John Beilein just latest college coach to fail in NBA

CLEVELAND, OHIO - FEBRUARY 03: Collin Sexton #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers listens to head coach John Beilein during the second half against the New York Knicks at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 03, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Knicks defeated the Cavaliers 139-134 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - FEBRUARY 03: Collin Sexton #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers listens to head coach John Beilein during the second half against the New York Knicks at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 03, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Knicks defeated the Cavaliers 139-134 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

With reports circulating Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein will be out, his name will join the list of college coaches who could not make the leap to the NBA.

I’d love to say I am shocked to learn that John Beilein will not be long for his gig as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but as a veteran NBA observer, I knew better.

In an adaptation of the old theory about large opponents, when it comes to collegiate coaches attempting to make the jump to the NBA, the rule appears to be the older they are, the harder they fail.

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Beilein, who turned 67 earlier this month, was an extremely successful coach at the NCAA level over a career that began at Nazareth College in New York state in 1982 and continued for 37 seasons with stops at Le Moyne College, Canisius College, the University of Richmond, West Virginia University and finally, the University of Michigan from 2007-19.

Beilein’s teams were a combined 754-425 over those 37 seasons. He took Canisius to an NIT final four in 1995, got West Virginia into the Elite Eight in 2005 before winning the NIT in 2007 and twice led Michigan to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament.

His Cavaliers squad, however, has struggled after a 4-5 start, with two losing streaks of six games each to go with a seven-game skid and an eight-game string of defeats. Cleveland got to the All-Star break at 14-40, last in the Eastern Conference and second-worst in the NBA, and Beilein appeared for all the world to be just plain miserable.

In early December, reports circulated that some of his players had a problem with his coaching style.

Then in early January, the oldest rookie in the NBA had to apologize to his players for using the word “thugs” during a film session, claiming he meant to call them “slugs” (which is, after all, so much better).

Critics from Jalen Rose to Chauncey Billups piled on, with Rose talking about the cover up being worse than the actual deed and Billups questioning the decision to give the longtime college coach the gig in the first place.

Shams Charania, Kelsey Russo and Jason Lloyd reported Sunday for The Athletic (subscription required) that Beilein was not expected to remain with the club past the end of the season and on Monday reported Beilein and owner Dan Gilbert were expected to discuss options to resolve the situation.

He is just the third coach to enter the NBA since the turn of the millennium to enter the league from the collegiate ranks without having either played or coached at any professional level.

It also didn’t end well for the first, Mike Montgomery, who coached the Golden State Warriors for two seasons from 2004-06 after compiling a 546-245 record over 26 seasons at the University of Montana and Stanford University.

Montgomery was fired by the Warriors about a month before his third training camp was set to open in 2006 after posting a 68-96 record over his two seasons on the job, finishing 34-48 each year.

He returned to the college ranks at the University of California, where he was involved in a controversy on the sidelines with current Minnesota Timberwolves wing Allen Crabbe.

Montgomery was 57 when he was named head coach with Golden State and had a lengthy college career before that appointment.

The other college-to-pros leap his century has had more success, however, but he was also much younger — and less experienced — when he made the jump.

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was 36 when he was hired away from Butler University to replace Doc Rivers in Beantown and has led the Celtics to a 308-238 record, two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and is on track to get Boston to the postseason for the sixth consecutive year. He is 27-29 in playoff action.

That came after six seasons and a 166-49 record as head coach at Butler, a tenure that included two consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 2010-11. He had been an assistant at Butler for the six seasons prior to that and has transitioned well to the NBA game, as he is en route to a fifth consecutive winning season.

This season, Boston is on pace for 58 wins, which would be their most since Stevens took over in 2013. They were 55-27 in 2017-18.

There have been a total of 23 coaches without any professional experience move from college basketball to the NBA since the league’s early days (beginning with longtime college coach Clair Bee in 1952) and another six made that jump into the ABA.

There have been success stories, to be sure, particularly for a group of coaches who transitioned from college to the NBA in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Dick Motta was the first, going from Weber State to the third-year Chicago Bulls in 1968. Motta coached 25 seasons in the NBA and is currently 12th on the all-time wins list with 935, winning a title with the Washington Bullets in 1978.

In 1970, both Cotton Fitzsimmons (Kansas State) and Bill Fitch (Minnesota) went to the NBA. Fitzsimmons was hired by the Phoenix Suns, entering their third NBA season, and Fitch went to the expansion Cavaliers.

Fitzsimmons won 97 games but missed the playoffs in his two seasons with the Suns, setting an NBA record no one wanted with a 49-win, playoff-free season in 1971-72, before he jumped to the Atlanta Hawks. Fitzsimmons spent 21 seasons on NBA benches and is 15th all-time with 832 wins.

Fitch, meanwhile, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019 and is 10th all-time with 944 victories (and second with 1,106 losses) over his 25 seasons as a head coach in the NBA, winning a title with the Celtics in 1981 and taking the Houston Rockets to the Finals in 1986.

The fourth coach in that group came a little later, when John MacLeod was hired away from the University of Oklahoma by the Suns in 1973. He spent 14 seasons in the Valley of the Sun, winning 579 games and taking Phoenix to its first NBA Finals appearance in 1976. He also coached the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks and is 18th all-time with 707 victories.

He returned to the college ranks to coach at Notre Dame for eight seasons and ended his career with five seasons as an NBA assistant from 1999-2006.

But there have been other collegiate coaching legends who couldn’t make the jump, not even a little bit.

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Jerry Tarkanian won 631 games at Long Beach State and UNLV from 1968-92, but lasted just 20 games with a 9-11 record when he was fired by the San Antonio Spurs in December 1992.

John Calipari went from a Final Four berth at Massachusetts to a 72-112 record in parts of three seasons with the New Jersey Nets. He put together a Hall of Fame resume after returning to the collegiate ranks, first at Memphis and later at Kentucky.

Another Hall of Famer, Lou Carnesecca, tried to make the move from St. John’s to the ABA’s New York Nets, but was just 114-138 in three seasons (1970-73 and resigned to return to his old job, which he held for another 19 years before retiring in 1992.

There have been others who failed in big ways. Dick Vitale had gone 78-30 at the University of Detroit from 1973-77, but was fired just 12 games into his second season with the Detroit Pistons in 1979 after going 34-60.

Tex Winter had a wonderful career as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson with both the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, but after going 331-178 over 20 seasons with Marquette, Kansas State and Washington, Winter was just 51-78 and was fired in his second season coaching in Houston from 1971-73.

Leonard Hamilton had been a sub-.500 collegiate coach at Oklahoma State and Miami from 1986-2000 before he was hired by the Washington Wizards. One season, 19 wins and 63 losses later, he retreated and has been at Florida State since 2002.

Lon Kruger won 318 games over 18 years at Pan American (now Texas-Rio Grande Valley), Kansas State, Florida and Illinois before he was hired by the Hawks in 2000. With a 69-122 record, he was fired early in the 2002-03 season and after a year as a Knicks assistant returned to the college game, coaching at UNLV from 2004-11 before going to Oklahoma, where he remains.

So why is it so few have been able to make the adjustment after being standout coaches in the college game?

Part of it could be ego, to be honest. The coaches are the true stars of the college game — they are the ones who are there year after year as the players cycle in and out every four years (or much less). With that level of success comes decreased scrutiny, hero worship and star status.

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Trade that in for a job where your star players’ paycheck dwarfs your own, where fans and media don’t care how many games you won back at old University of Wherever and your tried and true coaching methods can fall on deaf ears and the losses can pile up fast.

Back in the late 1960, Ed Jucker lost more games in two seasons with the Cincinnati Royals than he had in 13 years at three schools, including the University of Cincinnati.

Players drive the game at the professional level, which can be a very tough transition for a veteran coach who is used to being the single strongest voice in his program (and in some cases his university).

Throw in the fact so many new coaches are hired into losing situations (it’s rare for winning teams to need to make a coaching change) and it can be a recipe for a coach to get tired of the grind very quickly.

John Beilein is just the latest to join that list.

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