College Basketball Coaches Most Likely to Be Hired by an NBA Team
The best in college basketball end up in the NBA. And we don't just mean players.
While the NBA draft is the annual event that officially plucks college's top players away from school and onto professional rosters, the pro game also regularly looks down to the college level for coaching talent.
Nine of the 30 current NBA head coaches have spent time coaching at the collegiate level, including two who ran major programs. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens led Butler to two NCAA title appearances in six seasons as head coach, while new Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder spent seven years at the helm of Missouri and got the Tigers into the Elite Eight in 2002.
Whenever a head coaching gig opens in the NBA, at least one of the candidates mentioned for the opening comes from the collegiate level. Florida's Billy Donovan, Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg and Michigan State's Tom Izzo were all mentioned for the Minnesota Timberwolves vacancy, while Kentucky's John Calipari reportedly "had gone deep in discussions" for the Cleveland Cavaliers job before re-upping with the Wildcats.
Calipari had also been considered "a done deal" to the Los Angeles Lakers, according to a tweet from former NBA player Rex Chapman that went out right before the NCAA title game.
There are plenty of other current college basketball head coaches that will get linked to future NBA openings, and some of them—like Stevens did last July—will make the leap. If this were a list of coaches who are most likely to be considered for an NBA job, it would be much larger; instead, we've capped it at 20 and put only those most likely to accept a pro offer.
Because of that, you won't find Louisville's Rick Pitino or Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on this list. Pitino has already dipped his toes in the NBA waters (and only one of his five-plus seasons ended with a winning record) and at 61 isn't apt to make that jump again. And Krzyzewski would have left college long ago if he wanted to be a pro coach, which he's gotten to be off and on since 1987—and consecutively since 2006—as head coach of the U.S. men's national team in international competition.
The list is in alphabetical order, not ranked by the likelihood of them leaving for the pros.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Years as college head coach: 8 (175-93 record at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Tony Bennett has the look of the modern NBA coach, a still-young guy who fits into the mold of Indiana's Frank Vogel, Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks. The difference is, Bennett would come in with actual head coaching experience, albeit at the collegiate level.
Bennett has risen through the college coaching ranks quickly by turning around two struggling programs. He first did the near-impossible, getting Washington State into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years and then earning the Cougars their first Sweet 16 berth since 1941. He jumped from there to Virginia, a long-dormant power who he's slowly rebuilt into a national contender.
Bennett is starting to pull in more highly rated players now at Virginia, but for the most part his career success has come from putting players into a system and churning out wins. That kind of formula has to be intriguing for NBA executives, particularly those in markets that can't compete for the big-name free agents.
Larry Brown, SMU
Years as college head coach: 9 (219-88 record at three schools)
NBA experience: Yes (27 seasons as head coach with nine teams)
Why he's a pro candidate: Larry Brown is already a Hall of Famer, having been inducted in 2002. But since then he's coached four different NBA teams and made his return to the college ranks, quickly turning around SMU after taking that job in 2012. The man doesn't seem like he's very interested in retirement, or at least staying retired, since he's never spent more than two years away from the game.
Brown has both an NBA (2003-04 with the Detroit Pistons) and NCAA (1987-88 with Kansas) title, and he's won nearly every place he's gone. While his age might be a detractor to some, it hasn't slowed him down, which can be seen by how aggressively he's transformed SMU from a doormat to a ranked team in two years. That kind of quick work makes NBA teams salivate.
Another reason Brown will always be on any list of potential NBA candidates requires just a quick look at the resume. He has been a head coach for nine different NBA teams, three colleges and two ABA franchises, but one of those (Denver) moved into the NBA during his tenure so it's counted on both lists. And Brown has never lasted more than six years at one gig during his lengthy career, with six jobs lasting two years or less.
John Calipari, Kentucky
Years as college head coach: 22 (555-174 record at three schools)
NBA experience: Yes (Three years as head coach, one as assistant)
Why he's a pro candidate: John Calipari has already been an NBA head coach, and though his two-plus seasons running the New Jersey Nets included only one winning record as well as a 3-17 mark to open his final year before getting fired, he remains a hot commodity for pro teams looking to make a splash.
Though Calipari has remained in the college ranks since 2000, when he took over Memphis and turned that program into a national power, his name seems to pop up annually for an NBA head coaching job. That frequency has gone up exponentially during his five years at Kentucky (see opening slide), as he's developed a reputation as one of the college game's best recruiter of one-and-done pro prospects.
Calipari has a really good thing going with the Wildcats, though, so it would take a big offer to lure him back to the pros. He's created a system and approach at Kentucky that ensures he'll be in contention for every major recruit in the nation—T.J. Walker of Rivals.com tweeted that Calipari said a scholarship offer from Kentucky is the most coveted in the country—and therefore will always be a contender for the national title and constant TV appearances. He'd just be another coach in the NBA trying to fight the uphill battle.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Years as college head coach: 11 (231-131 records at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Mick Cronin has two things that would make him a good NBA coach: a strong relationship with his players and the willingness to go to battle for them. Cronin is one of the most well-respected coaches in the college game, and though he can get very animated on the sidelines (a March faceoff with notorious referee Ted Valentine made headlines) it's always been in a manner to try and help his players.
Though his name hasn't been one that's made the regular rounds on the coaching rumor circuit, neither did Butler's Brad Stevens before he bolted for the NBA last July. Cronin has coached NBA talent before, most notably Lance Stephenson, and during his time as an assistant at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins he was involved in the recruitment of future NBA players such as Steve Logan and DerMarr Johnson.
While Cronin isn't as sexy a potential hire as John Calipari or other big-name coaches, he's shown he can win consistently and isn't afraid to mix it up.
Billy Donovan, Florida
Years as college head coach: 20 (486-189 records at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Billy Donovan has technically been an NBA head coach, though he never coached an actual game or did any duties in an official capacity with that position. He accepted the Orlando Magic head job in June 2007 and went through the introductory press conference, but he backed out the next day and returned to Florida.
Donovan had just piloted the Gators to back-to-back national titles, so it was as good a time to try out the pro game as any. But his change of heart was also understandable, since he'd turned what until then had been primarily a football school into one of the nation's best in the two biggest sports. And since that brief departure he's kept on winning, missing the NCAA tourney twice in a row before making it the last five years, a run that included three straight Elite Eight appearances and then a trip to the Final Four in April.
Donovan has been a head coach since his late 20s and still has a long career ahead of him. How much of that will be at the college level remains to be seen, but as long as he keeps winning (his last four teams have a combined .800 winning percentage), he'll continue to be an NBA target.
Mike Dunlap, Loyola Marymount
Years as college head coach: 14 (328-105 record at two schools)
NBA experience: Yes (Two years as assistant, one as head coach)
Why he's a pro candidate: Before taking the Loyola Marymount job, Mike Dunlap's last gig was as head coach of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. It wasn't a successful one (Charlotte finished 21-61 in 2012-13, and he was fired after one season despite tripling the team's win total from the previous year), but that didn't preclude LMU from tapping into the veteran coach's wealth of different job experiences.
Dunlap is a Loyola alum and spent five years as an assistant there in the early 1980s before moving on to Iowa and USC. He then got his first head coaching job, accepting an offer at Division III Cal Lutheran, and after five years there, he moved up to Division II Metro State in Colorado and built a dynasty. He made four D-III Final Four appearances in eight years, twice winning the title, and that success landed him a spot as an assistant for the NBA's Denver Nuggets.
He did that for two years before returning to college, assisting Arizona and Oregon for one year apiece before going to St. John's in 2010. He was with the Red Storm for two years, and in 2011-12 was the interim coach for nearly the entire season while Steve Lavin was being treated for prostate cancer. His work there landed him the Charlotte job, and his ability to jell with so many different staffs and groups of players will keep him on the candidate list for NBA jobs as long as he's interested.
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Years as college head coach: 15 (403-100 at one school)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Mark Few has managed to avoid the temptation to bolt to a bigger college program, but what if an NBA team came calling? Perhaps, say, a new or relocated franchise in Seattle?
Since taking over Gonzaga in 1999—after Dan Monson jumped ship for Minnesota following a surprise Elite Eight run in the 1999 NCAA tournament—Few has established the Bulldogs as the preeminent mid-major program in college basketball. Gonzaga has won or shared the West Coast Conference regular season title in 13 of his 15 seasons and has made the NCAA field every year he's been on the job, reaching the Sweet 16 four times (including twice in a row to start his tenure).
During that span Gonzaga has aggressively scheduled itself again power-conference teams to beef up its NCAA profile, winning many of those contests. And though the Bulldogs haven't made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tourney since 2009, his name seems to pop up for most major job openings, particularly out West. He was mentioned as a top choice early at UCLA in 2013 before the school hired Steve Alford, and he was linked to the Arizona job in 2009 before Sean Miller was brought in.
Yet Few has stayed in Spokane, seemingly content there. An NBA team hasn't come calling yet, but that doesn't mean they won't.
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
Years as college head coach: 4 (90-47 at one school)
NBA experience: Yes (four seasons as a front-office executive)
Why he's a pro candidate: If not for a medical condition, Fred Hoiberg might still be playing in the NBA right now instead of being the most popular man in the city of Ames, Iowa.
Hoiberg played 10 seasons in the NBA from 1995-2005 and was a career 39.6 percent shooter from three-point range. He made 44 and 48 percent of his threes in his final two years with Minnesota before a heart condition ended his career and moved him into into the Timberwolves' front office as an assistant general manager and then vice president of basketball operations.
In 2010, he had a chance to coach his alma mater, Iowa State, where as a player he was so popular he earned write-in votes in Ames' mayoral race in 1993, thus earning him the nickname of "The Mayor." That moniker has only become more appropriate since he's resurrected the Cyclones' program, getting them into the NCAA tourney each of the last three years and winning the Big 12 tournament title this past season.
Hoiberg was beloved in the NBA, too, and was well-regarded for his front-office work. As much as his allegiance right now is to his college, the right offer could pull him back to the pros. And NBA teams would likely love having a guy who's made a name for himself plucking players off the transfer wire, college's version of free agency.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Years as college head coach: 19 (468-187 at one school)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Tom Izzo has pretty much only known one thing: Spartans basketball. He's been with Michigan State since 1983, his first Division I job. He started as an assistant for Jud Heathcote, whom he replaced in 1995 as head coach and where he's been ever since.
During that tenure, MSU has won a national title (2000) and made the Final Four five other times, most recently in 2010. Last year's team reached the Elite Eight despite suffering numerous injuries to key players during the regular season, one that he told MLive.com's Joe Lapointe had been the "hardest season since I've been here."
It was also another year that ended with his name thrown into the ring as a candidate for NBA vacancies, specifically that of the Detroit Pistons. Izzo denied ever speaking to the Pistons, unlike his flirtation with the NBA in 2010 when he turned down the Cleveland Cavaliers job.
If Izzo hasn't left by now, the chances he'll go in the future decrease with each year as he gets into his 60s. Never say never, though, as the coach himself told Showtime's Jim Rome back in March, "I never slam the door on anything."
Larry Krystkowiak, Utah
Years as college head coach: 5 (84-75 record at two schools)
NBA experience: Yes (Two seasons as an assistant, one as head coach)
Why he's a pro candidate: Larry Krystkowiak has already parlayed one successful stint as a college coach into an NBA gig, so why not a second go-around in the pros?
Krystkowiak spent two seasons running the Montana program, his alma mater, from 2004-06, and got the Grizzlies into the NCAA tournament both times. After upsetting No. 5 seed Nevada in the first round of the 2006 tourney, he landed a job as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, one of six teams he played for during a 10-year NBA career.
Krystkowiak served as interim coach of the Bucks during the tail end of the 2006-07 season after Terry Stotts was fired, and he became the full-time coach for 2007-08. He went 31-69 during his tenure and was let go after his first full year. He was out of coaching until 2010, when he ran the Team USA under-18 national team, and later spent a season on the New Jersey Nets staff.
In 2011, he was brought in to fix Utah's college program, and he's gone from six wins that first season to 21 in 2013-14. The Utes are projected by Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller to finish second in the Pac-12, which would likely mean reaching the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2009 and would put Krystkowiak's name back in the mix for another NBA opportunity.
Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon
Years as college head coach: 1 (15-15 at one school)
NBA experience: Yes (Five seasons as an assistant coach)
Why he's a pro candidate: Dan Majerle is one of the most recognizable NBA players of the past 25 years and one of the most prolific three-point shooters in league history, a huge fan favorite throughout his 14-year pro career. That was especially true in Phoenix, where he played for eight years at the beginning and end of his career and where he spent five years on the Suns' coaching staff after retirement.
It's also where he's begun his college coaching career, serving as the first-ever coach of Grand Canyon at the Division I level. The Roadrunners made their debut as a transitional program in 2013-14 and finished with a respectable .500 record, including going 10-6 in the Western Athletic Conference. They aren't eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2017 as part of the transition from Division II.
Based on his resume, Majerle seems more suited for a role as an NBA head coach, but the Grand Canyon job will be a great building block for that. As the only for-profit college in Division I, it's almost like he's running a professional team despite his players being amateurs. There's also the fact that Grand Canyon's athletic department includes Jerry Colangelo, a special assistant brought in to help with the program's Division I jump, and Colangelo is a former owner of the Suns who still is heavily involved in pro basketball through Team USA and other ventures.
Danny Manning, Wake Forest
Years as college head coach: 2 (38-29 at one school; recently hired by Wake Forest)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Danny Manning is one of the most famous players in college basketball history, the star of Kansas' 1988 NCAA title team that was known as "Danny and the Miracles" because they entered the tournament with 11 losses before getting hot and winning it all. All of his coaching work has been at the collegiate level, too, first with his alma mater and since 2012 as a head coach elsewhere.
But Manning was also a very successful and beloved NBA player, spending 16 seasons in the league after getting drafted No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1988. The current roster of NBA head coaches is littered with longtime NBA players such as Steve Kerr (Golden State), Derek Fisher (New York), Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix), Kevin McHale (Houston), Jason Kidd (Milwaukee), Doc Rivers (L.A. Clippers), Byron Scott (L.A. Lakers) and Brian Shaw (Denver).
Some of those guys went straight from playing to being a head coach, and none of them did any time as a college coach before their first gig. That's where Manning differs, but it is also where he could have an advantage in the future.
Manning spent three years as Kansas' team manager and then six more as an assistant under Bill Self. During that time he helped recruit and coach many future NBA stars, and that experience landed him the Tulsa job (which then got him an upgrade to Wake Forest this season). If and when Manning goes to the NBA, he'll be more than ready.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Years as college head coach: 16 (368-154 at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Gregg Marshall has been a college basketball lifer, and a pretty good one at that. He's also won big at a place (Winthrop) where success hadn't existed before and another (Wichita State) where prominence at a consistent and high level seemed unheard of.
Doesn't that sound like the kind of guy that would be a favored choice of one of the NBA's perennially bad franchises?
Marshall has been far more successful at Wichita than anyone could have predicted, especially in the last two years when he got the Shockers into the 2013 Final Four and then began the 2013-14 season by winning 35 straight games. WSU fell to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the third round, ending that amazing run, but that didn't take away from what Marshall has done there.
Neither Wichita or Winthrop, a tiny private school in rural South Carolina, are exactly recruiting hotbeds or dream destinations for top prospects, yet Marshall has won big at both places. Several NBA teams can be described the same way, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that one might want to bring in this proven coach to work his magic at the professional level.
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Years as college head coach: 2 (52-18 at one school)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Kevin Ollie has already shown his ability to exceed expectations, both as a player and college coach. Whether he could be successful as an NBA coach is uncertain, but his track record shows it's unwise to count Ollie out.
Ollie was a pretty good college player, but when his time at Connecticut ended in 1995 he didn't get drafted. Instead, he played two years in the CBA before getting into the NBA in 1997 with the Dallas Mavericks, the beginning of a 13-year career that saw him play for 12 different teams.
As soon as his playing career was over, Ollie joined Jim Calhoun's staff at Connecticut, and he succeeded the legendary coach after just two years and took over one of the best programs in the nation after Calhoun abruptly retired in September 2012. Ollie only got a one-year contract, not exactly a huge vote of confidence, but midway through the 2012-13 season he received a five-year deal.
The following season he won the NCAA title, going from a team that lost its regular season finale by 33 points to one that blazed through the tourney field as a No. 7 seed. That success led to Ollie getting linked to various NBA openings this offseason, including the Los Angeles Lakers, but he instead stuck with the Huskies for 2014-15. Whether he'll stay there beyond next season is anyone's guess.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Years as college head coach: 2 (43-27 at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: We said in the intro slide that Rick Pitino wouldn't be included on this list because of his past foray into the NBA having been unsuccessful, his age and his great situation at Louisville. But we didn't say a member of the Pitino family wouldn't soon become a prime target of pro owners.
Richard Pitino is the textbook example of a rising star in the coaching ranks. The son of a massively accomplished college head coach, Richard has literally grown up around the game. He was born just before Rick's final season at Boston University, which was also the first time the elder Pitino made the NCAA tournament and helped him to land the Providence job. Richard graduated in 2005 from Providence, where he was a team manager, and since then has been a coach somewhere in college basketball.
He spent three years in two stints on his father's staff at Louisville, with a two-year stop at Florida under Rick Pitino protege Billy Donovan before getting his first head coaching job at Florida International in 2012 (where he replaced Isiah Thomas). One good year there led to his replacing Tubby Smith at Minnesota last season, and he led the Golden Gophers to the NIT title in his first year
Richard's quick success had him mentioned as a candidate for the Tennessee job this offseason, and in June, Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton listed him as one of a few potential successors for his father at Louisville. If he were to ascend to a program of that stature, especially early in his coaching career, there's no reason to think the NBA wouldn't come calling soon after.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Years as college head coach: 25 (496-271 at four schools; recently hired by Houston)
NBA experience: Yes (Six years as an assistant)
Why he's a pro candidate: NCAA sanctions incurred during his last NCAA coaching job made Kelvin Sampson pretty much unhireable for five years, at least at the collegiate level. So instead, Sampson spent six seasons working on the staffs of the Milwaukee Bucks and, most recently, the Houston Rockets before returning to the coaching ranks this spring with Houston.
In 2008, while at Indiana, Sampson was found to have made excessive phone calls and texts to recruits. It was the same stuff he was busted for at Oklahoma, and it resulted in him getting fired by Indiana and hit by the NCAA with a five-year show-cause penalty. It meant that had he taken another college job of any kind, the sanctions against him would apply to his new position and new school, so hiring him would be a major risk.
Sampson made the most of his collegiate sabbatical, picking up valuable experience in the NBA that could come in handy in the future. Though NBA teams haven't been afraid to dip into the college ranks for an untested coach, the preference would be to hire someone with pro time under his belt, something Sampson now has.
Bill Self, Kansas
Years as college head coach: 21 (532-174 at four schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: After winning at every place he's been in college, earning a national title and dominating a major conference for the past decade, what else is there for Bill Self to do besides make a jump to the pros?
In reality, the idea of Self becoming an NBA coach seemed a lot more likely earlier in his career. He got his first head coaching job at age 30, with Oral Roberts, and by 40 he was on his fourth gig. The constant moves were not because of poor performance but because he kept getting offered better jobs, going from ORU to Tulsa and then Illinois before hitting the big time in 2003 with Kansas.
Such a quick and successful career arc—his results actually improved as he moved up the ranks—made him seem like a great candidate to test the NBA waters. But Self has actually spent more seasons at Kansas (11) than at the other three jobs combined (10), and the last 10 of those have all resulted in Big 12 regular-season titles.
The Jayhawks will continue to be favored to win conference championships and go deep in the NCAA tournament as long as they continue to bring in top-tier talent, as Self has managed to due throughout his tenure. Self appears content with that, but he also could revert back to his old self (pun intended) and look for a bigger challenge.
Shaka Smart, VCU
Years as college head coach: 5 (137-46 at one school)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Before there was Shaka Smart, there was Brad Stevens. Stevens is now head coach of the Boston Celtics, so how long before Smart becomes the next guy to go from mid-major master to pro pioneer?
Smart has won at least 26 games in each of his five college seasons, reaching the Final Four in his second year at VCU and helping to move the Rams from the Colonial Athletic Association into the Atlantic 10. VCU is now a perennial power among the mid-major ranks and is on the border of being considered the next Gonzaga thanks to Smart's "Havoc" style of play that is based on a frenetic pace on both ends of the court.
While the NBA isn't much of a gimmicky defensive league—heck, defense seems optional until the playoffs come about—it's not against innovations on offense, and Smart has brought those to VCU. The Rams win without much size, using speed and ball-handling to compensate for the lack of interior girth.
Stevens, who did the same thing at Butler (better, actually; the Bulldogs reached the NCAA final in back-to-back years) before jumping to the NBA last summer, didn't exactly have a world-beating debut in the pros. He went 25-57 with the Celtics but still has a job which is a big deal in a league that's seen 18 of its 30 teams change coaches since 2013 and where the average tenure is 2.4 seasons.
If Stevens has any sort of success with Boston, don't be surprised to see other NBA teams come after Smart.
Reggie Theus, Cal State-Northridge
Years as college head coach: 3 (58-41 at two schools)
NBA experience: Yes (Two seasons as an assistant, one-plus season as a head coach)
Why he's a pro candidate: Since he's gotten into coaching, Reggie Theus has mostly been the guy. He's run the show at two different college programs, an ABA team, an NBA franchise and a team in the NBA's D-League. That kind of dedication may very well land him another shot at the NBA, even more so if he's willing to take on another assistant role.
Theus got New Mexico State into the NCAA tournament in 2007, an achievement that landed him the Sacramento Kings' job the following season. He wasn't able to replicate his success, going 38-44 in his first year and then getting fired after a 6-18 start to the 2008-09 campaign.
After two years as an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Theus got another head coaching gig with the Los Angeles D-Fenders in the NBA D-League, and he got back into college from there with Cal State-Northridge. Though the Matadors went 17-18 in his first season last year, that included a run to the Big West conference final before falling to Cal Poly.
If Theus gets CSUN into the NCAA tourney this season, as he did at NMSU in his second year, maybe history will repeat itself and another NBA team will come calling.
Jay Wright, Villanova
Years as college head coach: 20 (405-234 at two schools)
NBA experience: None
Why he's a pro candidate: Some guys have the results to warrant a shot at the pros, others have the look of an NBA coach. Jay Wright has both, thanks to a very successful tenure at Villanova and the distinction of being one of the best-dressed coaches in the game.
In 13 years at 'Nova, Wright has made that program a consistent winner. He's not the first to have success with the Wildcats, who made history in 1985 by winning the NCAA title as a No. 8 under Rollie Massimino, but Wright has made it a regular thing. Since 2004 the Wildcats have reached the NCAA tourney nine times, reaching the Elite Eight in 2006 and the Final Four in 2009.
Villanova is now the class of the revamped Big East Conference, an upgrade from being one of a crowd of contenders in the league's old version. Wright has a chance to dominate this new conference, but that could become stale and not enough of a challenge, which is where the allure of going to the pros could come into play.
There also happens to be a pretty down-on-its-luck NBA franchise that plays in the same arena that Villanova uses for several games a season that might want to see if plucking away Philadelphia's favorite college son is what the 76ers have been missing all these years.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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