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9 College Basketball Coaches Who Failed in the NBA

by: Esteban On  Thursday, July 11, 2013

college basketball coaches who failed in the nba

Last week, the Boston Celtics continued their major offseason overhaul by making the bold decision to hire Butler coach Brad Stevens to replace Doc Rivers.

Now, Brad Stevens was quite possibly the most highly regarded coach in the NCAA, and no one doubts his acumen with the Xs and Os. However, there are stark contrasts between the NBA and NCAA. It’s only logical to wonder whether Brad Stevens can make the adjustment from the coach-centric college game (where the players respect you because you’re the one who brought them there) to the player-centered NBA game (where millionaire players think the coach must earn their respect).

Personally, I think if anybody can make the jump from college to the NBA successfully, it’s Stevens. However, history suggests otherwise. College hoops coaches have not fared well when moving to the NBA over the years, and the among the NBA casualties are some pretty big names.

Like who? Well, that’s the topic of today’s list. Take a look.


Honorable Mention: Billy Donovan

10 billy donovan magic - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

Since Billy Donovan never actually coaches a game in the NBA, we couldn’t really include him in the list. However, we couldn’t ignore his unusual NCAA-to-NBA story, either.

You see, after he won his second consecutive National Championship with Florida in 2007, and after saying that he wanted to work out an extension with Florida, Donovan accepted a five-year $27.5 million deal to coach the Orlando Magic instead. Then, just one day after signing that deal, he told the Magic and Florida that he was having second thoughts. And a few days later, Orlando let him out of his contract so he could go back to Florida.

Did Donovan suddenly get cold feet about coaching in the NBA? Or was this the greatest contract negotiation shakedown in the history of college basketball? Who knows. Point is, Donovan decided to go back to Florida before he even had the chance to fail in Orlando. And that was a wise move.


9. Mike Dunlap

9 mike dunlop bobcats - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

The strange thing about Mike Dunlap? He doesn’t even have any head coaching experience in the NCAA—at least, not in Division I.

He was an assistant at Loyola Marymount, Iowa, and USC. Then he was the head coach at Division III Cal Lutheran and Division II Metropolitan State, with whom he won the D-II National Championship. Then Dunlap served as an assistant at Arizona, Oregon, and St. Johns before getting the chance to take over the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012-13.

That didn’t go well. After jumping to a 7-5 start, the Bobcats lost 18 in a row and finished the season 21-61. That’s still three times more wins than the team had in 2011-12, but Michael Jordan and company decided to fire him anyway.


8. Reggie Theus

8 reggie theus kings - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

In 2007, the Sacramento Kings took a gamble on former Kings star Reggie Theus, naming him head coach and giving him a three-year contract. Why was it a gamble? Because Theus had only been a coach at all for two years. And despite his success in those two years at New Mexico State, achieving a record of 41-23 and leading the team to the NCAA Tournament, that’s not a big track record.

So how did he fare in Sacramento? Not well. The Kings went 38-44 in his first season, then got out to a 6-18 start in the second before the Maloofs realized they’d made a mistake and fired him.

Now Theus back coaching in the NCAA. Or at least, he will be come November, when he’ll take over at Cal State Northridge.


7. P.J. Carlesimo

7 p.j. carlesimo nets - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

P.J. Carlesimo is probably the most successful of all the coaches on this list at the NBA level, and he certainly has the most games coaches. He compiled a record of 277-259 in the NCAA, coaching at New Hampshire, Wagner College, and Seton Hall. Then he made the jump to the NBA in 1994, coaching the Trail Blazers for three years. After that he moved on to Golden State, served as an assistant for five years in San Antonio, then tried his luck as head coach again with the Sonics/Thunder.

Last season Carlesimo got his recent shot at a head coaching gig, and it was his most successful yet. He took over the Brooklyn Nets as interim coach in December and led the team to a 35-19 record for the remainder of the year.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for the Nets. They canned him, hired never-been-a-coach Jason Kidd, and traded for Boston’s three old men.


6. Leonard Hamilton


Despite his sub-.500 record in the NCAA over 15 years, Michael Jordan took a chance on Leonard Hamilton and hired him as head coach of the Washington Wizards after he led the Miami Hurricanes to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1998 to 2000. It didn’t work out. The Wiz went just 19-63 under Hamilton, and he was fired after one season.

Since then, as you may know, he’s gone back to the NCAA and been very successful. He’s compiled a 219-143 record with Florida State and taken them to four NCAA Tournaments, including one Sweet Sixteen.


5. Tim Floyd

5 tim floyd bulls - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

Tim Floyd was about to become one of college basketball’s biggest coaches in the late 90s. The guy took over at Iowa State in 1994 and immediately led the team to three straight 20-win seasons, three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and trip to the Sweet Sixteen. However, after one down year with the Cyclones—which wasn’t even that bad—he made the terrible decision to take over the Chicago Bulls in 1999. You know, the Bulls that had just won their second three-peat, but were now going to be without Jordan and Pippen?

Yeah, the Bulls were basically an expansion team in 1999, so that was a pretty impossible situation for a guy coming from Iowa State. Floyd compiled a record of 49-190 in three and a third seasons in Chicago. Then he had one okay year with New Orleans in 2003-2004, finishing .500, before heading back to the NCAA.

There he has had pretty good success again, compiling a record of 125-77 with USC and UTEP. Of course, there was that whole O.J. Mayo thing


4. Mike Montgomery

4 mike montgomery warriors - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

Mike Montgomery was a winning machine in the NCAA. He compiled a record of 151-80 at Montana and a record of 393-167 at Stanford. Unfortunately, he then tried his luck in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors. And these were not the cool warriors of today. These were the lame Warriors that hadn’t made the playoffs in a decade when he took over. And, sadly, after two consecutive 34-48 seasons, they were still the lame Warriors after he was fired.

Of course, now Montgomery is back in the NCAA and achieving great success again. In his five seasons with the Cal Golden Bears, he’s only had one season in which he hasn’t won 20 games—and that was 2010-11, when they won 18.


3. Lon Kruger

3 lon kruger atlanta hawks - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

Lon Kruger was extremely successful in the NCAA before his stint with the Atlanta Hawks from 2000-2003, and he’s been extremely successful in the NCAA since then. The guy has collected 514 wins in college basketball with just 332 losses, good for a winning percentage of .608.

However, that time with the Hawks…yikes. He went 25-57 in his first season and was fired midway through his third.

Overall NBA record: 69-122.


2. John Calipari

2 john calipari new jersey nets - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

John Calipari was tearing it up in the NCAA. So why did he bolt for the NBA and the New Jersey Nets in 1996?

Oh, right—the recruiting violations. The guy broke just about every rule in the book at UMass, then bolted before he could face any NCAA discipline. In New Jersey, he didn’t do well at all, going just 72-112 with the Nets before getting canned after a 3-17 start to the 1998-99 season.

Of course, the point of Calipari’s time in Jersey wasn’t to win games. It was just to earn a paycheck* while waiting for the heat to die down in the NCAA. He eventually returned to coach Memphis (and violate a bunch of rules again) and then Kentucky, where he finally won that National Championship.

*Don’t get me wrong. Calipari is a phenomenal coach. He just doesn’t give a damn about the rules. 

1. Rick Pitino

1 rick pitino celtics - college basketball coaches who failed in nba

Rick Pitino has a record of 664-239 in his NCAA coaching career, and he is the only coach to ever lead two different programs to NCAA championships.

However, he has also tried his hand at coaching in the NBA two times and failed pretty miserably.

The first try came in 1987. After taking Providence to the Final Four, he was hired by the Knicks, with whom he had one bad season and one pretty good season. However, he decided to go back to the NCAA when Kentucky came calling.

His next try at the NBA came in 1997, when he agreed to coach the Boston Celtics. There Pitino just had no luck at all, compiling a record of 102-146 in three and a half seasons.

Of course, we all know that Pitino went back to the NCAA to coach Louisville, and that he just won the National Championship after previously leading the Cardinals to the a Final Four and two Elite Eight appearances in five seasons. So if this guy’s career doesn’t prove to you that college success does not lead to NBA success, I don’t know what will.