From John Calipari to Kevin Ollie, college coaches make enough money, they don’t need to turn pro

John Feinstein
Columnist April 8

John Calipari. Kevin Ollie. Billy Donovan. Tom Izzo. Fred Hoiberg.

What do these wildly successful college basketball coaches have in common? Each has been linked to the NBA in recent weeks — and in the past 48 hours.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

After his team lost the national championship game to Connecticut on Monday night, Calipari was given about 15 minutes to breathe before he was asked about a tweet from Kentucky alumnus Rex Chapman that Calipari was on his way to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers.

Calipari gave the ritual non-denial denial — and who could blame him under the circumstances? — and joined Ollie, Donovan, Izzo and Hoiberg on the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go list.

Coaches being asked about NBA rumors right after the national championship game is nothing new. In 1988, after his Kansas team had stunned Oklahoma to win the title, Larry Brown was asked whether he might be going to the NBA.

“You know what I’d like to do right now?” Brown answered. “I’d like to sit here and say, ‘We won the national championship,’ and not talk about anything beyond that.”

Ten weeks later, he left to coach the San Antonio Spurs.

In 1997, after just missing out on a second straight national title, Rick Pitino was asked whether he might leave Kentucky to return to the NBA.

“All I’m looking forward to at this moment is getting back here next year,” Pitino said. “My goal right now is to be in San Antonio next March.”

If Pitino was in San Antonio the following March, it was as coach of the Boston Celtics.

College coaches are always tempted by the NBA. Often, it’s just the money — although top college coaches often make as much or more than NBA coaches these days. Last year, Butler’s Brad Stevens, who was considered the quintessential young college coach, bolted for the Celtics, saying the NBA had always intrigued him.

In 2007, Donovan was the coach of the Orlando Magic for five days before having buyer’s remorse and returning to Florida. Last week, Donovan admitted the NBA still intrigues him.

“It’s basketball 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I’m a basketball junkie,” he said. “I love it at Florida, but I know the NBA is a different sort of basketball experience. It’s more about pure basketball.”

Cue the Donovan rumors.

Ollie and Hoiberg had successful playing careers in the NBA. Both are young and probably would be able to relate to today’s players — considered a prerequisite nowadays. After what Ollie accomplished by winning the national championship this spring, he will be in high demand. The same is true of Hoiberg, who has revived Iowa State basketball.

And then there’s Izzo, whose name comes up almost every year. This time it is the Detroit Pistons, who are clearly about to undergo a much-needed makeover. The Pistons would be insane not to want Izzo. He’s a hero in the state of Michigan, and he’s just the kind of workaholic, tough-minded coach who can earn the respect of NBA players even while driving them to get better.

But Izzo’s not going anywhere. He’s too smart. He’s 59, which isn’t old but isn’t necessarily a time when you want to dive into a new job that is going to be uphill from the start. Plus, as he says, he likes going to college football games on fall Saturdays. You don’t get to do that very much if you’re coaching in the NBA.

In truth, none of the speculated names should leave. Is the NBA a purer basketball experience, as Donovan says? Yes — in that you don’t have to recruit, worry about keeping players eligible or making sure to call them “student-athletes” as they head for the door after their freshman seasons.

But is it a purer coaching experience? Not really. Most NBA players don’t think they need to be coached or don’t want to be coached. Once the season starts, there’s little practice time anyway. You coach a game, get on a plane and hope everyone shows up for the walk-through in the next city on the next day. The season is brutally long — the NBA playoffs are almost half as long as an entire college season — and there’s no time off in the summer to go to that beach house or lake house that college coaches can visit in June and August.

Calipari will make about $6 million this season, and he’s an almost God-like figure in Kentucky. Sure, Kentucky fans’ expectations are ridiculous, but they aren’t that different from those of most fans. They’re just louder.

Ollie and Hoiberg are heroes coaching their alma maters. There’s no reason to think both won’t continue to win and continue to be stars in the college game. There’s no such thing as a lifetime contract in sports, but if there are five men in the college game who are close to that right now, they are Izzo, Ollie, Calipari, Donovan and Hoiberg.

Throw Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams into that mix, too. Both have had NBA opportunities. Both are still college coaches. And at last glance, in spite of early NCAA tournament exits this spring, both are doing just fine.

The issue really isn’t whether a college coach can succeed at the next level. One of the reasons so many fail is because they take over bad teams and aren’t given much time to pull them out of their losing cycle. What was a lifetime contract in college becomes a couple years and out in the NBA. Pitino left Kentucky for the Celtics in 1997 because the money was huge and because he thought the Celtics would win the lottery to draft Tim Duncan. If they had, Pitino might still be coaching in Boston.

The best coaches are the best coaches — period. It’s natural that the most successful college coaches would draw the attention of the NBA. The smart thing for those coaches to do is to act interested, get a raise and stay exactly where they are.

There’s no reason to run away from success — or, more importantly, from happiness.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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