Why Top College Coaches Have Trouble Replicating Their Success in the NBA

An orange basketball sits on a hardwood court floor with spot lighting and background that goes from dark to light.

Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg, two of the best college basketball coaches in the country, have moved up to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls this season. They, along with Brad Stevens who decamped from Butler to the Boston Celtics two years ago, follow in the footsteps of their peers by jumping from college to the pros and never replicating their NCAA success.

Lon Kruger (Atlanta Hawks), Tim Floyd (Chicago Bulls), Mike Montgomery (Golden State Warriors) and Leonard Hamilton (Washington Wizards) all failed to compile winning NBA coaching records. And two of the college game’s best, Rick Pitino (Boston Celtics) and John Calipari (New Jersey Nets), ended their short NBA careers with a 172-258 combined record. It’s no wonder NBA front offices have historically shied away from college coaches. The results have been disastrous.

So why have college coaches had such a difficult time transitioning to the NBA? Here are four common challenges that Donovan, Hoiberg and Stevens need to overcome in order to win in the pros.

College Coaches Have Struggled with the Non-Stop NBA Schedule

While the 30-game NCAA basketball regular season has its demands, it’s nothing like the 82-game NBA calendar that often has teams playing back-to-back games. Rather than holding multiple practices between games, NBA teams essentially learn new plays during live games. “That’s probably the biggest difference, just how many things you have to accomplish with very limited time on the practice court,” says Stevens.

They Tried to Treat 26-year-olds Like 18-year-olds

College coaches are used to calling every play on the court, and that works with college students. However, guys in their mid-20s who make millions get used to having more control over their team’s play calls than college coaches are used to granting. Take John Calipari. “Dennis Rodman, of all people, once came over to Cal and said, ‘Hey, you need to calm down and just let ’em play,'” recalled Kendall Gill, one of the stars on Calipari’s 1997-98 playoff team. “If hearing that from Dennis Rodman isn’t a message, I don’t know what is.”

They Didn’t Befriend The Star Player

College coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are gods at their schools. Whatever they say, goes. However, in the NBA it’s the players, not the coaches, who are the kings. Smart coaches realize they must give their stars a bit of leeway. Carlesimo tried to use the same demanding coaching style that had served him well at Seton Hall and it backfired at Golden State. In the most memorable incident, former NBA player Latrell Spreewell revolted by choking Carlesimo.

They Went to Teams that Had No Chance

Stevens turned underdog Butler into a powerhouse and Donovan elevated the University of Florida from bottom dweller to two-time national champion, but college coaches have rarely been able to resurrect a struggling pro franchise. While college coaches aren’t going to be asked to coach a playoff-caliber team right away, they also should avoid going places that have no turnaround prospects in sight. “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,” Pitino told ESPN earlier this year. “If you go to the pros, you have to make sure you do what Phil Jackson did—go where you can win.”