There’s no denying that college basketball and the NBA are two distinct games. The two games are played a different way with different types of players. In fact, fans of one are not necessarily fans of the other. More importantly, players who find success at the college level aren’t always able to translate that into success in the NBA. Of course, the same applies to coaches as well. Great college basketball coaches don’t necessarily fit in the NBA. While many have tried, most find that it’s not so easy. Let’s take a look at some of the great college basketball coaches who tried and failed as coaches in the NBA.
After Hoiberg retired as a player, he worked in an NBA front office with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yet, he seemed like a natural for the college game when he was hired at Iowa State in 2010. The Cyclones were 16-16 in his first season but won at least 23 games in each of the next four seasons. Hoiberg took Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament in all four years, including a Sweet 16 trip in 2014. In the middle of his tenure, he signed a 10-year extension at Iowa State. However, two years later, the siren call of the NBA was too much to resist and he took over the Chicago Bulls.
Alas, his time in the NBA didn’t go as planned. Under Hoiberg, the Bulls saw their streak of eight straight playoff appearances come to an end. He got Chicago back to the playoffs the next year, only to lose in the first round. After a 27-55 season in 2017-18 and a 5-19 start the following year, Hoiberg was fired after three-plus years with the Bulls. Wisely, he returned to the college game, getting hired at Nebraska in 2019 and will attempt to rebuild that program the way he did at Iowa State.
After spending over a decade in the NBA as a player, Theus quickly became a rising star in the coaching world. After two years as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville, he was hired as the head coach at New Mexico State. The team he inherited was 6-24 the season before he was hired. Two years later, Theus turned them into a 25-9 team that won the WAC Tournament and played in the NCAA Tournament. With just two years of experience as a head coach in college, the Sacramento Kings hired Theus in 2007.
Unfortunately for Theus, his return to the NBA would be brief. The Kings were a meager 38-44 in his first season. When the team started the following season 6-18, he was quickly fired. Theus caught on as an assistant with the Timberwolves and was a head coach in the D-League before returning to the college game in 2013 as the head coach of Cal State Northridge. However, his second stint in college ended after five seasons and a 53-105 record, leaving his future as a head coach at any level in doubt.
Kruger is likely to go down as one of the most underrated college basketball coaches of all-time. He’s been successful at every stop he’s had, which is why he’s just one of two coaches to lead five different programs to the NCAA Tournament. A little success at Texas-Pan American took him to his alma mater Kansas State for four years. He later took Florida to the Final Four and had a successful stint at Illinois. After 18 seasons as a college coach at four different schools, Kruger tested himself in the NBA.
The Atlantic Hawks hired Kruger in 2000 in what became a disastrous tenure. He made the mistake of promising season ticket holders a refund of $125 if the team didn’t make the playoffs. The Hawks didn’t come close to the playoffs in his first two seasons and Kruger was eventually fired midway through his third season after a record of 69-122. Fortunately, he landed back on his feet in college, leading UNLV to the NCAA Tournament four times in seven seasons before landing his current job at Oklahoma.
Montgomery is a great example of a coach who was made for college basketball. The guy spent a decade as an assistant, grinding it out at places like the Coast Guard, the Citadel, and Florida before getting promoted to the head coach of Montana in 1978. He built one of the most consistent programs in the Big Sky before going to Stanford in 1986. In 18 seasons at Stanford, Montgomery led the Cardinal to 12 NCAA Tournaments, one NIT championship, and four Pac-10 championships. However, he made the mistake of thinking he could have the same success in the NBA.
Fortunately for Montgomery, he got to stay in Northern California after getting a job with the Golden State Warriors. However, both of his seasons as head coach ended with a 34-48 record. He was not welcomed back for a third season but returned to coaching a couple of years later at Cal. Montgomery closed out his coaching career with six seasons with the Golden Bears, going to the Big Dance four times and winning one Pac-10 regular-season title.
One thing you can say about Floyd is that his career hasn’t been boring. He did things the hard way at schools like Idaho and New Orleans before a successful four-year stint at Iowa State that included three trips to the NCAA Tournament. Oddly enough, Iowa State was just 12-18 in Floyd’s final season before he was hired by the Chicago Bulls and given the unenviable task of following Phil Jackson.
As one might expect, replacing Jackson was an impossible task, although Floyd was even worse than expected. The Bulls won a total of 45 games over his first three seasons. After starting the following year 4-21, Floyd resigned from the Bulls, only to get a second crack with the Hornets a couple of years later. However, his only season in New Orleans ended with a 41-41 record and a first-round playoff loss. Floyd found new life as the head coach at USC, although his time there was marred by controversy. After resigning, Floyd landed at UTEP in 2010. But he never got the Miners further than the first round of the NIT before retiring six games into the 2017-18 season.
Pitino has had a rather wild career that has seen him bounce back and forth between college and the NBA. He spent five years as the head coach at Boston University before leaving to be an assistant with the Knicks for two years. Pitino then returned to college as the head coach at Providence. In his second season, the Friars were 25-9 and reach the Final Four, prompting Pitino to leave for an opportunity to become head coach of the Knicks. To be fair, he took the Knicks to the playoffs both seasons and even won a division title in his second season.
Nevertheless, he resigned after two years for the chance to take over the Kentucky Wildcats, a blue-blood program that had been rocked by scandal. Pitino was successful in returning the Wildcats to their former glory, taking Kentucky to three Final Fours in a five-year span and winning the 1996 national championship. But he got the itch to return to the NBA in 1997 and left to take over the Celtics. His three-plus seasons in Boston were a disaster, going 102-146 before resigning. Of course, he made a triumphant return to the college game at Louisville, only for his success there to be overshadowed by both personal and professional turmoil. Ultimately, several seasons were vacated, including a national championship in 2013, giving Pitino one of the most disgraced exits of any coach in recent memory.
Calipari’s brilliance as a college coach comes with an asterisk for his failures in the NBA. He created a dynasty at UMass in the early 1990s, winning five straight Atlantic 10 titles and eventually going to the Final Four in 1996. On the back of that Final Four trip, Calipari tried his hand at the NBA as head coach of the Nets. Despite a 26-56 record in his first season, Calipari took the Nets to the playoffs the following year. However, he was fired after starting the 1998-99 season with a 3-17 record.
Of course, Calipari quickly redeemed himself when he returned to the college game. He spent nine seasons at Memphis, winning at least 33 games in his final four seasons, before making the move to Kentucky. He won a national championship with the Wildcats in 2012 and turned Kentucky into a factory of future NBA players. While some of his accomplishments in college have been vacated due to NCAA rules violations, few can dispute that Calipari is one of the most successful college coaches despite being an abysmal failure in his only stint as an NBA head coach.
Tarkanian was a masterful coach at the high school, junior college, and college levels. While he got into trouble with the NCAA at every stop during his college career, he was incredible on the sidelines. He made UNLV of all programs a national powerhouse throughout the 1980s. From 1983 to 1991, the Runnin’ Rebels went to the NCAA Tournament every year, reaching the Sweet 16 six times, the Final Four three times, and winning the national championship in 1990 while sending dozens of players to the NBA.
But why did Tark have to ruin it by taking a job in the NBA soon after resigning from UNLV in 1992 amidst a postseason ban? He had turned down the chance to coach the Lakers in 1997 but agreed to coach the San Antonio Spurs in 1992. From the start, Tarkanian clashed with owner Red McCombs about the team’s need for a point guard. After going 9-11 through the first 20 games, Tarkanian was fired. Fittingly, he returned to his alma mater Fresno State as the head coach a few years later. He rebuilt the program, eventually getting the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in both 2000 and 2001 before retiring after the 2002 season. For his career, Tarkanian won 784 college games and nine in the NBA.
Hamilton has been such an exemplary college coach that it’s almost easy to forget his NBA faux pas. He was 9-19 in his first season with the Miami Hurricanes, but less than a decade later, he had taken the program to the NCAA Tournament for three straight seasons, including a Big East regular-season championship and Sweet 16 appearance in his final season in 2000. It was that success that led him to take a job with the Washington Wizards the following season. Alas, his NBA tenure lasted just one season with the Wizards going 19-63.
Fortunately, Hamilton soon returned to college, where he belongs. He’s been at Florida State since 2002, slowly turning the Seminoles into one of the best in the ACC. It took seven years for Hamilton to take Florida State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. But the Seminoles have been March Madness regulars ever since, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2018.
Sadly, Beilein is the latest and arguably best example of why great college coaches should think twice before making the leap to the NBA. Beilein built his career from the ground up, coaching at a community college, Division 3 Nazareth, and Division 2 LeMoyne before becoming the head coach of Canisius in 1992. After a stopover at Richmond, Beilein had five great seasons at West Virginia before taking over at Michigan in 2007. In 12 seasons with the Wolverines, he won two regular-season Big Ten titles and two Big Ten tournament crowns while guiding Michigan to the NCAA Tournament nine times. The Wolverines were twice the national runner-up during Beilein’s tenure.
In 2019, at the age of 66, Beilein decided to take his shot in the NBA, agreeing to become the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, it was a move that appeared to be doomed from the start. His coaching style didn’t translate and Beilein resigned at the all-star break after going 14-40. His coaching days could be over, giving Beilein a disappointing and almost unfair ending to an otherwise impressive coaching career.