Michigan hired Juwan Howard yesterday, and the first two hot takes I read asserted that the odds are stacked against the new Wolverine coach. Howard, of course, played in the NBA, and it is said that coaches that have tried to transition from playing at the highest level to running a Division I program have been notably unsuccessful. Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson, you name it.
In truth, ex-NBA players do face long odds when trying to succeed as college coaches. But so too, of course, do all newly hired college coaches.
Certainly NBA types like Mike Dunleavy and Mark Price took on daunting challenges when they assumed the head coaching responsibilities at Tulane and Charlotte, respectively. The analytic nut to be cracked, however, is that, obviously, any coach trying to breathe life into the Green Wave, whether they have an NBA pedigree or not, would be taking on a herculean task.
One way of getting at this question would therefore be to compare the coaching records of ex-NBA players to the coaching records of an entire population of new hires. As it happens, I don’t have data on every Division I coach’s background since Naismith, so we’ll have to muddle through with what I do have.
Based on data for every major-conference (non-interim) head-coaching hire since the 1999-2000 season, here are the guys that played at least one minute in the NBA:
hired team seasons W L fired (resigned) Steve Alford 1999 Iowa 8 152 106 N Louis Orr 2001 Seton Hall 5 80 69 Y Lorenzo Romar 2002 Washington 15 298 195 Y Jeff Lebo 2004 Auburn 6 96 93 Y Sidney Lowe 2006 NC State 5 86 78 (resigned) Tony Bennett 2006 WA St 3 69 33 N Johnny Dawkins 2008 Stanford 8 156 115 Y Tony Bennett 2009 Virginia 10 254 89 N Fred Hoiberg 2010 Iowa St 5 115 56 N L. Krystkowiak 2011 Utah 8 155 111 N Cuonzo Martin 2011 Tennessee 3 63 41 N Kevin Ollie 2012 UConn 6 127 79 Y Eddie Jordan 2013 Rutgers 3 29 68 Y Steve Alford 2013 UCLA 5 124 63 Y Danny Manning 2014 Wake Forest 5 65 93 N Cuonzo Martin 2014 Cal 3 62 39 N Kim Anderson 2014 Missouri 3 27 68 Y Chris Mullin 2015 St. John's 4 59 73 (resigned) Bobby Hurley 2015 Arizona St 4 73 58 N Avery Johnson 2015 Alabama 4 75 62 Y Bryce Drew 2016 Vanderbilt 3 40 59 Y Patrick Ewing 2017 Georgetown 2 34 29 N Cuonzo Martin 2017 Missouri 2 35 30 N J. Stackhouse 2019 Vanderbilt Fred Hoiberg 2019 Nebraska Juwan Howard 2019 Michigan
(We’ll include Kevin Ollie with the major-conference coaches: UConn was still in the Big East when he was hired. That actually counts against the NBA guys. Ollie’s winning percentage was good but not great, and he was eventually fired.)
It turns out the statistics for coaches who are ex-NBA players are more or less what we see for the population of head coaches as a whole. If the guys who played at the next level are a bit more likely to be fired than the major-conference coaching population as a whole, they still: a) have better than a 50-50 shot at not getting fired; b) win 57 percent of their games; and c) display what might be termed The Lorenzo Romar Effect. NBA guys stay in their major-conference gigs longer than the average fired coach before the ax falls.
Major-conference coaching hires, 1999-2017
(Not including interims)
% of hires average years ending in firing pre-firing Ex-NBA players 45.4 5.8 All major-conf hires 36.1 5.2
If we squint further and say, yes, but what about “NBA stars” only, or what about NBA guys with zero previous college coaching experience, we are, unavoidably, working with really tiny groups of people. When we get to that point, it’s surely just as instructive to take note of Bill Russell from 1967 to 1969 and infer that player-coaches win NBA titles at a much higher per-year rate than plain old coaches. The Lakers should hire LeBron as the coach.
While experience is self-evidently valuable in professional endeavors, in college basketball hiring it’s prized not only as a means to an end (knowledge and ability) but also, simply, as plausible cover for the person making the hire. When a coaching candidate has followed the prescribed sequence sanctioned by the rote hiring habits of a thousand previous athletic directors (scrappy point guard as a player, major-conference assistant, mid-major head coach, major-conference head coach), few voices will be raised in objection to the hire purely in terms of the resume. When that path is not followed, however, we get the get-off-of-my-inertia-lawn reactions we got yesterday.
The salient point to be asserted with regard to any coach following in John Beilein’s footsteps — be they an ex-NBA player, a current major-conference head coach, or anything in between — is simply: Good luck, pal. Tough act to follow. Experience is valuable, but if Howard can: a) recruit; and b) hold on to Luke Yaklich, how much more valuable is Howard than a standard highly experienced hire who would have failed to do either?
Anyway, Howard turning out to be a success would not prove that Alabama was in fact correct to hire Johnson in 2015. Nor will Howard turning out to be a failure show that Iowa State was in fact wrong to hire Fred Hoiberg in 2010. One working assumption going forward would therefore be that the Ratatouille point still stands. Not everyone can be a great coach, but a great coach can come from anywhere.