Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge snuck under the media radar to sign Butler Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens away from the college game and into the bright lights of a historic franchise on Wednesday.
Stevens has had NCAA power programs like UCLA yanking at his pant legs for the last several years, but he looked loyal in staying at a mid-major program. The pull to Boston and the NBA was likely too great for Stevens to say, "no thanks," however, and now he's the youngest head coach currently in the NBA.
The 36-year-old will be under pressure to not only to work with a rebuilding roster, but against a dark history. NBA teams rarely hire college coaches, even good ones, because it requires a different sort of player management — not only are these employees rather than bright-eyed students of the game, but they're wealthy grown men with egos. And remember: Stevens is coming from Butler, not from a mass producer of NBA draft picks that recruits McDonald's All-Americans whose temperaments have been stroked during years in the AAU circuit.
That said, Stevens' resume of winning arguably trumps all the recent cases of college coaches jumping to the pros. Unlike the majority of the coaches listed below, Stevens enters the NBA game after proving himself early on, and at a young age, in the college ranks.
Stevens was named head coach of the Bulldogs prior to the 2007 season, after beginning his career as a volunteer in the basketball office and eventually becoming a full-time assistant under Thad Matta and later Todd Lickliter.
Stevens began his head coaching career as the second-youngest at the NCAA level, leading many to have low expectations for the upstart. That all changed, however, when he led Butler to a 30-4 record during his first season, making him the fourth-winningest first-year head coach and the third-youngest head coach to amass 30 wins in a single season.
Stevens' career at Butler would improve from that year, too, proving it wasn't a fluke as he led his well-disciplined teams to back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances en route to a 166-49 record in six seasons.
Recent NBA coaches who made the jump from college
Mike Dunlap (Charlotte Bobcats, 2012-13): The Charlotte Bobcats and Michael Jordan made Dunlap a hire more surprising that the Celtics' hiring of Stevens. Although Stevens led two Butler squads to the NCAA championship game in the last six years, Dunlap had bounced around as assistant coaches at Arizona, Oregon and finally St. John's -- though he did spend a few years before that as as a Denver Nuggets assistant. The Bobcats hired the St. John's associate head coach after he filled in nicely for an ill Steve Lavin, but Dunlap lasted only a year and led Charlotte to an abysmal 21-61 mark in 2012-13. Lakers assistant Steve Clifford was hired to lead Charlotte this summer
Reggie Theus (Sacramento Kings, 2007-08): Theus first found himself coaching the ABA's Las Vegas Slam before taking a head coaching job with New Mexico State in 2005. He improved a 6-24 team into an above-average ball club in his first season, then led the Aggies to the NCAA tournament. That was enough to garner interest from the Sacramento Kings, who hired Theus in 2007. He lasted slightly more than a season and finished with a 44-62 mark before being fired. He was permanently replaced by longtime NBA coach Paul Westphal.
Mike Montgomery (Golden State Warriors, 2004-06): Winning at a clip of 70 percent with the Stanford Cardinal for 18 seasons and finishing 30-2 his final season, Montgomery was hired by the NBA's Bay Area team as a familiar face. It didn't go as planned. He went 34-48 in each of his two seasons before the Golden State Warriors fired him and replaced him with a long-time NBA name -- and recycled Warriors coach -- Don Nelson.
Leonard Hamilton (Washington Wizards, 2000-01): Unlike Stevens, Hamilton hardly had success in college. Nine years spent at the University of Miami led Hamilton to an average 144-147 record, but in 2000 he was hired away by Michael Jordan to lead the Wizards. Hamilton led Washington to a franchise-low 19-63 mark before being let go. Doug Collins replaced Hamilton in 2001-02.
Lon Kruger (Atlanta Hawks, 2000-03): The Atlanta Hawks hired Kruger away from the Illinois Fighting Illini after four seasons of winning, but with only two NCAA tournament runs past the second round in his 14 seasons as a college head coach. Kruger lasted three seasons and won 36 percent of his contests, and the Hawks moved forward with Terry Stotts.
Tim Floyd (Chicago Bulls, 1998-2002): Through 12 college seasons at Idaho, New Orleans and Iowa State, Floyd made the NCAA tournament in only five seasons and got past second round once. Nonetheless, the Bulls took a risk and hired him. In four seasons, Chicago finished last in its division each year and never had a winning percentage above 26 percent for a season. Floyd did, however, return to the NBA in 2003-04 with the Hornets and went 41-41.
Boston's brush with college coaches
The Celtics have hired successful college coaches before, but none that were entering the NBA ranks for the first time like Stevens will next season.
Rick Pitino interspersed time as both an assistant and head coach with the New York Knicks between stints at Providence before returning to the college game as coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. The Basketball Hall of Fame inductee was again hired away from the NCAA in 1997, though, after leading the Kentucky Wildcats to an NCAA title in 1996 and then losing in the championship game to Arizona in 1997.
Pitino struggled with the Celtics, however, and eventually resigned in 2001 to finish his NBA career with a decent but not-good-enough 47 percent winning percentage. His resignation came after making the famous speech about how he was going to turn around the franchise, despite it being in a rebuilding period.
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we're going to improve."
Stevens may want to make a similar speech at his introductory press conference regarding Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but maybe not — after all, Pitino's iteration didn't turn out as well as he had hoped.
The Celtics experienced success with one other coach that made the jump straight from head coaching in college to the NBA but, like Pitino, Bill Fitch had a buffer period before taking on the head job with the Celtics.
The Celtics hired Fitch as their head coach before the 1979 season, after he'd spent nine years as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before that role, Fitch cut his teeth as a head coach in the college ranks with programs like North Dakota, Bowling Green and Minnesota before making the jump straight from the Golden Gophers to the Cavs' head coaching job.
Fitch did have success with the Celtics, leading the team to the 1981 championship. He was also a two-time Coach of the Year winner (1976 with the Cavs and 1980 with the Celtics), but his career would tail off and eventually he'd finish with a 944-1106 record while losing in the first round -- or not making the playoffs at all -- in the last eight seasons of his NBA career. He retired in 1998.
Whether Stevens follows the career paths of the majority of those that made the jump, or, like he did as the boss of the Butler Bulldogs, he exceeds expectations and guides the Celtics into another Golden Era, remains to be seen.