College coaches that played in the NBA are not doomed


(David Zalubowski/AP)

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.