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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 3)

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.

"There's an allure that gets us in the home," Calipari says. "Doesn't mean we're going to get every kid, because we don't. But we do get inside most homes."

College coaches gone pro, however, have to earn their credibility all over again. The fact that you've won at Florida or Miami or Kentucky means little when your pro team starts out 1-5. "A college coach comes in, and there are so many things that are different, and the players know that," says John MacLeod, an assistant coach under Montgomery with the Warriors, whose head coaching career spanned four decades with stops at Oklahoma, the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks, the Knicks and the University of Notre Dame. "Whether it was John [Calipari] or Rick [Pitino] or P. J. [Carlesimo] or whomever, they know that these are college coaches. And their attitude is, 'We're pro players in this league, and they're just coming in.'"

"If you don't have success early, you lose credibility," says UNLV's Kruger. "In the eyes of a professional player, only winning affirms and reinforces what you're doing. Nothing else will."

Even the youngest, greenest pro players are not like college players. Playing for pay gives a childhood game a different orientation, especially when the pay is hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. "Not better or worse," Pitino cautions. "Just different." Pitino coached Antoine Walker at Kentucky, then drafted him to play for the Celtics. "When I had him in Boston, Antoine Walker did not want Rick Pitino, his college coach whom he loved, to be his pro coach," he says. "He didn't need a mentor. He wanted a different relationship."


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