Detroit — Succeeding as a head coach in the NBA isn’t just about Xs and Os. If it were, John Beilein would fit right in. Instead, Beilein was put through the wringer in the first half of the season and spit out after just 54 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The NBA has a way of doing that to even the best. The most talented players don’t always make it big, but with head coaches, it’s even harder, because there are only 30 of those jobs in the league.
Despite 40 years of success in college basketball, including the last dozen at Michigan, Beilein didn’t make an auspicious transition to the NBA, with an unceremonious exit, midway through the first year of his five-year contract.
One of the biggest differences is the head-coaching position itself and the structure in which it fits. College head coaches are the faces and de facto CEOs of their programs. In the NBA, it’s a much different dynamic, with star players, salary caps, draft picks and other variables adding to the mix.
Dwane Casey had two stints as an assistant coach at Kentucky in the 1980s and made the jump to the NBA as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics and Dallas Mavericks and head coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors before leading the Pistons. He’s experienced both sides and knows the pitfalls involved in each role.
“I don’t know the specifics in (the Cavs’) situation, but usually the nuances of the game: the approach, the shorter practices, the shorter voices on the court and not doing it all — because in college, the head coach is the main man; he’s the voice and he does everything, from the pregame, postgame and practice,” Casey said. “Whereas (in the NBA), delegation is what I've learned over the years I’ve been a head coach.
“You’ve got to be able to do that and also too, understand you have a short period of time to get your practice in and get your methods and your terminology (installed). And it’s a sales job. It’s not like, you come in and say this is what we’re going to do. It’s a gradual sales job over time.”
The Cavs were 14-40 during Beilein’s short tenure — and that was as many losses as Beilein had in his final four years at Michigan. The piling losses had to be a large part of his parting with the NBA, but the grind is different.
From all accounts, Beilein drew the respect of veteran forward Kevin Love for standing up and facing his foibles, but making that jump isn’t one that’s easy, even for the most accomplished college coaches.
“It’s tough. It’s a lot more freedom and guys make a lot more money. You’ve got to kind of manage it in its own way and you’ve just got to learn, said Pistons center John Henson, who started the season with the Cavs. “He came in and tried his best, but it didn’t work out — and it happens.
As a college guy, there have been successful college guys, whether it’s (Billy) Donovan or (Brad) Stevens. You just have to trust everything around you, which is hard sometimes.”
Despite the hasty exit, Beilein hasn’t put a stain on his legacy; he’ll be remembered as a successful college coach and the short time in the NBA will be a cautionary tale to other coaches who want to make a similar jump themselves.
Derrick Walton Jr., who played for Beilein for four years at Michigan and joined the Pistons on a 10-day contract this week, said there’s no shame in not succeeding; it’s more a definitive answer of whether it was suited to Beilein.
“You’re always sad when somebody that you're close with and things don't work out in their favor, but I respect him a great deal for even taking that step,” Walton said. “A lot of college coaches probably wouldn’t, and they would be more OK with security.
“For him, it was always about challenging himself. This is a different game up here. If anything, he learned that and just knowing the person that he is, I'm pretty sure he just looking at the best way to embark on a new journey.”
In the coaching fraternity, there’s mutual respect and simply because coaches don’t succeed at one place, it doesn’t define who they are as a person, nor put a brand on that coach as unworthy or change him off the court.
“I don't know what happened in Cleveland. I know coach Beilein is a good man. He's a good coach, and he's proven that over the years at different places he's been, so that part cannot be questioned,” Casey said. “It's just the jump into the NBA for any college coach who's never been in it as an assistant or player on whatever, it's an adjustment and to ask a veteran coach to change his ways is difficult to do.”
Beilein isn’t the first college coach to have trouble with the transition — and he won’t be the last.
Pistons at Trail Blazers
Tip-off: 9 Sunday, Moda Center, Portland, Ore.
Outlook: The Blazers (25-32) have lost three straight and are on the outside looking in, tied for ninth in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Pistons (19-39) have lost five in a row as they start their four-game western trip.