys who -- what happens when someone wins the lottery? -- quit on their jobs. To win in the NBA, you need great internal leadership. It's the same way in college. You need that strong character base to be as good as you're going to be. And if there is some talent to mix in, you have a chance to be really good.

"I had six or so opportunities to stay in the league [following Denver]. But I also have a daughter who's a freshman in high school. My wife and I didn't want to pack up the boxes, move to another city, not let my daughter finish the same school and stay somewhere else for another 2.3 years."

There's that number again. No wonder they're glad to be back.

Ed Graney of The San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.

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