From College to the NBA: The Outline for Success

Guest Author: Dan Decker, Graduate Student, Madonna University

On February 19, 2020, formerly successful Head Men’s Basketball Coach of the University of Michigan, John Beilein, resigned from his position as Head Coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers after less than a full season with the team. The breakup was inevitable after reports of players being unhappy with how Beilein communicated with the team on several occasions.

This resignation brought me back to a conversation I had with former Butler University men’s basketball standout Ronald Nored, back in the summer 2016. Ronald played for Butler from 2008 to 2012 under Head Coach Brad Stevens, who is now the coach of the Boston Celtics. Brad Stevens is one of the few coaches who has been able to be successful in his jump from College Head Coach to NBA Head Coach. I had the opportunity of finding myself sitting next to Ronald at Dinner while at a conference that summer. Ronald had played under Brad Stevens for four years in college and had served as one of his Assistant Coach’s for the Boston Celtics. In his first 3 years, Brad Stevens had already proven to be on the trajectory of a great college coach that is able to translate that success to the NBA. I could hardly wait until the appetizer came to the table before I found myself asking Ronald, “how has Brad Stevens been able to find success as an NBA coach where so many other college coaches had failed” and continue to fail with recent news of John Beilein.

Ronald’s answer was simple; simple but not easy. He shared how Brad Steven’s leadership style has always been to build trust with his players so that they understand that he cares more about them as a person rather than what they can do to help his own coaching career. Trust, a relationship, genuine interest in the people he is leading is what Ronald thought made the difference where so many college coaches making the same transition had failed.

As a college coach, it can be very easy to use the “power” of a scholarship to get players to perform the way he or she wants. However, in the NBA with many players making significantly more money than their coach, they do not have that same leverage. Ronald shared how many NBA players come from families where they could have only dreamed of the money they now make for their profession. People who grew up around these NBA players now expect a share of what they make, which can cause hesitation in who they feel they can trust. This might be why it is difficult to be successful with an authoritarian approach in the NBA. It can be difficult for players to build the same level of trust with coaches with that style of leadership. Since Brad Stevens had always had the habit of building a genuine relationship with his players, it allowed for a seamless transition from College to the NBA.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Coeus Creative Group. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of Coeus Creative Group.