The Jump: why college coaches have a hard time succeeding in professional sports.

It’s a different sort of game, the professional one. No matter the sport, there is something about ‘the Show’ that breeds a different kind of attitude, respect, and athlete-coach relationship that some coaches just can’t get used to, which tends to lead to disasters both on and off the field. We’ve seen it time and time again, in various sports and different management styles, but it leads back to the same thing. College and professional coaching are very different and some guys just aren’t able to make the jump.

The sport that the change in dynamic is most clear in, is football. College and professional football are very dissimilar games both on the field – where college teams are built around the coach’s plan and professional teams are built around the players – and off of it. A college coach can control every aspect of their players lives, and are the most important aspect of any given team, typically being paid anywhere from $1-$8 million. (Remember that not only are NCAA players unpaid, but they aren’t allowed to be paid.)

This is most obvious when looking at programs like Alabama, where 11 year head coach Nick Saban has dominated the NCAA, winning 5 National Championships. Saban creates a culture at Alabama where he is the king, judge, jury, and executioner. He tells his boys what to eat, where to go, what to do, and even what to believe. They follow it, no questions asked, because Nick Saban is a winner, and his ‘Process’ breeds champions.

Plenty of coaches are intense, and a lot of them work hard. In fact, most do. Where Saban stands apart is the execution at all levels of his operation. That means defining expectations for his players athletically, academically, and personally, and — and this is critical — always following through. Saban wants to know what his players are doing in their workouts each day of the summer, down to the specific lift and weight. If a lineman is above his target body-fat percentage, Saban wants to know what the staff is doing to fix it. When there’s a football camp on campus, he has an opinion — a strong opinion — about where the welcome tent should be placed.

Brian O’Keefe, Fortune, 2012.

It’s Saban’s intensity that has driven him to such high levels of success in NCAA football, and there are coaches that have since copied said intensity. (Tom Herman from the University of Texas checks his players hydration levels every day through the color of their pee.) But this kind of coaching didn’t work for Saban in the NFL.

Before coaching at Alabama, where he cemented his legacy as the greatest college coach of all time, Saban was the head coach for the Miami Dolphins for the 2005 and 2006 seasons where the Dolphins had a record of 15-17. Lots of people now believe that the firing of Saban was not in fact the coach’s fault, but instead a side-effect of management deciding not to sign QB Drew Brees to the team. However, ex-players said that it was his unrelenting coaching style and need for control that led to the mediocre showings.

“Nothing was ever good enough,” said ex-Miami defensive lineman Kevin Carter. “He wasn’t selling us on making it happen on game day. It was every day, in practice, day-in and day-out.” Saban wanted a certain kind of player on his team, said Carter. He wanted the kind of kids he now recruits to Alabama, the ones that he knows are going to buy into his process, and follow the steps to be exactly who he expects them to be. On a professional team, that just isn’t possible. You aren’t going to get your guys, you are going to get just the guys that are there, a team that you have to build, and it proved to be a job that Saban just didn’t care for.

Nick Saban may be the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ when it comes to college coaching, but while he was at the professional level, he wasn’t willing to give up the control needed to succeed and it led to his ultimate return to the college arena. That is all fine and it makes sense, because when you’ve been a god, who wants to be a mortal.

Nick Saban winning his 6th career national title in 2018.

The other sport where college coaches are just as highly regarded, if not more so, than their professional counter parts is basketball. College coaches can be legends – Pat Summit, Bobby Knight, John Wooden – and professional coaches have been turned into the butt of the joke by superstar players (remember LeBron James shouting at Cleveland Coach Ty Lue during a game last year) . But some coach’s make that jump, and the results are…. not great.

Before Brad Stevens (who I will get to) left Butler for the Boston Celtics, 8 college head coaches had jumped straight to an NBA head coach position. They had a combined record of 559-900 (a win percentage of .383). Only two had ever made the playoffs (Mike Montgomery with the Golden State Warriors and PJ Carlesimo with the Portland Trailblazers) and even they only had a combined 3 wins in the playoffs.

Now the difference between college head coaches and NBA head coaches isn’t the control that football coach’s need, or the attitudes that come with the professional players, but the differences in the on court game. College basketball is a team game- there is heavy reliance on plays, passing, defense, and more fouls are committed, meaning a deeper bench is needed. Lower scoring games means that more time is spent doing other things, and the team aspects of the game are more prevalent. In the NBA, one player can easily take over a game, or put a team on their back for an entire playoff run (LeBron James, 2018).

When the coach is used to being the one always calling the shots, and creating a team game, one or two players calling the shots and becoming larger than the team can often stump them, both coaching for and against that player. That’s what has made Brad Stevens so unique. Stevens started as an assistant at Butler making $18,000 a year, to one of the best NBA coaches in a matter of 5 years, and he has done so by forcing his stars to insert aspects of a college game. He has kept the NBA like motion offense, but implemented a stingy defense that resorts superstars around the league to share the ball, and make moves and plays that they aren’t used to making.

The Top 3 things that have defined Stevens’ time in Boston, and the team he’s built there, according to Boston reporters are 1) an offense that shares the spotlight, 2) defensive switch ability, and 3) making role players into stars. All three of these things are common traits of college basketball. Stevens also knows who his superstars are, and lets Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward be themselves, and do what they need to do to be superstars, but it is the balance that has created a juggernaut in the east, and has allowed Stevens to do what no other college basketball coach has been able to do before him. Succeed.

Brad Stevens with his Celtics Team

Alright, I know, this is a hockey blog! Where is the hockey? Well, its right here, because hockey isn’t like basketball or football. There’s no real money in college coaching. The hope for most every college hockey coach is to get called to the NHL, and sometimes they do. However, unlike basketball and football, there is no clear pattern of failure, but there still isn’t clear success. The only pattern that is ever really obvious, is that those with the ability to adapt, succeed.

Hockey coaches often fall into the same traps as football and basketball coaches. They can’t handle the lack of control and they can’t adapt to the new style of play, which is needed to win in the NHL.

This inability to adapt was clear in the coaching of Dave Hakstol during his time with the Philadelphia Flyers. Hakstol tried to control everything his players did. He and GM Ron Hextall decided the players diet, who they communicated with within the organization, and even demanded details on sleep schedules (via Twitter). They had a stifling grip on their players that led to anger and resentment, especially when the intensity didn’t lead to results.

Dave Hakstol also had a very college coach mentality of leaning on veteran players. One of the main differences between college and professional hockey is the reliance on young talented players. The NHL has shifted younger, and demands more from their 18 and 19 year olds. In college, on the other hand, older players are the reliant players and are expected to know and exemplify the system put in place. In the NHL, Hakstol relied on not as talented older players, and would banish young players to the press box or the AHL as soon as they showed signs of struggling. It was this behavior, the unwillingness to adapt to the NHL mindset, that led to his ultimate demise this season.

Another example of a coach that has struggled in the move from college hockey to the NHL is Jim Montgomery, coach of the Dallas Stars. Montgomery falls into the trap that we saw with basketball, where he believes that his system and his game are bigger than the stars on his team, wanting them to change their play for him, rather than what got them their contracts and reputation. This has had major negative effects on the players.

Not only are Seguin and Benn not playing well, but Montgomery was also seen having a shouting match, mid game with winger Alexander Radulov. He is harsh on his team in post-game press conferences, never letting the team breath or celebrate. Much like Saban on the Dolphins, Montgomery has become a suffocating force on the Stars, that has dampened the talent and excitement that made Dallas a team to watch in the Central Division. Montgomery can have all of the creative schemes and good intentions in the world, but if he isn’t willing to set his ego aside to make sure that his stars know that they are his stars, nothing in Dallas is going to get better anytime soon.

Montgomery is falling into the same old patters as the college coaches that have come before him. When stepping into the professional leagues, one has to remember that the star players are the permanent fixture on a team, not the coach. They are the ones that are getting paid the most, that people come to see, that carry the wins, and that the coach will take the losses. The college coaching job may be more glamorous, but the professional job carries more reward and prestige, and if Monty wants to make it at this level, its time to relax the grip, and let Taylor and Jamie ride.

Header from the NCHC


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