How have college coaches fared in the NBA?

The news that Michigan’s John Beilein is the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers came as a shock to many observers.

Nevertheless, there’s ample precedent for Beilein’s decision. In fact, he is far from the first successful college coach to take a shot at the NBA.

Here’s a rundown of coaches who have gone directly from Division I to a head-coaching gig in the NBA over the last 25 years.

Billy Donovan

Florida to Oklahoma City Thunder, 2015

When you’ve won back-to-back national titles and been a head coach in the college ranks for two decades, you’re entitled to feel there are no mountains left to climb at that level. That seems to be what Donovan decided in 2015, and, anyway, it doesn’t take a basketball genius to say “yes” to an offer to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder made it to the seventh game of the 2016 Western Conference finals before falling to the Warriors, and, on paper, Donovan has remained a steady hand at the wheel in Oklahoma City ever since.

That said, three consecutive first-round exits in the playoffs have made some Thunder fans restless. Who knows — perhaps those OKC supporters were adding likes and retweets to the “Donovan to Michigan” rumors that, incredibly, popped up within mere minutes of Beilein’s stunning announcement.

NBA record: 199-129

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa State to Chicago Bulls, 2015

Is Hoiberg an example of jumping from college to the NBA or the opposite? After all, the one-time star player for the Cyclones was employed in a front-office position by the Minnesota Timberwolves when he was hired in 2010 as the new head coach at ISU. Hoiberg then reversed course five years later and took the job as the head man with the Bulls.

Now, of course, he’s the new head coach at Nebraska. Say this for Hoiberg — he knows the road between D-I and the NBA very well, in both directions.

NBA record: 115-155

Brad Stevens

Butler to Boston Celtics, 2013

Stevens was the game-changer in this category. Until the then-36-year-old was hired by the Celtics in 2013, the conventional wisdom said these college-to-NBA coaching jumps never really work out. After all, it was said, just look at what happened to even big names like Rick Pitino and John Calipari back in the day.

That conventional wisdom held steady for one season (Boston was 25-57 in 2013-14), but, long before Stevens and the Celtics took LeBron James to a seventh game in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, it was apparent that the standard assumptions needed to be updated. Boston was shoved out of the 2019 Eastern semifinals in five games by Milwaukee, but Stevens’ place near the top of the NBA coaching pyramid remains secure.

NBA record: 270-222

Reggie Theus

New Mexico State to Sacramento Kings, 2007

This move did not pan out for Theus or for the Kings. True, Sacramento was decent (38-44) in the new coach’s first season, but when the Kings opened 2008-09 by winning just six of their first 24 games, Theus was shown the door in mid-December of Year 2.

NBA record: 44-62

Mike Montgomery

Stanford to Golden State Warriors, 2004

Coaching is a really small world, whether you’re talking about college or the NBA. For proof, look no further than Montgomery’s move to Golden State in 2004. The former Stanford coach was hired by none other than now-ex-St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin, who at the time was the Warriors’ newly installed VP of basketball operations. Also, the coach who Montgomery replaced was Eric Musselman, now the new man at Arkansas. Montgomery lasted just two seasons with Golden State. When he was fired in 2006, Stephen Curry was about to start his freshman year at Davidson and the Warriors’ best years were still to come.

NBA record: 68-96

Leonard Hamilton

Miami (Fl.) to Washington Wizards, 2000

This hire did not work out for either side, at least not immediately. Then again, this past January, when’s Andrea Adelson asked the coach about his one season in the NBA, Hamilton said simply, “I’m appreciative of the opportunity. Things have worked out for the Wizards, and things have worked out for me.”

NBA record: 19-63

Lon Kruger

Illinois to Atlanta Hawks, 2000

Kruger’s Atlanta teams with Jason Terry and Shareef Abdur-Rahim never finished anywhere close to .500, and the coach was fired 27 games into his third season. He next took a position as an assistant with the Knicks before resuming his career in the college game as head coach of UNLV and Oklahoma.

NBA record: 69-122

Tim Floyd

Iowa State to Chicago Bulls, 1998

If there’s an award for career longevity in the face of daunting statistics, Floyd is your winner. Somehow the head coach lasted for three-plus seasons with the post-Jordan Bulls despite compiling a 49-190 record in the Windy City. Floyd fared much better (41-41) in a one-season stint with a New Orleans Hornets team led by Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn in 2003-04.

NBA record: 90-231

Rick Pitino

Kentucky to Boston Celtics, 1997

Pitino was already an experienced NBA head coach by the time the Celtics lured him away from Kentucky. The erstwhile Wildcats head coach had held that same position with the Knicks for two full seasons in the late 1980s, compiling a 90-74 record and taking New York to the 1989 Eastern Conference semifinals. Based on that respectable showing and the ensuing 219-50 run in Lexington (including three Final Fours and the 1996 national title), Pitino was tapped not only as Boston’s head coach but also its team president. Alas, the result was a 102-146 record, some rather famous press conference quotes (“Larry Bird is not walking through that door”) and a letter of resignation on Jan. 8, 2001.

NBA record: 192-220 (includes New York Knicks, 1987-89)

John Calipari

UMass to New Jersey Nets, 1996

When the Nets found themselves with a coaching vacancy in 1996, the franchise took a run at Pitino before hiring Calipari. At his introductory press conference, the former UMass coach was just 48 hours removed from news that star player Marcus Camby had admitted to accepting benefits from an agent. The Nets gave Calipari a then-eye-popping five-year, $15 million contract and a dual role as coach and executive VP of basketball operations.

But there was trouble from the start, as the brash, young (37-year-old) coach reportedly rubbed veteran players and the New York-area press the wrong way on more than one occasion. When injury-hobbled New Jersey began Calipari’s third season 3-17, there was insufficient goodwill in the tank to sustain the coach through the lean time. He took a job as an assistant with Philadelphia before rejoining the college ranks with Memphis in 2000.

NBA record: 72-112

P.J. Carlesimo

Seton Hall to Portland Trail Blazers, 1994

Carlesimo is that rare figure who logged 500-plus games both in D-I and in the NBA. Known in the college ranks as the coach who took Seton Hall to the 45th minute of the 1989 national title game against Michigan, Carlesimo is famous professionally for a rather more ignominious event. At a Golden State practice in December 1997, the head coach was choked by one of his players, Latrell Sprewell. In total, Carlesimo coached at five different NBA stops and was last seen taking the Brooklyn Nets to the seventh game of the 2013 Eastern Conference first round.

NBA record: 239-315

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