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A Coach's Decision

Xs and Os come easy. It's whether to ply their trade in the college or professional ranks that wrangles the country's top coaches
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 2)

When Bad Franchises Happen to Good Coaches
You're a successful college coach when the call comes from a pro team seeking a new head man. You're happy where you are; the campus is pretty, and between the shoe contract and your television show, you match your salary. Still, you've always wondered how you'd fare coaching the best players in the world. And the prospect of a four-year contract in the millions is enticing.

So you do some due diligence. You call colleagues who've made the jump and ask what life is like on the other side. The first thing you learn is that jobs in the pros aren't created equally. Most open positions are with losing teams—and most losing teams lose because they're poorly run. "College guys take jobs that Phil Jackson or Larry Brown or Nate McMillan would never consider," says Rick Pitino of the University of Louisville, who previously coached the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, won a national championship at the University of Kentucky and brought Providence College to the Final Four, among other stops. "They do it because they think they can turn it around, like college basketball. They have no clue as to what the NBA is about."

No athletic director, no matter how powerful, is foolish enough to believe he owns the university he works for. There are chancellors, regents and alumni to answer to. But pro owners act as though teams are theirs—which, in fact, they are. They may hedge their bets by second-guessing, or hire a general manager who may be at odds with the coach. They call it creative tension.

What can work in a business model usually falls flat in the warfare-like environment of professional sports. "Many programs have history that's very clear," says Carroll. "They don't trust their coach."

Carroll coached the Patriots under Robert Kraft, who has since won three Super Bowls with Bill Belichick. Kraft was new to the NFL, excited, and impatient. "Bob was involved in trying to figure it out, how to get a competitive edge," Carroll says. "He was in the middle of all the muck. And then he shifted. He backed off and let Bill do his thing and call his shots—and look what Bill did. To his credit, he figured out that he had to step back and let the football guy do it—and if he didn't do it, fire him and go on to the next guy."

"Most organizations are not set up for success," says basketball's Lon Kruger, who won at the University of Illinois and Florida, went 69-122 with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks from 2000 to 2003, and last year returned to college basketball at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I was naive to all that [in Atlanta]. It was humbling. We'd always come in, gotten good players and won. And we didn't."

Pitino could have predicted it. "I would have told Lon Kruger, 'You could shoot a cannon off inside that building every night,'" he says. "'You're not going to have any kind of emotional edge with those fans. They haven't won since Hubie Brown, years ago, and you have to understand why that is. Do you have the players who are going to turn that around? Odds are, you don't.'"

To a far greater extent than college, professional sports are about players. If you don't have them, your tenure will be short. "If you go to San Antonio and Tim Duncan's there, you're going to have a nice, long run," Pitino says. "If you go there and Tim Duncan isn't there, you're going to have a two-year run. That's the average life span of an NBA coach. If Mike Krzyzewski is going to the Lakers for $10 million or $12 million and Shaq's not going to be there, Mike Krzyzewski's going to lose, regardless of how good a coach he is."

Pitino understands, from bitter experience. He was enticed to leave Kentucky for the storied Celtics, who were coming off the worst season in their history. He believed they had commitment from ownership to turn the team around. Equally important, they had two picks in the NBA's draft lottery. That meant two chances to get Duncan, who had completed his senior season at Wake Forest University.

"I banked my return on getting Tim Duncan because we had two picks in the top six," he says. "Instead of one-two, I got three-six. And that was the end of my career."


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