Back to school: NBA coaches return to college ranks

Several college coaches have made the jump to the NBA, with mixed results. Now it appears the trend has reversed. AP Photo

Avery Johnson thumbed through a roster book at a recent recruiting stop, searching for a player's biography while the night's final game began. Tipoff was close to 10 p.m., a time when many of the players perform like they're in a hurry to get it over with, and bleary-eyed coaches are only staying courtside for appearance's sake.

Johnson knew very well there would be nights like this. He just sat through them two years ago while his son, Avery, auditioned for college coaches during the summer's live recruiting periods. Now he sits through them as the new head coach at Alabama.

"People talk about the grind of being on the road for July with these AAU tournaments," Johnson said. "There's nothing like the grind of an NBA season when you're playing four games in five nights -- and that's consistently all during the season. We're up for the challenge, and we're excited about it."

Fred Hoiberg continued the flow of college coaches trying their hand in the NBA when he left Iowa State for the Chicago Bulls last month. But there's been a bit of a reversal in the pipeline.

Eric Musselman (Nevada), Mark Price (Charlotte) and Chris Mullin (St. John's), like Johnson, returned to campuses as first-time college head coaches after long careers in various NBA roles.

"In the past, at least in my experience, colleges have been a little reluctant to hire NBA guys simply because it's such a different deal," Price said. "I'm excited to see more schools are starting to look because I think you're getting really quality basketball people."

Price, who had his No. 25 jersey retired by the Cleveland Cavaliers, served most of his time as a shooting coach in the NBA before becoming an assistant coach for the Charlotte Hornets last season. Price has never been a head coach, and spent all of one season in the college ranks -- as an assistant coach for his alma mater Georgia Tech in 1999-2000.

Mullin answered the call of his alma mater having never been on the sidelines. He spent all of his post-playing career in front offices, in stints with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.

These coaches got an authentic college welcome when they had to take and pass the NCAA compliance test before they were cleared to recruit. And as Price would attest, the recruiting experience is far different from what he remembered when he went through the process.

"It used to be call the parents, call the high school coach," Price said. "A couple of kids that we've called, they give you this list of like five guys to call."

The list can include AAU coaches, personal trainers and other advisers, many of whom are cultivating players' NBA dreams. That brought Price to another big difference in recruiting.

"Everybody thinks they're going to be a pro now," he said. "It doesn't matter who they are."

Despite being inexperienced in the college game, there's a noted advantage for the former pros in college coaching: instant credibility and recognition. Most of the players they're recruiting weren't born when Mullin played on the Dream Team in 1992 or when Price was still in uniform, but their parents know their credentials, and the players respect their NBA résumés.

"Having an NBA background is impactful to high school players, to transfers -- it's been a huge benefit," Musselman said. "The big thing for guys like Avery and guys that have been NBA head coaches -- that completely separates you from someone who has just spent time in the NBA."

Johnson and Musselman increased the list to 12 current college head coaches who are former NBA head coaches. The majority of that list -- including Louisville's Rick Pitino, Kentucky's John Calipari and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton -- established themselves at the college level before taking an NBA opportunity.

Musselman's approach was a bit different from his peers'. From 1989 to 2012 he coached in an assortment of pro leagues, including the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA Development League. Rather than jump right into the college head coaching ranks, the former Warriors (2002-04) and Kings (2006-07) head coach first returned to campus as an assistant in 2012 with Arizona State. He spent last season at LSU before being hired at Nevada in March.

"Without having been an assistant coach, I think it would be really, really difficult -- at least for me -- to have gone from the pro game to the college game," Musselman said.

For starters, paperwork is almost a daily part of being a head coach in college. So is compliance, a word rarely heard in NBA front offices. Some coaches who have spent the majority of their careers on NBA sidelines might not be up for that challenge.

The NBA is about business. Nowhere is that more evident than in the relationships between players and management.

"Obviously in the NBA I think some coaches can get close with the players, but oftentimes you land in a city, everyone goes into their own hotel room in the Ritz-Carlton," Musselman said. "You see guys at practice, you see guys at games and then they go home. So the personal relationship is so much different in college when a person is going from a young man to an adult."

That's why Johnson figured the trend of professional coaches returning to the college ranks can only get so big. He said the supervision and guidance unrelated to basketball is a challenge not everyone wants.

"College coaching is fathering," Johnson said. "It's teaching, it's mentoring.

"Not everyone wants the responsibility of having to recruit and check up on the academic side of things. That's why going from the NBA to college is all about finding the right fit."