Four Precedents for Basketball Coaches In Big First-Time Jobs

Written by Thomas Fleming

Following Oklahoma State’s recent head coaching vacancy, former Oklahoma State point guard Doug Gottlieb’s name has risen to the forefront. Gottlieb, who was a finalist for the coaching job at both Tulane and OSU in 2016, has made it clear that he would gladly become head coach.

Although many consider Gottlieb as an excellent potential recruiter and a bright strategist, many others criticize his lack of coaching experience. There have, though, been people throughout basketball history who have had coaching success despite no previous experience.

In fact, many of them are fairly similar to Gottlieb. Here is our list of four of the most successful coaches who didn’t have any experience beforehand (Gottlieb mentioned some of these in a video he did with Carson Cunningham on Sunday).

Mark Jackson

Mark Jackson is a fitting example of a successful coach who was both a player and television analyst, and one that had no prior coaching experience before his first head coaching gig. Jackson played at St. John’s University alongside future NBA All-Star Chris Mullin, who is coincidentally now the head coach at St. Johns in his first-ever coaching job.

After playing professionally from 1987 to 2004, Jackson retired from basketball and became an analyst for both YES Network and ABC telecasts. Jackson did that up until he accepted the job as head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2011. After an injury-plagued 23-43 season, Jackson led the Warriors to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, and Golden State would make the playoffs in every season until Jackson was removed as head coach in 2013.

Doc Rivers

Doc Rivers had no experience before his first head coaching job, yet he has been coaching in the NBA for the past 17 years. After playing three years at Marquette and 13 years in the NBA with multiple teams, Rivers retired in 1996 with the San Antonio Spurs. He began his coaching career as head coach of the Orlando Magic in 1999. Despite being picked to finish last in the league, the Magic finished 41-41 that year and missed the playoffs by two games. Rivers was named Coach of the Year that season, and would make the playoffs for the next three seasons with the Magic.

After being fired in 2003, Rivers became head coach of the Boston Celtics, and after three lackluster seasons, finished 66-16 in 2007 and won the NBA Championship. In his subsequent seasons with the Celtics and eventually the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers has made the playoffs every season, reaching the conference finals twice. He is still with the Clippers, who currently have a 41-29 record and are fifth in the West division.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr should be the first name that anyone thinks of when it comes to coaches with no previous experience. After his final season in the NBA in 2003, Kerr became a broadcast analyst for TNT. He then worked with the Phoenix Suns front office in 2004 and became president and General Manager, a position which he fulfilled until stepping down in 2010.

In 2014, Kerr took over the Golden State Warriors’ head coaching position from Mark Jackson. He took the Warriors, who had finished with a record of 51-31 the year prior, to a 67-15 record and an NBA Championship victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kerr’s particular scenario is the most similar to Gottlieb’s potential situation at OSU. He had served as a television analyst, and although he did have extensive experience in the front office, he had never coached before his job at Golden State. He also inherited an already talented team, like the OSU squad will be next season, that featured sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and a solid supporting cast of players like Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes.

Following Kerr’s hiring, Warriors owner Joe Lacob stated that he wasn’t deterred by Kerr’s coaching inexperience.

“Look, at the end of the day I know he knows a lot about basketball,” Lacob said. “We’re taking a little bit of a risk on his coaching ability … it’s just about finding the right fit for the organization and a guy who has extremely high potential, is a hard worker and is very prepared. That’s what we have got.”

Many people thought that Kerr would prove to be an average head coach, riding his team’s talent without having to actually contribute. There were expectations, with the Warriors reaching the playoffs in the previous year, but Kerr far exceeded them and proved himself as a more than competent coach, all in his first coaching season.

Fred Hoiberg

Hoiberg’s history is very similar to Steve Kerr’s, sans any color commentating experience. Although not actually born in Iowa, Hoiberg is, to this day, one of the biggest names in Iowa basketball history. He was named Iowa’s “Mr. Basketball” as a senior in 1991 and then went on to play at Iowa State, where he would have two all-conference seasons.

He played in the NBA for 10 seasons and was known as a sharpshooter. In fact, in his final season with Minnesota in 2004, Hoiberg finished the season with a career-best 48 percent three-point percentage. Hoiberg briefly served as an assistant coach for less than a year before taking a job in Minnesota’s front office.

In 2010, he took over the head coaching position at Iowa State, where he led the Cyclones to a 16-16 record in his first year. In the following season, the Cyclones finished 23-11 and finished tied for third in the Big 12, and ISU would reach the NCAA Tournament every year until Hoiberg took the Chicago Bulls job in 2015.

This article is not to say that every analyst or general manager-turned-head coach has been successful. There have been plenty of failures out there. But to say that there is absolutely no precedent in sports, and specifically basketball, for a first-year head coach without any previous experience is ignorant of the game’s history both at the college and professional level.

No one knows if Gottlieb would become the coach that the Cowboys so desperately want. He has immense potential, and he cares about the program and the university as a whole. But would that justify his hiring?

Again, plenty of fans would be averse to the idea of a first-year head coach, especially at a power-five job. The hiring of an analyst and former player would undoubtedly be a unique case, but it wouldn’t be the first.

  • Also there’s

    Larry Bird

    • Guest

      and Magic Johnson!

      • Also there’s

        I was trying to focus on the ones that had good results.

      • T-Bone

        Kevin Durant is injured and getting old. Maybe he is looking for a new gig. And his backpack on campus would fit right in.

  • All in with doug

    How about Kevin Ollie, spent only 2 years as an assistant at UConn then head coach. In his second year they won it all. 2 years as assistant isn’t much time and he did just fine as head coach.

    • Saucy Takes

      2 years as assistant! Keiton page!!

      • Ben Turvey

        Username is accurate

      • EdmondPoke

        This guy has been so consistent with Page… I think he knows something…

  • Saucy Takes

    Marc Jackson fired…. Doc rivers under performs every year. Steve Kerr, and Hoiberg are good examples

    • KWC

      Jackson was fired because the Warriors are sensitive and did not like being pushed or yelled at, but was winning and improving each year with a young team. Doc Rivers does under perform every year. I have never understood why he is so well liked.

    • Mike Shaw

      Just gonna discount the title he won in Boston? That is a saucy take

      • Saucy Takes

        KG, Paul pierce, Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Rajon Rondo… Loaded.. Spolestra and Doc are very similar

  • kw

    two others with good and bad results: Jason Kidd (I’d say successful) and Derek Fisher (unsuccessful)

    • Or not to be

      To be fair, Derek Fisher had the Knicks.

  • JB

    All four of these examples include players with 10 or more NBA seasons as players.

  • PythonPoke

    Let’s just take a cue from Illinois and offer to triple the salary of our favorite coach. I’m certain Bill Self would love becoming the $15,000,000/year man. Someone call Boone!!

    • DataAddict


      Anyone have the cheat codes for money?

      • Trigiddy

        Yes! A couple of days ago it was 13, 25, 44, 54, 67 and a powerball of 5.

  • Lokeasy

    Can we get an article about some of the abject failures of first time coaches as well?

    • thomguy123

      Dan Issel got fired after four years as Nuggets’ HC, Isiah Thomas had three average seasons with the Pacers until he got replaced (and then had two substandard stints with New York and Florida International), Kiki VanDeWeghe had one season as interim HC for the Nets and only won 12 of 64 games, Derek Fisher was fired after two seasons with the Knicks, and Chris Mullin has had back-to-back losing seasons at St. John’s, although many point out that he wasn’t left with much talent-wise and the team showed much improvement in 2016-2017.

      • Lokeasy

        Thanks! This is exactly what I wanted. Its like in business, you hear about the roaring successes while there are plenty of mediocre examples and even more failures.

        Note, I’m not saying Doug will be mediocre or a failure. In fact, the fact most of what he’s done in lobbying for this job proves to me he can recruit. I have no doubt he can coach technique and draw up plays.

    • David

      Yes… talk about cherry picking.

      • thomguy123

        Umm I wrote this article

  • Dennis P

    Good list. How many NCAA basketball coaches fired over the past few years had previous experience vs. those who didn’t? There are many coaches fired each year, and most of them had previous experience, so why would having no experience automatically cause Doug not to be a good candidate? I keep hearing Crean as a candidate for OSU. So hire a guy who has shown he can’t do well at INDIANA and think he could do better at OSU, then stay for less money if he does? I will take my chances with Doug G.!!

  • David W. Ayres

    Lenny Wilkes and Don Nelson are also good examples.

    I’m all in on Doug. I don’t care about what the media will say, because he will energize the fan base even more. He will be great, just believe.

    The other guys (besides Self and Marshall who are ridiculous dreams) smell like Ford 2.0s. Maybe Jankovich, but he isn’t leaving SMU for Stillwater. But the rest, yawn.

    • DataAddict

      Jankovich is Ford v3.5

      No thanks.

      Neither Andy Enfield, Dan Muller, nor Archie Miller seem like Ford v2.0 . . . well, maybe the first two do but definitely not Miller. He seems legit.

      As for Doug, if he’s picked and it all works out, great.

      If not, OUCH.

      Eh, I’m glad it isn’t MY money that’s being negotiated with…

  • swaggypaw


  • Cole Shelton

    I didn’t like it last year, but Gottlieb looks like Holder’s best “out” right now. If you hire another mid major guy, I’m not excited. At this moment you are not going to convince me they are better than Brad Underwood. He sucked me in with all his talk and even though the record wasn’t stellar, the basketball was fun to watch and appeared to be heading in the right direction. Guys played hard, got better, and seemed to be having fun and enjoying their coach.

    If he doesn’t hire Gottlieb, there is a good chance that there will be less butts in seats than this year. Hire Gottlieb and you will probably get at least as many. So I can’t believe I’m on board with this now, but here it goes… #BringDougHome

    • OrangeTuono

      #7 Offense in the nation 1st year was kind of special. And that bench play he was able to get with his own young guys was sweet.

      • Good at Cruitin

        #1 depending on which metric you look at (efficiency)

    • JB

      If we win consistently next year the seats will be full regardless of who the coach is.

      • Cole Shelton

        That’s certainly possible. I do think the coach plays a big part in rallying the fan base, and Underwood did an exceptional job at that. I think Doug’s history with OSU will help a lot with that because people will genuinely believe what he’s saying, where I think it will take the fans some time to warm up to another guy.

        • T-Bone

          Burn me once…

    • Matthew Haffner

      I’m in the exact same boat.

  • Alum in AZ

    All in. Make it happen with Doug.

  • Clint

    My only thoughts on this (and some have kind of voiced it already) is these are all NBA guys (except Kevin Ollie mentioned in the comments). In the NBA your staff is made up of guys who are pretty doggone good – and you have a zillion of them. Yes, it’s an embarrassingly inept comparison, but I know from coaching going from coaching little kids in Rec League ball, moving up to coaching AAU was like moving up to the Bigs for me. You had more resources, etc. These guys mentioned were inexperienced successes because they had ALL the resources around them. Not to take away from any of them – I think they’re all great bball minds. I just think it’s a different world in college ball, especially if you’re AD isn’t all in.
    That all being said…#BringDougHome. I think he COULD get the staff around him!

  • David

    One good thing about hiring Doug would be that if he fails, at least we won’t have to hear his name every off-season because that name will have already been crossed off the list… smh

  • JB

    If Gottlieb is hired, is it realistic to think that Desmond Mason would be interested in an assistant position? Does anyone know if Mason has ever expressed interest?

    • Pokelahoma

      I THINK a degree is a requirement, and Im not sure Desmond meets that…

      • David

        So you don’t need to have coaching experience, but you need a degree? Not arguing FOR Mason, just saying……….

        • Pokelahoma

          Believe the degree is either university requirement or law…understand the question though

      • Pistols Fired!!

        We do not let anything as TRIVIAL as a degree stand in the way of success in college athletics!! Players or coaches… where have you been?? lmao… University of Phoenix??

  • AtownPoke

    All NBA comparisons go out the window IMO and Hoiberg was directly involved with the admin side so it’s not like he was commentating.

  • Christian Baker

    If we’re trying to convince ourselves that Doug is the right pick, this isn’t really an apples to apples comparison. Aside from Hoiberg the others were NBA players with lengthy playing careers, meaning they spent countless hours being coached and learning from numerous coaches for over a decade, and in Kerr’s case spent time in a front office prior to his first gig. In terms of Hoiberg it’s a fair comparison, it really is. He did spend time in a basketball org. when he was with the Timberwolves, so I give him a leg up, but still fair. IMO, if coaching was really in his blood, Doug would have been trying to pursue that. He was naturally drawn to journalism and no fault in that. I would like to see him be an assistant first, nothing wrong with sitting one seat over for a few seasons.

    • Beth Robinson

      I absolutely agree…needs to prove himself. Coaching is quite different than playing or analyzing.

  • T-Bone

    Doug would probably recruit well. He would probably have good rapport with the players. He probably has a good head for scouting good players. So if he can scout, build rapport and sign good players, he will have a good talent base. That is huge.

    Can he organize an entire program? I don’t know if he has that kind of skill set or work ethic.

    Can he devise the proper practices and techniques to get his players ready? He doesn’t have the experience of having done so but he has seen it and been in a program before. A good assistant can help with that.

    Can he develop players? That is a special skill that requires a lot of specific detail and ability to teach. I don’t know if he has that skill set but good assistants can do that also.

    Can he build a team of coaches? Many coaches bring their prior assistants to help coach. Doug doesn’t have that following. He does know a lot of coaches though and could probably make some good picks but the chemistry of working together everyday is difficult to assess.

    Can he coach x’s and o’s and game plan. He certainly can. I don’t know if he would be a mastermind at it but his game analysis seems to suggest he has a good feel for that aspect of the game..

    Can he bring on the GIA? Oh yes he can.

    Will he work at our cheap pay scale? Sounds like he would.

    Would he be loyal unlike Traitor Brad? Very much so and that may answer one of the glaring issues. The stepping stone school. Traitor Brad isn’t the first one to go.

    • Beth Robinson

      No coaching experience is a huge risk. Let’s get real here. We are a major D1 program. We are not desperate and we need to hire the best person for us!

    • Beth Robinson

      I thought Coach Underwood did a great job. Do I blame him for going to the money and do what’s best for him? No, I don’t.

  • Mike Shaw

    Different Sport but Mike Matheney was neither a manager nor bench coach before becoming manager of one of the most Successful and respected MLB franchises , The St. Louis Cardinals.

  • Mike Shaw

    Different sport but Matheny of the Cards was never a bench coach or manager and he’s done a great job for the Cards so far.