For his entire coaching life, which now spans more than a quarter of a century, Mike Woodson has been an NBA man. He’s done the job well enough to get hired twice in the head coaching chair, even leading the formerly woeful Atlanta Hawks to three consecutive playoff bids. He’s respected enough to be an assistant in the league as long as he wants a job.
On paper, that qualifies him to be a head coach in college basketball. But the reason Woodson is likely to fail at Indiana, which reached an agreement with him Sunday, has nothing to do with his NBA record.
It’s the fact that a 63-year-old man who has never worked at the college level is taking on a job that, in this era, often has very little to do with the actual coaching of basketball. And it’s completely fair to be skeptical about his ability to do it, much less whether he really understands what he’s getting into in the first place at his alma mater.
I’m willing to assume that Woodson will be perfectly competent at the X-and-Oing in the Big Ten. I’m even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll hire some recruiters to help him navigate an unfamiliar and often tricky landscape.
But it’s the third pillar of college coaching that often trips people who’ve never been in it: All the time you’ve got to spend dealing with college kids being college kids.
Now more than at any other time in the history of college sports, the secret sauce of the job is how well you can connect, relate and motivate — and how much time you’re willing to put in to understanding what makes them tick.
The most successful college coaches these days spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on things that coaches who come from a pro background just don’t have to deal with in the same way.
Mike Woodson was named the 30th men's basketball coach in Indiana history. (Photo: Mark L. Baer, USA TODAY Sports)
From academic problems to girlfriend issues to players who might have mental health challenges to getting phone calls from parents who are unhappy about how much their son is playing, the college coach has to deal with all of it. You don’t get to clock out, turn off your phone or go on vacation and disconnect. It’s every hour of every day. Totally different job and lifestyle than what Woodson is used to in the NBA.
And in the era of the transfer portal where players can more or less come and go as they please? Take all of that and multiply it times 10.
There’s a reason why this type of NBA-to-college coaching gambit hasn’t historically worked.
Rutgers tried it with alum Eddie Jordan, who actually did have a few years of college coaching experience in the 1980s before going to the NBA. He lasted three seasons. Alabama tried it with Avery Johnson, who actually recruited some pretty good players (see the Crimson Tide team this season) but was 34-38 in the SEC before being fired. Sidney Lowe was an epic disaster at N.C. State. Remember the Mike Dunleavy era at Tulane? Terrific basketball coach; had no clue how to relate to college players. It’s even fair to say that Patrick Ewing, before a three-day miracle run in the Big East tournament this month, had been on a path to failure with lots of losses and roster churn.
The notable exception in recent years has been Juwan Howard, going back to Michigan after a long playing career and six years on the Miami Heat bench. It has been a brilliant decision for the Wolverines, and perhaps Indiana is trying to capture some of that magic in this hire.
But it’s not necessarily that simple. Howard isn’t just much younger than Woodson and more relatable to teenagers who at least know a little bit about the Fab Five, he had sons in the AAU pipeline and had at least seen a little of the recruiting process up close. He also inherited a stable program with solid infrastructure from John Beilein and made some great assistant coaching hires, most notably longtime St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli.
Indiana, by contrast, is practically starting over after six years of turmoil and is dealing with an increasingly frustrated fan base that hasn’t historically had a ton of patience.
There’s no doubt Woodson, who grew up in Indianapolis and played for Bob Knight, cares deeply about the place and what the program means to the people of that state. By all accounts, this is a job he had coveted for a long time.
Maybe Woodson will knock it out of the park. When you look at some of the best coaching hires in recent years and their backgrounds, whether it’s Chris Beard coming from small colleges or Nate Oats emerging from Detroit high schools, there’s no formula for what makes a successful hire.
But when you understand what the job of a college coach really is, it’s no surprise why so many NBA coaches have tried college and failed. Woodson, particularly at this late stage of his career, faces long odds if he’s going to make this work. Even if he can draw up plays with the best of them, it won’t take him long to realize it’s only a small part of the job.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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