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Hoiberg, Donovan just getting into the NBA transition game

The former college coaching standouts are figuring out what it takes to lead contenders in Chicago and OKC, respectively

POSTED: Nov 5, 2015 1:49 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


The Bulls' Fred Hoiberg (left) and the Thunder's Billy Donovan are each 3-2 as they meet tonight in Chicago.

One is professional. The other, far more personal. And even though there's considerable overlap in the game, the rules, the teachings and the ingredients that lead to success, the NBA and the NCAA brands of basketball involve two separate cultures, two different vibes.

It's study halls vs. sneaker deals. Campus parties vs. contract haggling. It's kids who are eager to be led vs. the paychecks of grown men who permit themselves to be coached.

Bridging that gap is a necessary step and a rite of passage for the rookies who enter this league each year. It's something trickier and more challenging than that for fellows such as Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg, successful college coaches turned NBA coaching neophytes.

Donovan, 50, is five games into his NBA career, coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder after a spectacular, two-decades run at the University of Florida. Hoiberg, 43, is right there with him in job tenure, working the Chicago Bulls' sideline after five solid seasons at Iowa State.

Both are mired in the moment of their 3-2 records, and it will get worse before it gets better for one of them after tonight's Thunder-Bulls clash at United Center (8 p.m. ET, TNT). Those who have tried and failed at what they're attempting isn't big on their minds right now, and neither is the fact that a rookie coach (Steve Kerr) walked off with the Larry O'Brien trophy last spring.

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Frankly, if they weren't so imminently committed to beating each other's team, they might have picked up their phones and sought a little morale boost.

"Billy's a good friend," Hoiberg said Wednesday. "We talked this summer after both of us took the jobs. We've been on a couple coaches' trips with him and spent a lot of time with Billy. Have been on the recruiting trail with him -- never beat him on a recruit.

"We're the two guys from college this year, with Brad Stevens recently taking the job. Yeah, we did talk. I think we'll always be there to support each other. In this business, you have to have that support group."

Challenging transition for any coach

Donovan, Hoiberg and the Boston Celtics' Stevens are the only active NBA coaches who came directly from the college ranks. Cleveland's David Blatt built his resume internationally. Milwaukee's Jason Kidd is a Hall of Fame-bound point guard who went directly from playing to coaching. The other 25 are former players or pluggers who apprenticed as assistant coaches or in other basketball staff jobs before landing their gigs.

The list of those who tried but failed to make the leap Donovan and Hoiberg have undertaken is long enough to keep the move rare. Tim Floyd, Leonard Hamilton, Lon Kruger and Mike Montgomery, among the most recent, never sniffed the NBA postseason. John Calipari and P.J. Carlesimo had modest results without staying power.

Coach Donovan is somebody I consider another father figure.

– Former UF standout and current Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah

Like Blatt, who grew weary last season of being referred to as a "rookie head coach" despite his overseas success, Donovan and Hoiberg are learning -- if they didn't already know it -- that NBA players care about this league. And what matters is today and tomorrow, not some ivy-covered yesterday.

As Kruger, who has coached 914 college games but lasted only 191 with the Atlanta Hawks (2000-03), told the Chicago Tribune last month: "The biggest change is these kids and men are at different stages of their lives and careers. [NBA players] have families and other interests. You have to earn trust and do things that they think give them the best chance to win."

In college, a coach often is an extension of mom and dad. Listen to Chicago center Joakim Noah, who has played for Hoiberg in Chicago for about six weeks but who three years of his life with Donovan at UF in Gainesville.

"Coach Donovan is somebody I consider another father figure," said Noah, 30. "I love his family. We obviously experienced some special times together, winning two national championships. The way everything happened, from nobody believe we could do it to it happening, all eyes on us.

"It was a really special time and if we didn't believe in him, it wouldn't have happened. It shows what kind of leader he was -- and it was always about more than basketball. I always felt comfortable talking with him and his wife [Christine] always cooking for us."

Asked to compare the two newbie coaches, Noah said: "The way Fred wants to play, he wants to play an up-tempo style. Coach Donovan was always big on playing up-tempo, playing fast, playing with pace. I think those are the similarities right now."

Keep in mind, Noah and Hoiberg are working things out these days in the workplace, with the former Kia Defensive Player of the Year a reserve so far in 2015-16. This is business.

All that Gators stuff with Donovan? That was personal. And Noah spoke of the emotions that will be churning when he competes against his former coach for the first time on a basketball court. This is a man whom he traveled frequently to Gainesville to visit, who was conspicuously absent -- and missed -- when Noah made the trek this summer.

"For those 48 minutes it's going to be competition," Noah said. "But after, it's always all right."

Similar men, different legacies

While sharing some heritage, Donovan and Hoiberg have arrived by different paths. Donovan presided over one of college basketball's most successful programs for nearly two decades. He was 502-206, went to 14 NCAA tournaments, took the Gators to four Final Fours and won back-to-back championships ('06 and '07). Florida produced 19 NBA players in Donovan's time there.

Hoiberg coached five seasons at Iowa State, the school in his hometown of Ames where he had played (1991-95). He was 115-56, made four NCAA tournaments and was 4-4 in the college postseason (Donovan was 35-12).

But Hoiberg brings more NBA chops to his current gig, having played in the league for 10 seasons and 565 regular-season or playoff games with Indiana, Chicago and Minnesota. He led the NBA in 3-point accuracy (48.3 percent) in his final year before a heart condition ended his playing days at age 32. Hoiberg moved into the Timberwolves' front office, working alongside Kevin McHale before taking the coaching job at his alma mater.

Donovan's NBA experience was little more than the proverbial cup of coffee, maybe with one refill. He played 44 game for the Knicks in 1987-88, his rookie season after being drafted 68th overall out of Providence. As a 5-foot-11 guard, he averaged 2.4 points in 8.3 minutes.

"I feel very fortunate to be in this position [with] a team that we feel can be very competitive [and] if we do everything right, be competing at the highest level when it matters most.

– Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg

Donovan spent the next season in the CBA, playing for the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers under Flip Saunders, coincidentally the coach for whom Hoiberg played his last two NBA seasons in Minnesota. Saunders died Oct. 25 at age 60 after battling Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer.

Still, beyond their parallel career moves this season, Donovan and Hoiberg share this: They landed opportunities not routinely available to anyone, be it coaches from college or riders on the league's long-established carousel. They have taken over teams that not only are competitive but are considered contenders in their respective conferences.

The Thunder roster boasts two of the NBA's top five or six players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a supporting cast assembled meticulously around them by GM Sam Presti. The Bulls have their own former Kia MVP (Derrick Rose), assorted recent All-Stars (Noah, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler) and can go 10 players deep every night.

Stepping into situations with lofty expectations carries its own challenge. Stevens was able to go to Boston and win 25 and 40 games his first two seasons while building step-by-step. If Oklahoma City or Chicago slips even to .500, fans in those cities might set their hair on fire. Or the coaches' houses.

That's the half-empty view, of course. There also is a half-full one.

"I feel very fortunate," Hoiberg said, "to be in this position [with] a team that we feel can be very competitive [and] if we do everything right, be competing at the highest level when it matters most."

It matters most tonight at United Center, with two coaches establishing themselves and Noah balancing the personal and the professional.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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