Brad Stevens has jumped from Butler University to the Boston Celtics, and NBA history is a graveyard of coaches who failed trying to make the jump from college basketball. I wrote about Stevens for the Friday Oklahoman, which you can read here.
Let’s see. John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Tim Floyd, Mike Montgomery, Leonard Hamilton, Lon Kruger, Jerry Tarkanian. Lots of good coaches — great, great college coaches — failed on the pro level. A few did well. P.J. Carlesimo actually did a decent job with the TrailBlazers after leaving Seton Hall. Dick Motta went from Weber State to the Chicago Bulls and became a success both in Chicago and Washington; he won the 1978 NBA title with the Bullets. Jack Ramsay went from Saint Joseph’s to the NBA and was a big winner in Philadelphia, Buffalo and Portland, where in 1977 he coached the NBA champ Blazers.
But for the most part, college coaches are doomed to be fired, sometimes quickly.
However, John MacLeod was a notable exception. MacLeod was that rarest of coach. He was more successful in the NBA than in college.
MacLeod coached OU basketball for six years, 1967-68 through 1972-73, and those were not banner seasons for the Sooners. Here is MacLeod’s year-by-year record:
1967-68: 13-13, 8-6 in the Big Eight.
1968-69: 7-19, 3-11 in the Big Eight.
1969-70: 19-9, 7-7 in the Big Eight, 1-1 in the NIT.
1970-71: 19-8, 9-5 in the Big Eight, 0-1 in the NIT.
1971-72: 14-12, 9-5 in the Big Eight.
1972-73: 18-8, 8-6 in the Big Eight.
Overall record: 90-69. Big Eight record: 44-40.
No NCAA Tournament appearances, but that was not a capital crime in that era, when only the conference champ made it to the NCAAs and that champ was determined in the regular season. In a league with Kansas and Jack Hartman’s Kansas State Wildcats, there wasn’t a lot of room for the upstart Sooners. Put MacLeod’s performances in the last quarter century, and his teams would have made three NCAA Tournaments, probably in the 7-8-9 seed range.
Still, it was a stunner 40 years ago this spring, when the Phoenix Suns hired MacLeod as head coach. OU basketball was nowhere close to the NBA radar’s, and truthfully, the NBA wasn’t on Oklahomans’ radar.
Phoenix was an NBA outpost. The Suns were an expansion team in 1968-69; they went 16-66 but then got on the fast track to improvement. Phoenix went 39-43 in Year 2, then went 48-34 and 49-33 in back-to-back years under Cotton Fitzsimmons, who had been hired away from Kansas State. Fitzsimmons was one of the few college-to-pro success stories; his departure from K-State led to the hiring of Hartman away from Southern Illinois.
Fitzsimmons jumped to the Atlanta Hawks in 1972, and the Suns were coached for 10 games by Butch Van Breda Kolff. But Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo, who became a giant of American basketball, coached the Suns the rest of the season. Then he pulled the stunner of hiring MacLeod.
MacLeod’s first Suns team went 30-52, an eight-game dropoff from the year before. Then Phoenix went 32-50, and to Colangelo’s everlasting credit, he stuck with MacLeod. And in Year 3, Phoenix struck it big. In the 1975 draft, the Suns picked fourth overall and took OU’s Alvan Adams, who had been recruited by MacLeod and played for MacLeod as a freshman.
The 1975-76 Suns went 42-40, then got hot in the playoffs and won the Western Conference before losing to Boston in a memorable six-game NBA Finals. MacLeod went on to coach Phoenix 11 more years. In 14 years, MacLeod’s record was 579-543 and he nine times coached Phoenix to the playoffs. He coached more than twice as many games as any other Phoenix coach. MacLeod never again coached Phoenix to the NBA Finals, but twice more the Suns made the West finals.
In 1987, Colangelo fired MacLeod, who hooked on with the Dallas Mavericks and coached the Mavs to a 53-29 record. Dallas lost to the Lakers in a memorable seven-game Western Conference Finals. MacLeod was fired by Dallas early in his third year, then coached the Knickerbockers for a season and finally returned to Notre Dame, where he coached for eight seasons, with limited success.
But what an NBA career: 171/2 seasons, a regular-season record of 707-657, a playoff record of 47-54 and four trips to the Western Conference Finals, plus the 1976 NBA Finals.
One of the most out-of-the-blue NBA hirings ever off a college campus became one of the most stable moves ever. MacLeod’s 14-year run with Phoenix is the fourth-longest uninterrupted coaching tenure in NBA history. Here are the coaches who have kept their job for at least 10 full years:
23: Jerry Sloan, Utah, 1988-11
17: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio, 1997-13
16: Red Auerbach, Boston, 1951-66
14: John MacLeod, Phoenix, 1973-87
14: Al Attles, Golden State, 1969-83
12: Slick Leonard, Indiana, 1968-80*
11: Rudy Tomjanovich, Houston, 1992-03
11: Don Nelson, Milwaukee, 1976-87
11: Red Holzman, New York, 1967-78
10: Jack Ramsay, Portland, 1976-86
10: Doug Moe, Denver, 1980-90
*-includes ABA years.