Now that the NCAA March Madness is complete and the NBA regular season over, the NBA coaching carousel will now allow Florida’s Billy Donovan and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo to extract raises from their schools. Not that the coaches have failed to earn their accolades and praises for strong performances by their respective teams this past season, they did quite well. Donovan’s Gators made the Final Four and Izzo’s Spartans lost to the UConn Huskies in the Elite Eight.
Hiring college coaches for NBA teams fell out of favor for several years after flame outs by big name college coaches such as John Calipari and Rick Pitino. Both of those gentlemen’s success in college failed to translate to the NBA level. The trend away from college coaches was interrupted last season with the hiring of Butler’s Brad Stevens as head coach of the Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge made a splash by hiring Stevens, a college coach known for a sabermetrics fondness as well as a reputation for getting the most out of the talent on the team. By all accounts, Stevens was able to get the most out of the overmatched Celtics lineup this season.
Unlike Coach Cal at Kentucky who recruits a stable of “one and done” elite level talent every year, Donovan and Izzo show a more workmanlike approach. While Donovan did recruit McDonalds All-American Chris Walker, he was off the team for a portion of the year and little used most of the time thereafter. Both coaches recruit players primarily from the next tier of talent, which is very good, but not the type of guys who will be able to opt into the NBA draft after a season. Both coaches develop players over the course of their college careers so that they become standouts when they become upper classmen. Likewise, both coaches are sound in game tacticians. Izzo is especially known for his game strategy. Most pundits picked the Spartans to beat the UConn Huskies in apparent evenly matched Elite Eight game this year solely on the reputation of Izzo.
For a successful NCAA coach to make the leap to the NBA, the increase in pay is the often cited reason for leaving, as well as answering the “what if” question they may have as to success at the highest level. In order to make the jump, they must leave a program constructed over several years with school administration and fan support that would otherwise allow them to remain in place for years. Going to the pros requires the coach to toss those benefits aside. Further, teams such as the Pistons and the Timberwolves present a boatload of challenges. Winning right away may not be an option. The NBA must offer a premium salary for the “make the jump” equation to work. Because of the apparent NBA interest, having the NCAA’s Donovan and Izzo even contemplating the big leap will no doubt cause their respective athletic directors to offer up substantial raises, even if the coaches do not attempt to extract them from the schools.
Donovan’s name has been linked to the head coach opening for the Minnesota Timberwolves now that Rick Adelman has announced his retirement. Likewise, Izzo is linked to the Timberwolves and the Detroit Pistons, which let go Maurice Cheeks in February. Donovan currently earns an average of $3.7 million per season for the Gators and his contract runs through 2019. Given that Donovan’s latest extension was signed in February, any raise to occur would probably be an agreement in principle with a new contract brought out perhaps after next season. Izzo earns over $3.4 million per season on a long term deal. Both could expect higher compensation in the pros.
In all likelihood, the NCAA’s Billy Donovan and Tom Izzo have not sought out NBA coaching gigs and are not attempting to extract raises from their schools; however, the interest from the pros must cause alarm bells to ring in their respective athletic departments and upgraded contracts will arrive on their doorsteps for consideration soon. The fans of Florida and Michigan State are holding their breath waiting for the NBA storm to pass. For Donovan and Izzo, it could be an annual occurrence based on their teams’ records of success and the NBA’s renewed interest in college coaches.
Commentary by William Costolo