Leaving Butler University for the Boston Celtics was a major risk for Brad Stevens. The young head coach had taken Butler to heights no other mid-major program had ever experienced, making it to two national championship games.
The history of college coaches making the transition to the NBA has been sketchy at best. And while there were many praising the Stevens hire as a great and progressive one for the Celtics as they entered a rebuilding phase, there were several people echoing those failures of the past.
Specifically, the failure of another prominent college coach who tried to make it in the NBA with the Celtics – Rick Pitino. Although he had prior experience in the NBA with the Knicks, Pitino rode into Boston off of winning a national championship with Kentucky. Soon after infamously saying that McHale, Bird, and Parish weren’t walking through that door, Pitino walked out of it. He never made the playoffs and never won more than 36 games in three-plus seasons with the Celtics.
The comparisons were ripe to be made for those who were pessimistic about the Stevens hire. Leading the charge was Louisville sportscaster Rick Bozich, who wrote this:
I know, I know. Stevens sees a different game than the rest of the slugs in college basketball. He incorporates statistics no other mortal has imagined. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Honk if you’ve read this College Genius Conquers the NBA Story before – with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd, Leonard Hamilton, Jerry Tarkanian or P.J. Carlesimo playing the lead role.
No need to reach for your calculator. I already have. The combined NBA record of those seven college coaches is 690-1074.
That’s a winning percentage of 39.1.
There is a reason Doc Rivers wanted out of Boston. And it wasn’t merely Bill Simmons. The Celtics’ roster reads like the Maine Red Claws.
And was sarcastically crowning Stevens after one quarter of Summer League action:
Celtics 30, Pistons 9 after one quarter in NBA Summer League. Apparently Brad Stevens IS that good.
— rickbozich (@rickbozich) July 8, 2013
The snark continued:
Brad Stevens' debut with Celtics' tonight. Is 82-0 possible?
— rickbozich (@rickbozich) October 7, 2013
Only Brad Stevens could save Boston now.
— rickbozich (@rickbozich) October 14, 2013
He wasn’t alone, of course. Others placed their early bets on the Stevens-Pitino takes…
Brad Stevens leaves Butler for Celtics? Two words: Rick Pitino. And Stevens is a great COLLEGE coach. This is unfortunate for everybody..
— Terence Moore (@TMooreSports) July 3, 2013
— Chris Lingebach (@ChrisLingebach) July 3, 2013
Good news for Brad Stevens, he'll have his pick of NCAA jobs when the Celtics gig turns sour. #Pitino
— Arran Andersen (@arranandersen) July 3, 2013
Don't worry Duke. Brad Stevens is on the Rick Pitino plan. He should be available to coach the Blue Devils in a couple of years.
— James Curle (@JamesCurle) July 3, 2013
— Terry Meiners (@terrymeiners) July 3, 2013
THIS -> “@molmstead3: Someone please tell Rick Pitino to call Brad Stevens so he can tell him Paul Pierce isn't walking through that door.”
— Larra Overton (@LarraOverton) July 3, 2013
I have great respect for Brad Stevens and for #Celtics.
But my view is this is a huge mistake on both sides, I can't believe either did it.
— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) July 4, 2013
Guessing Brad Stevens didn't check in with Tim Floyd (or Rick Pitino) before taking this leap. I predict return to college ball w/in 3 yrs
— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) July 3, 2013
With a rebuild in Boston, Stevens had time, but even as late as 2015 with the Celtics still having a losing record, there were some calls for him to return to college.
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) February 23, 2015
Brad Stevens looks like a guy who will be running back to college coaching in three years. But man, Rondo showed how little control he has.
— Mike Sullivan (@MrSportsBlog) February 26, 2014
Something clicked late in that 2014-2015 season, though. Stevens’ Celtics finished on a 24-13 run to make the postseason as the #7 seed in the Eastern Conference. The next campaign the Celtics shot to 48 wins, their most since the 2010-2011 season. And this year Stevens has Boston knocking on the door of the #1 seed in the East. At the moment they have a 37-19 record, just 2.5 games behind the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Under Stevens’ tutelage, Isaiah Thomas has become one of the premier scorers in the league, averaging 29.9 PPG.
The Celtics now have one of the most exciting young rosters in the NBA and are already contenders in the Eastern Conference. Stevens looks set up for a lengthy run of success in Boston, which might go a long way in helping to erase the myth that college coaches can’t make it in the NBA.