David Aldridge | Masters to disasters: College coaches do fail

Posted: March 20, 2007

It's basically been chalk so far in the NCAA tournament, with nary a double-figure seed in sight.

Power conferences have taken their lumps, but they always have more teams in the tournament at the beginning, so they have more to lose. And it's hard to call a team like Southern Illinois - in the top 25 for most of the season - a mid major.

Form held. Which means that the coaches, again, were in control.

The college game and the pro game have many differences, but among the biggest is how good college coaches cannot make the grade so completely in the pros.

And so it is that the Sweet 16 is filled with coaches who haven't just won in college, but have won huge in college. Yet, during the last decade, these same coaches failed miserably and completely in the NBA.

They didn't just go down in flames - they did it Hindenburg style.

Their failure - the latest being Mike Montgomery, who took Stanford to the Final Four but lasted less than two years in the pros - has made just about every pro personnel man think long and hard before considering a college guy to coach his team.

But a level down, they're heroes.

(Just a second. I know it's all about the madness in March, but did I hear the Sixers lost by 50? At home? Isn't there a slaughter rule or something in the NBA? Is Walter Matthau coaching them now? When you think about the absolute worst a professional basketball team can do, don't you come up somewhere short of losing by 50? Look, anybody who gleans significance from one regular-season game is crazy. But 50? Wow. Wonder if Mo Cheeks took them out for Cokes and pizza afterward.)

Remember Tim Floyd? He had the cheek to follow Phil Jackson in Chicago at the end of the Bulls' six-championship reign in 1998. He'd been wildly successful at Idaho and Iowa State, and was known for his amazing communication skills.

But under Floyd, and with a young team full of the very high schoolers he could have coached in college, Chicago cratered, posting a 49-190 mark in three-plus seasons. He was derided by Jackson as "Pink" Floyd.

"I wasn't very good at it," Floyd told the Los Angeles Times recently.

After one .500 season in New Orleans, Floyd left the pro game with a 90-231 record and a .280 winning percentage - the second-worst coaching mark in league history for someone who has coached at least 250 pro games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But in less than two full seasons at Southern Cal, Floyd has gone 40-24, including a 23-11 mark this season. Now, he's got a new building on campus, and will have the best high schooler since LeBron James, guard O.J. Mayo, coming next season.

Lon Kruger was a college wunderkind, taking Kansas State, Florida and Illinois to the tournament. He then went for the big time, taking the Atlanta Hawks' head coaching job in 2003. He went 69-112 in two-plus seasons before being cashiered.

Back in college, and boom - Kruger's back, taking Nevada-Las Vegas to two tournament wins for the first time since 1991. He's one of five coaches in NCAA history to take four schools to the tournament.

John Calipari learned at the foot of the master, Rick Pitino, and took woebegone Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996 (cough, records vacated for violations, cough). He got his chance in the NBA with the Nets, and had it going for a while. New Jersey went 43-39 and got to the playoffs in his second season, when the Nets lost three reasonably competitive games with the Bulls.

But the next year brought the lockout, a 3-17 start, and a kick out the Secaucus door.

A year later, Calipari landed at Memphis, where he has made the postseason every season, including four NCAA appearances. This year, the Tigers went unbeaten in Conference USA, were ranked fifth at the end of the regular season, and have the country's longest winning streak going into their Sweet 16 matchup with Texas A&M.

Only Larry Brown has navigated between the two worlds over the last three decades, winning championships in both. His singular genius (madness?) in getting both boys and men to hang on his every word - for a while - makes him unique. And that makes him worth whatever ridiculous bucks for which he asks.

Which Ed Snider, no doubt, will ultimately take into consideration.

Contact staff writer David Aldridge at 215-854-5516 or daldridge@phillynews.com.

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