Two NBA head coaches, two entirely different paths. One played four years at Kansas - a place where basketball is first on the list of priorities - was a first-round selection of the Utah Jazz, and then played for the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs. After a dozen years in the league, he joined the Spurs' staff as an assistant for three years, and then took his first head coaching job back in Orlando in 2012.
The other coach played at Air Force - a place where basketball is 298th on the list of priorities - before serving his customary tour of duty. After returning stateside, he spent a half-dozen years as an assistant at Air Force, and then eight years as the head coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer, a basketball outpost if there ever was one. He broke into the NBA with the Spurs as an assistant for five years, did one-year stint with the Golden State Warriors, returned to San Antonio as a general manager, and then named himself head coach in 1996.
One coach spent 15 years in the NBA and 19 years - his entire adult life, really - in high-level basketball. The other didn't touch an NBA floor until he was 40. Who would you suspect was better prepared for his first NBA coaching job?
The first coach is Jacque Vaughn. The second, you may have guessed by now, is Gregg Popovich.
Popovich traveled the most beaten of paths to the NBA and that, in turn, was the key to his two-decade success as an NBA head coach. He isn't alone, either. Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Van Gundy, Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel all have experience at the Division III level. So too do Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer and Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown - both Popovich proteges.
What is it about Division III that creates such great NBA head coaches - and what, in turn, can football coaches glean from this?
In short, the absence of the crushing pressure to win allows coaches to tinker, experiment and find themselves as coaches.
“There’s probably some truth in that,” Popovich, recently profiled by the New York Times, said of the willingness of Division III coaches to tinker. “It’s not as volatile, obviously, as an NBA coaching situation, but it’s still a very competitive place. Everybody’s trying to win, but there’s a little bit more sanity in the sense that priorities are a little bit more in line with real life and what’s important in the world.”
Those that knew Popovich way back when can see his system developed at Pomona-Pitzer still in the DNA of his current Spurs.
“It’s a clean, clean college program that happens to be in the NBA,” Occidental head coach Brian Newhall. “The players like the coaches, the coaches like the players, and all they care about is winning. I’m guessing there’s only three or four places in the NBA where people can coach with no fear, where they can tell the star player the truth.”
What can football coaches learn from Popovich's career path? The path less traveled can be a worthwhile one.