Paths to a College or NBA Coach Job

First of all, the title of today’s article is misleading; there really aren’t correct paths to a college or NBA coach job because there are literally hundreds of path permutations.  However, in general, there are three very common ones:

  1. Student Manager –> College Video Coordinator –>Director of Operations –> NBA Video Coordinator –> Assistant at either level –> Head Coach (Frank Vogel)
  2. College Player –> Graduate Assistant  –> Full-Time Assistant —> Head Coach (Bill Self)
  3. High School Coach Job–>  Assistant College Coach –> Head Coach (Roy Williams and Tom Izzo).

When one writes down the basic steps, it looks pretty simple.   Obviously, the process is much more arduous than it looks.   The first step is the simplest but even there one has to be somewhat fortunate to be a student manager in a good program, be good enough to play at the collegiate level or land a high school coaching position.  It’s the NEXT step that is generally the rub.  (For more on this topic in general, please read an earlier Hoop Coach article, “How Not to Break into College Coaching”).

For any coach at any level who happens to be reading this article, the key questions are, “Do I really want to coach at higher level (the answer to that question is often the key decision and more difficult to answer than one would think) and am I doing everything possible within reason to get there?

So rather than concentrating on a particular path over another I believe ambitious coaches are far better served keeping their focus on the following principles:

  1. Do the best job you can do every day in your current position. Be genuine, exemplary, enthusiastic, people-centered, and above all, a good teacher
  2. Yet, one has to continually network and declare your intent to coach at a higher level (even only to a few key folks.)
  3. Choose your mentors wisely.  A great one can make a huge difference in basketball knowledge, personal credibility and the ability to “broker” you for future positions.  A poor mentor can drag you down and can distract you from the principles you know to be right for you.
  4. If you can, find a “kingmaker”.  In my case it was, in part, Howard Garfinkel, the co-founder and co-owner of the Five-Star Basketball Camp who, as you may know recently passed away at the age of 94 .  If you were in his coach’s cradle back in the day and he spoke on your behalf, you were way ahead of others.  Not that they wouldn’t have made it without him, but Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Mike Fratello, Pete Gillen, Brendan Malone, Fran Frischilla, Seth Greenberg, Dave Odom-to name few were all “Garf” mainstays at the peak of the Five-Star empire.
  5. Don’t take a bad job along the way.  Nothing will hurt you as much.  Even losing in your current job can be overcome easier.  What is a bad job?  Well, here are the usual suspects:
    • Poor administration for a myriad of reasons or high turnover in those spots.
    • History of budgetary issues.
    • Inability to attract or enroll players at the level at which they need to compete.
    • Academic standards that are vastly superior to the rest of the league.
    • Apathetic faculty/staff.
    • Support Staff with agendas (I once had a janitor as a nemesis).
    • Game Schedules that prevent an honest chance to win.
    • School or system rules that are vastly different than competitors (they can practice on weekends-you can’t).
    • A poor pay structure.
    • In the case of an assistant’s position, a head coach who is on the hot seat, suspect as a person or is mediocre at his job.

If several or more of the aforementioned red flags are in play, you may want to wait for the next opportunity.  Taking a bad job can be overcome, but not easily.


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