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Why it could be difficult for Michigan’s John Beilein to have success with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers

With a bolt from the Michigan-tinged blue, John Beilein stunned the basketball world Monday morning when news broke that he was leaving his perennially successful Wolverines program to coach the flailing franchise that is the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Beilein takes on what’s almost certainly the last big challenge, and coaching opportunity, of his career. The decision is surprising on many fronts. A couple reasons why: the 66-year-old becomes the oldest person ever to leave college basketball for a head-coaching NBA gig, and he’s doing so while taking on his first such job in the Association. He’s also the winningest college coach in history coach an NBA franchise; Beilein leaves the college ranks with 754 victories to his name. (John Calipari, who now has a lifetime contract with Kentucky, sits at 705 and will pass Beilein most likely in the 2020-21 season.)

It’s tough news for Michigan, which is unlikely to replace Beilein with someone who can equal his success, but it’s also probably a double-edged sword of sorts for Beilein too. The paycheck will be great, the opportunity to coach professionals will be a lifelong vision accomplished. He’s earned this. Yet the inevitable reality for most coaches who leave college to take that tempting NBA head job is dispiriting. The past 25 years worth of examples are filled with prominent names — proud current and former college coaches, including Hall of Famers — who sputtered and face-planted upon getting to the pros. 

Even the clear-cut biggest success story of the lot, Brad Stevens, has won a solid-but-not-stellar 54 percent of his games with the Celtics and is sub-.500 in the NBA Playoffs. (At mid-major Butler, he won 77 percent of his team’s games in the same timespan: six seasons.)

Beilein is an elite tactician, but here’s the history he’s up against. These are the records, since 1993-94, of the 11 coaches who left college hoops for the NBA (* denotes first head NBA job, ^ denotes still coaching in NBA):

  • Lon Kruger* (Illinois to Atlanta Hawks): 69-122 from 2000-03, no playoffs 
  • Rick Pitino (Kentucky to Boston Celtics) 102-146 from 1997-2001, no playoffs 
  • John Calipari* (UMass to New Jersey Nets): 72-112 from 1996-99, 0-3 in playoffs
  • Tim Floyd* (Iowa State to Chicago Bulls): 49-190 from 1998-2002, no playoffs
  • Mike Montgomery* (Stanford to Golden State Warriors): 68-96 from 2004-06, no playoffs
  • P.J. Carlesimo* (Seton Hall to Portland Trail Blazers): 136-109 from 1994-97, 3-9 in playoffs
  • Reggie Theus* (New Mexico State to Sacramento Kings): 44-62 from 2007-09, no playoffs
  • Leonard Hamilton* (Miami Hurricanes to Washington Wizards): 19-63 in 2000-01, no playoffs
  • Brad Stevens*^ (Butler to Boston Celtics): 270-222 from 2013-present; 27-29 in playoffs
  • Fred Hoiberg* (Iowa State to Chicago Bulls): 115-155 from 2015-19, 2-4 in playoffs
  • Billy Donovan*^ (Florida to Oklahoma City Thunder): 199-129 from 2015-present, 15-19 in playoffs

These 11 coaches lasted an average of 3.3 seasons … and all but one (Carlesimo stayed in the NBA to coach the Warriors, the Sonics/Thunder and was an interim coach for the Nets) who was fired hightailed it back to college basketball. Stevens is the only coach listed to make it at least five years on the job, though Donovan will join him so long as he’s still coaching the Thunder come fall of 2019. (He’s widely considered to be an early-stage target to replace Beilein at Michigan.)

The 11 coaches combined for 2,653 NBA games (more than 36 seasons worth of employment) with a collective win percentage of .446 (1,183-1,470). As you can see, more coaches than not failed to even make the playoffs, and none of them have an above-.500 record in the postseason. (The numbers have improved recently thanks to Stevens and Donovan.)

Now Beilein takes on a Cavs franchise that, when it didn’t have LeBron James on its roster in the past 20 seasons, averaged a skimpy 24.6 wins and never once made the playoffs without the King around. Remarkable: The last time Cleveland won a playoff series without James was 1993. Beilein took the job, leaving the comforts of Big Ten royalty and arguably operating at the peak of his profession, to hit a reset with the dregs of the NBA. He coached nearly 40 years in college and had below-.500 seasons only five times. He’s about to endure losing on a scale he’s never faced. That is fascinating backdrop to this decision, particularly after Beilein had interviews with Orlando and Detroit a year ago. 

And on Tuesday night, Cleveland went from having top-three odds to land the No. 1 pick to ultimately only getting the fifth pick. So Beilein will not be coaching Zion Williamson, Ja Morant or RJ Barrett. He might well get Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish. All of those players are a tier below Zion — and even Morant and Barrett — as NBA prospects, for now at least.

Pro franchises plucking college coaches has been and will always be a trend with fluctuating ebbs and flows, but we’ve never seen a hire like this from both the NBA and college side. If ever there was a franchise that was going to try it, of course it was going to be Cleveland.

If he makes it work, Beilein will lock up his Hall of Fame candidacy some 5-10 years from now, no doubt. If this is a failure, the last thing it will be is surprising. Beilein is smart enough to know that. He’s also smart enough to realize that his college accomplishments are safe forever, that this is a legacy-boosting opportunity at best and a vocational bonus, an end-of-career experiment, at worst. 

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