Since reports started coming out last Monday that Vanderbilt was in talks to hire Jerry Stackhouse as its next head basketball coach, some of the reaction has been positive. Much of the negative reaction, though, centers around the idea that “NBA guys” rarely succeed in college.
A lot of the examples, though, are not particularly relevant comparisons to Jerry Stackhouse. I’ll break down why, but a few thoughts on why this idea has some merit. In recent years, hiring an NBA coach — and particularly an NBA coach with specific connections to the hiring school — has become somewhat common, as schools desperate for attention and unhappy with the available hires from the college ranks have increasingly turned to the NBA ranks to find a coach. There is basically no other way to explain why Isiah Thomas was ever the head coach at Florida International.
But the problematic part of the comparison comes when you start to look at which NBA coaches were hired. In recent weeks, Alabama has fired Avery Johnson after one NCAA Tournament appearance in four years; Tulane let go of Mike Dunleavy after three years and an 0-18 AAC record in their most recent go-round. Chris Mullin just barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament in his fourth year at St. John’s — not exactly a ringing endorsement of his hiring — and Patrick Ewing has yet to sniff the tournament in two years at Georgetown. Mark Price was dismissed in 2017, midway through his third year at Charlotte, with two losing seasons and well on his way to a third. Eddie Jordan was a complete failure at Rutgers; Terry Porter just went winless in the WCC in his third year at Portland; Michael Curry was fired in 2018 after four nondescript seasons at Florida Atlantic. And of course Clyde Drexler infamously bombed in two seasons at Houston in the 1990s.
That’s a pretty high failure rate, right? But take a closer look at those coaches:
- Clyde Drexler had never been a coach, anywhere, prior to taking the Houston job. Neither had Chris Mullin prior to St. John’s calling. Both were, however, Hall of Fame alumni who briefly drove interest and ticket sales in their respective programs. So... mission accomplished?
- Isiah Thomas was regarded as a joke of a coach in the NBA, and his FIU tenure went about as well as you’d expect given his NBA record.
- Avery Johnson had been out of coaching for almost three years before Alabama called to hire him. Mike Dunleavy had been out of the game for six years.
- Patrick Ewing and Mark Price were longtime NBA assistants, but generally weren’t regarded as head coaching candidates by any NBA team.
- Terry Porter was two years removed from his last NBA coaching gig when he took the Portland job, and nearly eight removed from his last head coaching job. Eddie Jordan and Michael Curry likewise were toiling as assistants after their NBA head coaching careers ended.
You can kind of see a pattern here. While college programs have hired “NBA guys,” they haven’t exactly been hiring coaches who were in demand by NBA teams at the time they were hired, at least not as head coaches. There is an obvious reason for this: all things being equal, you’d much rather be an NBA head coach than a college head coach. The pay is better, and a lot of the bullshit that comes along with a college head coaching job — like recruiting, and dealing with boosters — isn’t present in the NBA. At least 90 percent of an NBA head coach’s job is devoted to coaching, and this is simply not true of a college coach. There’s a reason why it was a massive deal in 1989 when Kentucky hired Rick Pitino, who was then the head coach of the New York Knicks (and in no danger of losing his job), and it’s why a variety of successful college coaches — from Pitino and John Calipari to Lon Kruger and Jerry Tarkanian — have, at times, decided to try their hand at the NBA. Unless you just hate big cities and would really prefer to live in a small college town, why would you choose to be a college coach if you have a choice?
The common thread in a lot of the past NBA-to-college hires has not been that there’s some insurmountable transition from the NBA to college; it’s that the NBA coaches (or non-coaches, in some cases) who have made the move were guys who were no longer employable in the NBA, or at least not as head coaches. NBA head coach or college head coach doesn’t matter as much as whether the coach in question is actually good at his job.
On the rare occasions that NBA coaches who could have continued in the NBA have decided to jump into the college game, though, the results have been fine. In 1979, Larry Brown left the Denver Nuggets to go to UCLA; he would have the Bruins in the national championship game a year later. And after jumping back to the pros and spending two years with the New Jersey Nets, Brown would take over at Kansas, where he won a national championship. Kentucky would hire Rick Pitino away from the New York Knicks in 1989; there was no evidence that Pitino was on his way out of New York otherwise. Dan Majerle went from being the Phoenix Suns’ associate head coach to Grand Canyon and has won 123 games in six years.
The evidence doesn’t really point to NBA coaches struggling at the college level; what it does suggest is that NBA coaches who have gone to the college level have mostly performed about at the level their NBA coaching would suggest, whether good (Larry Brown) or bad (Isiah Thomas.) That NBA coaches haven’t had much success in college seems mostly a reflection of which NBA coaches have taken college head coaching jobs. There are reasons not to like the hire of Jerry Stackhouse, but the fact that he was coaching in the NBA and the G-League isn’t really one of them.