Hall Of Fame Players As Head Coaches

I have long had a theory regarding Hall of Fame quality basketball players being less-than-fully capable as NBA head coaches.  My theory is that they excelled at the game because much of what they did was instinctive and because it was instinctive, they probably did not know how to express it is such a way that some younger player might do what got the coach to the Hall of Fame.  Here is a partial data set for Hall of Fame players as NBA head coaches broken down into three categories:

  • Highly successful head coaches
  • Meh!
  • Not-so-good head coaches.

In the category of Highly Successful, I will start with the exception that proves the rule and offer Lenny Wilkens name.  He was indeed a Hall of Fame player and then went on to an NBA coaching career that involved winning 1332 games and an NBA championship with the Seattle Supersonics.  No one I will mention from here on will have a coaching career equivalent to Wilkens’ career.

  • Billy Cunningham:  Over eight seasons with the Sixers, he won 69.8% of his games and an NBA championship.
  • Bill Russell:  His three seasons with the Celtics produced two NBA championships so I have to put him in this category even though a large measure of that success is due to the fact that he was a player-coach for those teams and his play was as integral to the success as was his coaching.  Later on, his time with the Sonics was mediocre; in four-plus seasons there, the best record was 43-39.
  • KC Jones:  With an overall record of 552-306 plus two NBA Championships and three conference championships, he may have had a better coaching career than playing career.  Maybe?

Here are a couple of Hall of Fame players whose coaching career evokes the “Meh!” response:

  • Larry Bird:  His winning percentage is outstanding; he won 68.7% of his games.  However, his coaching career included only 2 full seasons and part of a third season.
  • Mo Cheeks:  Over all or part of 9 seasons, his coaching record was 305-315.
  • Richie Guerin:  In seven-and-a-half seasons with the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks, he compiled a 327-291 record.
  • Kevin McHale:  Over three full seasons and parts of four other seasons, his record was 232-185 with no playoff accomplishments of note.
  • Bill Sharman:  Yes, I know he won a high percentage of his games and an NBA Championship with the Lakers.  However, that team had Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich on the roster.  Hard to lose with that team…
  • Paul Westphal:  In all or part of 10 season, his record was 318-279 with a playoff record of 27-22 in 4 playoff appearances.

Finally, here are some great players who were not successful as head coaches in the NBA:

  • Wilt Chamberlain:  His single season on the bench was with the San Diego Conquistadores of the ABA and not the NBA.  Nonetheless, his record that year was a lackluster 37-47.
  • Bob Cousy:  In a little more than 4 seasons, his coaching record in the NBA was 141-207.  The best single season record was 36-46.
  • Dave Cowens:  Over all or part of 6 seasons, his coaching record was 161-191.
  • Jason Kidd:  In four-and-a-half seasons, his record is 183-190.  He will likely be back with another team in the future…
  • Magic Johnson:  To his credit, he realized that coaching was not his calling and he resigned the position after only 16 games on the bench.  The record was 5-11.
  • Dolph Schayes:  In four years as a head coach, his record was 151-172.

I can sense that some of you are wondering why any of that is interesting today.  Well, with more time on my hands than usual, I wondered – not aloud but in my head – if there was a similar pattern among great NFL players who advanced themselves into the ranks of NFL head coaches.  So, I indulged myself in some browsing through NFL stat world and came up with an interesting parallel.

  • [Aside:  I limited this “research” to modern NFL time since the merger of the NFL and the AFL.  I will leave the days of the Decatur Staleys and Curley Lambeau to real NFL historians such as Dan Daly.]
  • [Aside #2:  If you have some time on your hands and are looking for a good sports book to read, let me recommend Dan Daly’s excellent history of the old NFL called the National Forgotten League.  It is entertaining AND informative.]

I found 8 NFL Hall of Fame players who have had time on the sidelines as a head coach since the merger.  I would not categorize any of the eight as being great head coaches so let me just list them alphabetically here:

  • Raymond Berry:  In five-and-a-half seasons in New England, his record was 48-39-0 with an AFC Championship in 1985.  That was his first full season with the Pats, and it was pretty much downhill from there.
  • Mike Ditka:  He had plenty of time on the sidelines and racked up a 121-95-0 record plus a Super Bowl Championship – – where he beat Raymond Berry’s Patriots after the 1985 season.
  • Forrest Gregg:  In eleven seasons his teams went 75-85-1.  Ho-hum…
  • Dick LeBeau:  He was extraordinarily successful as a defensive coach and coordinator over multiple decades in the NFL as well as a Hall of Fame player in the 1950s.  However, his head coaching record was a less-than-laudable 12-33-0.
  • Mike Munchak:  In three seasons, his Tennessee teams compiled a 22-26-0 record.  Ho-hum…
  • Art Shell:  Over seven seasons with the Raiders, his cumulative record was 56-52-0.
  • Mike Singletary:  Over all or part of 3 seasons with the Niners, his teams were 18-22-0.  He also had a brief stint with the Memphis Express in the AAF.
  • Bart Starr:  He coached the packers for 9 seasons from the mid-70s to the mid-80s; those teams compiled a record of 52-76-3.

They say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop; in my case, letting my mind wander often leads to strange and unusual places…

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………