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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

A warm sun slants through the palms on the campus of the University of Southern California. Coeds in halter tops glide on bicycles past the football practice field. When a horn pierces the tranquility, a gray-haired man in a red and yellow sweatsuit with a whistle around his neck like a gym teacher begins a sprint toward an end zone. He yells, "Come on, come on, everybody." Four dozen athletes in helmets and practice jerseys follow.

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.

"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."

"They went out at night," Montgomery says, "and I didn't. They had a different way of living their lives. They didn't want you to be responsible for them. And that was OK with me."

Current Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton called Calipari for advice when he was offered the Washington Wizards job by Michael Jordan in 2000, after a decade coaching the Miami Hurricanes. "I told him, 'First of all, you're not going to be their father,'" Calipari says. "That stuff in college where you try to be their father figure, that's not how you're going to gain their respect. They don't need you to be that. They've got everybody they need.'"

Hamilton went anyway. And that's where personalities come in. Coaches with a college mentality—Lute Olson, Dean Smith—love getting involved in their players' lives. Others who have made their career in the pros, such as Jon Gruden and Pat Riley, Mike Holmgren and Mike Fratello, might consider all that a glorified form of babysitting. They're in the profession to win games. The more they can factor out the distractions, the better. "You don't have to deal with recruiting," says Calipari. "You don't have to deal with alums. Everything at the pro level is strictly basketball. If a kid in college gets in trouble, my name is in the second paragraph. If a kid gets in trouble in the NBA, I'm not in the story."

On the other hand, Calipari notes, he had his entire Memphis team at his house for pizzas after the loss to Texas. They commiserated, bonded and came away stronger. "And that's something that in the NBA you just don't get to do," he says.

Such are the rewards of coaching in college. Yet despite making a long-term commitment to Memphis—he agreed to a five-year contract extension this spring—Calipari still seems an ideal candidate for an NBA position. In his brief tenure in New Jersey, he made the team measurably better. Though he likes to bond with his players, he's at heart an X-and-O coach who enjoys nothing better than working out a way for his team to beat yours. "They say, 'Is college or pro better?'" Calipari says. "I'll tell you, if you could win at both, really win at the highest level, you should be in the NBA. The lifestyle is fun. You have professionals—you don't have jack-offs or you wouldn't be winning—and it's all about basketball.

"But to lose? Be a skydiver, be a stuntman, do anything else," he adds. "Because there's nothing in the world worse than being the coach of a losing NBA team. As a college coach, you're trying to turn it around and you go out and recruit, and maybe it happens. In the NBA, it's hellish. The players stop talking to you. Even the assistants don't want to know you. And there you are, walking down the hallway, all alone."

The Industry Standard
After his tape session, Calipari heads down to The Peabody lobby. There he spots Montgomery, whose Warriors are in town to play the Memphis Grizzlies, in the middle of what will be his last season with Golden State. The Warriors are on a losing streak, but that's no surprise. At the time Montgomery was hired in May 2004, he became the ninth Warriors coach in 10 years.

Calipari and Montgomery shake hands, then do what coaches always do when they get together: they commiserate. "I came in this league, and everybody talked about late-clock situations," Montgomery tells Calipari. "That was the gospel. That's what makes or breaks you in this league, that's how they'll evaluate you. So I said, 'Whoa!' 'Cause my thing was always preparing my team to win, not necessarily game coaching. And then I ran into [former NBA coach] Doug Collins, and he said, 'Mike, get the ball to your best player where he wants it. The rest is on him. End of story. You get the wrong guy, you can't do anything, anyway.'"

"Yeah, I know," Calipari says. "The play is perfect, he pops out, he gets the ball, he misses the shot—and you lose, anyway."

Calipari leaves and Montgomery sits down and evaluates his first year and a half in the NBA. He came to the job full of innovative ideas that he'd developed while in Palo Alto, teaching true student-athletes how to win in the highly competitive Pac-10 Conference. What he found in the NBA was an entirely different culture, with its own vocabulary, behavioral patterns, traditions and techniques.

"It's a very small group that keeps churning through the NBA," he says. "They've been in the league for a long time, and they use the same terminology and have the same understanding of everything. And you come into it, and you don't use the same terms, and you don't think the same way. And you're almost forced into doing what you see being successful for others, because you're not going to have enough time to do something different, even if you thought you could or wanted to.

"I may have been naive," he adds. "You can't explain it to anybody. The guys who did try to explain it to me, bits and pieces of what they said started to make sense to me over time. It's not the game, it's not the coaching, it's not the Xs-and-Os. It's all the stuff that you don't know when you get there—that you can't possibly know."

One dirty secret is how ill-prepared most players are. Montgomery was shocked to discover what his well-paid NBA players couldn't do. "We were running some pretty good stuff that I thought would work," he says. "And it did for some of our players. But as we got into it, I found that some guys couldn't dribble to their right, couldn't pass to their left, couldn't catch a pass and dribble. So I eliminated a lot and made it very simple."

Nevertheless, the Warriors didn't start winning until guard Baron Davis arrived in early 2005, in the middle of Montgomery's first season. "When Baron came, we kind of threw everything out the window," he says. "We were losing, we didn't have time for practice. Baron had been hurt. So we just ran Baron off the pick-and-roll. We just said, 'Baron, if you come down the right side, we'll run the pick from there. If you come down the left side, we'll just run it from there. We'll just play off you.' And boom! It worked and it worked."

In college, coaches lead. But in the NFL and NBA, having a coach on the floor or the field is more than just a sportswriter's cliché, it's an essential component of winning teams. "Any NBA team that wins has a great player or players leading the team in a positive way," says Bzdelik. "When I was with the Heat, I saw Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Dan Majerle take a rookie, put him in a corner, and say, 'You know what? We don't do this here.' He was acting like a fool, not getting a good night's sleep, not real serious in the locker room. And they took charge of the situation."

"If you have somebody who is a leader in the locker room, somebody you can say something to and he's not going to react badly, that's the difference," says Golden State forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., the son of Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. "If you don't have somebody like that, it gets tough. Because then you're picking your spots. Who you're calling out, who you're not. In college, you can get on everybody. Nobody's older than 23. You can jump guys, whatever. This level, guys have guaranteed contracts. People are going to say something back to you. I don't think Coach Montgomery anticipated that. It was a big adjustment for him. I think he thought it would be a little easier than it was."

Montgomery is clearly struggling. After two losing seasons, he is on all the lists as one of the coaches who might be fired at any time. And because familiarity breeds contempt, some of his players already have tuned out his exhortations. They figure he'll be gone before they are. Yet he stills gets calls from college coaches asking about opportunities in the NBA. "Guys who are discouraged, disgusted with recruiting," he says.

He tells them to be careful. "You probably should be ready to say, 'I've done that. Now, what else is there?'" he says. "And don't think you're going to go in and revolutionize the league. You're not. You're not going to revolutionize anything. What you're going to do is take some hits."

In August, Montgomery was fired by the Warriors and replaced by Don Nelson, who has coached more than 2,000 regular-season games in the NBA.

The College Try
Jeff Bzdelik sits at the rear of a gym on the Air Force Academy campus, watching the Falcons women's basketball team play Army. It's a show of support, but it also represents Bzdelik's affinity for college coaching. At Air Force, he's part of something larger than his team.

He'd been a career NBA guy for 15 years since serving as a small-college coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the mid-1980s. He worked under Pat Riley, watched, waited. With Denver, he finally had a chance to run his own team. He coached two full seasons and part of a third, winning 73 games and losing 119.

He landed several months later in nearby Colorado Springs, but about as far away from the NBA as a college job can be. Of the Top 100 high schoolers, the future professionals, Bzdelik gets none. His kids are part-timers, students and soldiers first, and players third. Bzdelik loves it. "One of the reasons I'm in coaching is to have a positive impact on young men," he says. "You get to the NBA and you absolutely lose that. The bottom line in the NBA is to win, period. If a player gets in trouble, it's usually swept under the rug. But do you do a young player justice by bailing him out every time? No, you're setting him up for failure."

Bzdelik had some success in Denver. He engineered a remarkable turnaround, becoming the first coach in league history since the advent of the 82-game schedule in the 1976—77 season to make the playoffs with a team that had won fewer than 20 games the previous season. That belies conventional wisdom that such reversals of fortune can only happen in college sports. "In a college situation, if they have some players there, you can go in and change their thoughts about themselves and you can win where you haven't won before," says Erickson, who in 1999 inherited an Oregon State team that hadn't managed a winning season since 1970 and a year later had the Beavers 11-1, including a trouncing of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. "But you still need to have the players."

Both the NBA and NFL are governed by a salary cap that keeps even the worst teams only a few players away from being competitive. "The difference with most teams is about four or five guys," says Carroll of the NFL. "The rest of them, you could just trade those guys around and it would be pretty much the same. Because the talent is so even."

It's getting those difference-makers that provides the challenge. "Jack Ramsay went to Portland and got Bill Walton," Pitino says. "Then he goes to Indiana and he doesn't have success because he has Steve Stipanovich and Clark Kellogg. Same coach, but he didn't have that dominant player."

To a far greater extent, a college coach controls his destiny. He can go out and get exactly those talented players who fit his system. If he can't, it's his failing. Some recruiting-oriented coaches, who attract top prep players year after year, have little knowledge of the intricate strategies of their sport. It usually doesn't hurt them, just as not knowing how to read music never hurt Paul McCartney and John Lennon. "Recruiting is your lifeblood," says Carroll.

As he talks, Carroll is sitting on a stone wall on the USC campus. A high school coach whom he knows approaches with two teenagers and introduces them as area standouts eager to play for USC. One is a running back, the other a receiver. "All I want is to play for you," the receiver says to Carroll. "Just give me a chance. I'll show you how good I can be."

Carroll is touched by his enthusiasm, which matches his own. Whether that high schooler ever plays for him or not, his own decision to remain at Southern Cal has again been reaffirmed. The scholastic coach and his players move on and Carroll looks up with a grin that says that he understands and appreciates an elemental truth that many of his peers do not. "What just happened?" he says. "That does not happen in the NFL."

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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