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
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006
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A Man Who Knows Who He Is
The man is Pete Carroll, college football coach. He used to be Pete Carroll, pro football coach, during modestly successful stints with two National Football League franchises. With the New York Jets in 1994, he won six games and lost 10. With the New England Patriots from 1997 through 1999, he compiled records of 10-6, 9-7 and 8-8. Yet since bringing his enthusiastic style to USC for the 2001 season, he has won 54 games entering 2006 and two national championships, assuring himself a place in the pantheon of modern college coaches.
Carroll was at the top of the list when NFL teams went looking for new coaches last year. Never mind that his professional record was 33-31. The San Francisco 49ers offered a $20 million package. The Houston Texans dangled something similar. Either would have given Carroll the chance to prove he can succeed as an NFL coach.
Instead, he signed a contract extension—reportedly for five years—at the end of last year and pronounced his curiosity about the NFL sated. "People think I'm the likely guy to go," he says. "Check with the guys who haven't been there before."
Carroll has an ebullient personality. He's candid, energetic and upbeat, not safe and guarded like many football coaches. In college, where players are young and impressionable, such a temperament serves as a strength. In the NFL, he was perceived as quirky, too much of a cheerleader. "I have a way of doing things that owners don't understand," he says. "So they question it. They have to be taught that there's some magic going on. That's not a problem here."
By committing to USC, Carroll has chosen to define himself as a college coach. In the tug-of-war involving fame, fortune, ambition and quality of life, the forces pushing him toward the NFL are outmuscled by those keeping him where he is. "The makeup of this job is different than an NFL job," he says. "I love being here—the energy, the environment. I have so much control. Nothing wrong with the NFL, but it's just different. And I like this a little bit more."
One Sport, Two Professions
Fortunate is the man who knows who he is—and who he isn't. But the compelling question of how Carroll, who won one playoff game in four NFL seasons, managed to succeed so grandly at USC remains to be answered.
Sure, he's a better coach now than he was then, but he didn't become that much smarter that quickly. While he maintains he was misunderstood, underappreciated and meddled with in the pros, it also seems evident that coaching student-athletes in football—and basketball, the other big-time college sport—requires a different skill set than coaching in the NFL or the National Basketball Association. "There are similarities," Carroll acknowledges, "but there are differences."
The similarities are mostly on the field. "Coaching is coaching," says Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, who previously led the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and Boston College. Coughlin has put a motto on the wall of the Giants' locker room that says, "Coaching is making players do what they don't want so they can accomplish what they want to accomplish." When he coached in college, he says, "It was just as true there."
In basketball, too, "the similarities exist within the boundaries of the court," says Jeff Bzdelik. Fired by the NBA's Denver Nuggets in late 2004, he signed on with the Air Force Academy. His first season last year was the best in the school's history—the Falcons went 24-7 and earned an NCAA berth. "I really found no difference in my practice preparation, my personality at practice or coaching the game," he says.
In other ways, though, the professions have about as much in common as horse racing and drag racing. "The reason coaching in the pros is not good for me is because I enjoy other things in life besides football," says Steve Spurrier of the University of South Carolina, who left his status as a living legend at the University of Florida for two years of discontent with the Washington Redskins before returning to college football last season. "I like to travel, spend time with my children and grandchildren. The lifestyle of an NFL coach is not a lot of fun."
In the pros, player procurement works differently than it does in college. "We have the chance to recruit six or seven number-one draft picks every year," Carroll says. "You get a shot at one in the NFL." Even if you have the opportunity to get a player you want, it might not be whom the owner wants. "The biggest difference I found, I was not in charge of the team," Spurrier says. "Before the second season, the owner had picked all the players. He even changed the quarterback."
And pro players are different from college players. They've gone from being students to millionaires, from playing for fun to supporting a family—or at least a lifestyle. They don't want a mentor, and a coach can't afford to be one. "In college athletics, you have a tremendous impact on their lives," says Dennis Erickson. Erickson has won at every stop in a college career that has spanned a quarter-century, including two national championships at the University of Miami, but he couldn't manage a winning season in six years with the Seahawks and 49ers. Now he's back to teaching fundamentals at the University of Idaho, where he started. "In the National Football League, you develop relationships, sure, but it's a business," Erickson says. "If they can't get the job done, you cut them. And if they get into trouble, it's their problem."
The college ranks are littered with coaches who left successful programs for a run at the NBA or NFL and failed. Other coaches, such as Jack Ramsay, who won an NBA title with the Portland Trail Blazers, and George Seifert, who won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, managed greater success coaching professionals than they did with amateurs.
A few, notably football's Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer (who won national championships in college and Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys) and basketball's Larry Brown (who won the NCAA Tournament at the University of Kansas and the NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons), have succeeded at the highest level at both disciplines. "Larry Brown could have been the greatest college coach ever," says John Calipari of the University of Memphis, who followed his own success at the University of Massachusetts with an unfulfilling tenure coaching the New Jersey Nets. "He's a college coach who happens to be coaching in the NBA. He succeeds only because he's so good. But he's the exception."
Most coaches, by dint of personality, predilection and skill, are better at one than the other. Yet every year, a handful of NBA and NFL teams turn to coaches who have won in college to resuscitate struggling franchises. And every year, a handful of college coaches accept the challenge. They like the idea of coaching at the highest level, or the freedom from operating within an academic environment in which their sport is only a fraction of the full experience.
And many are enticed by the paycheck. "If anybody tells you money's not a factor, they're lying to you," Calipari says. "If someone's going to pay $5 million a year, or for Larry Brown, $10 million, and you say it has nothing to do with money, you're bullshitting."
"The financial aspect of it is huge," admits Erickson. "The difference isn't as much as it was 10 years ago, but it's still a difference. But for me, the biggest reason was to try and win the biggest prize in American sports. If you look back, you say that I probably shouldn't have done it. But I'm glad I did."
It's no secret the odds were against him, as they're against every college coach who tries to make the jump. "Tom Izzo asked me about the Atlanta [Hawks] job," says Calipari, referencing the coach who has led Michigan State University to four Final Fours and a national title and won four National Coach of the Year awards. "I said, 'Tom, you're going to lose, and I've got a question: can you get a better job than you've got right now?' He said, 'I'm in my dream job already.' And I said, 'You'd better consider that.'"
Nevertheless, a chosen few enter willingly each year and hope that their experience will be different. Occasionally, it is.
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."
Who's in Charge Here?
John Calipari is sitting in room 966 of The Peabody hotel in Memphis, watching tape of his team's loss to Texas the previous afternoon. He watches a lot of tape. But when he coached the Nets, his team was playing three and four times a week from November through April. Plane flights were more common than practices. Calipari couldn't watch tape of his own team, let alone the opposition. He just didn't have time.
Under those circumstances, it's hard to get someone to perform any better than he's already performing. "In the NBA, your practice time is so limited, you're not going to be able to take a kid like you did a college kid and develop him," says Mike Montgomery, until recently the coach of the Golden State Warriors, who previously coached Stanford University into the Final Four in 1998. "And it isn't just time. In many cases their attention span is not going to allow you to get to them. They've made their money, and they don't care. There's a fair portion of the league that's like that. It's 'I'm OK, I'm doing my thing.'"
Coaching in college is a dictatorship. In the pros, it's a fragile balance of maintaining both your authority and an atmosphere players can exist in for eight months. As Pitino puts it, "When you're a pro coach, you're a CEO, and your vice presidents are going to be a lot of your players. You're not somebody who, it's his way or the highway. You don't sacrifice your principles, but you do have to be flexible."
"In college," adds Spurrier, "the head coach can run a player off. I had a lineman in my office 30 or 40 minutes ago, and I told him, 'I have four players who won't get with the program, and you're one of them, and you're going to get run off.' A pro head coach can't do that."
At both levels, coaches struggle to maintain their credibility. A college coach can accrue credibility by winning in college, like the University of Arizona's Lute Olson and Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski in basketball, or Florida State's Bobby Bowden and the University of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops in football. Or he can go to the pros and return to tell the tale. When Calipari gathers his team together, he's able to use his professional experience as a motivational tool. "He compared us with guys he's coached in the NBA," says Darius Washington, who played for him at Memphis. "He told us things they did that would help us. He's been there. He knows what it takes."
Professional experience also helps with recruiting. Nearly every high school football or basketball player and his mother harbor secret (or not-so-secret) hopes of playing in the NFL or NBA. "It's probably my biggest recruiting pitch," says Pitino.
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