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Level best: Coaches must know their identity

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Michael Hunt
January 15, 2010
— Hank Raymonds likes to tell the story of how Al McGuire once thought about leaving Marquette for the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA.

McGuire’s idea was to coach the Bucks for maybe a season or two and then become the general manager.


The problem, if one could actually call it a problem, was that McGuire was too honest with his employer. In a quaint reflection of the era, and of the man himself, McGuire asked Marquette for permission to leave.


Permission, of course, was denied.


Raymonds laughs about it now, especially if he’s asked what kind of a pro coach his old boss would’ve made.


Raymonds points two thumbs down, as if you really had to ask.


Then there were Barry Alvarez’s various flirtations with the NFL. During the mid-’90s, his name was linked with varying degree to the head-coaching jobs in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.


While the reports were legitimate, no one should have taken them seriously. While Alvarez was flattered by the attention, he didn’t exactly have the temperament to coach players who made more money than he did. He also had a $1 million incentive bonus coming for staying at Wisconsin at least 10 years.


Nevertheless, the rumors had legs to the point that Alvarez felt compelled to call press conferences, usually near the recruiting signing period, to say he wasn’t leaving.


Like the greatest college basketball coach this state has ever had, its best college football coach would’ve been a disaster at the next level. The personalities that made them so successful at the college game never would’ve transferred to the pros, mostly for the reason typically cited whenever the subject is raised:


Among other things, it’s a whole lot easier to coach broke 19-year-olds than millionaire 23-year-olds.


Pete Carroll’s recent decision to take the Seattle Seahawks job resurrected the topic. A rah-rah guy whose accomplishments were limited with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, Carroll became one of the college game’s best coaches at Southern Cal. Why he left—the money and impending NCAA problems at USC is less interesting than why the crossover from college to pros almost never works.


Only one success story comes to mind, but Larry Brown was a pro coach who happened to go to UCLA and Kansas before returning to the NBA. Virtually every other example has been an unmitigated failure.


Jerry Tarkanian with the San Antonio Spurs. Rick Pitino, although much more with Boston than New York. John Calipari with the New Jersey Nets. Tim Floyd with the Chicago Bulls. Mike Montgomery with the Golden State Warriors. Lon Kruger with the Atlanta Hawks.


Although George Karl would’ve crawled to Chapel Hill for the North Carolina job while he was with the Bucks, the NBA lifer never would’ve had the patience for recruiting. He also likes to say how a pro coach does more coaching in a half a quarter than a college coach does in an entire game. While the actual amount of coaching and preparation that goes on in an NBA game is under-appreciated, there is no doubt that the skill set required to manage professional egos is the dividing line.


That’s why Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz, national title winners both in the college, had no clue in the NFL. If the license to be a dictator in places like Gainesville and South Bend isn’t checked at the locker room door, NFL players have this way of revoking it with one icy stare.


This isn’t to say the college game is less corporate or impersonal than the pros. Lane Kiffin was the latest to debunk that myth. As always, it’s knowing who you are that counts.



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