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Christopher L. Gasper

Celtics job a big leap for Brad Stevens

Way before coaching the Celtics, Bill Fitch jumped from college to the NBA in 1970.file/tom landers/globe staff

Let’s hope this goes better than the last time the Celtics handed the keys to a college coach.

The only thing the Celtics won with Rick Pitino was the press conference. Who can forget Pitino’s garish coronation in 1997, fresh from holding court at the University of Kentucky? Popes have been anointed with less pomp and circumstance than Pitino, who also was given the title of team president at the expense of Red Auerbach.

It was a harbinger of the Pitino era, all flash, no substance. He went 102-146 in three-plus seasons.

New Celtics coach Brad Stevens, hired Wednesday in a media backdoor play, is no Slick Rick. He’s not unctuous or self-aggrandizing, and he’s not expecting Tim Duncan to walk through that door. But that doesn’t mean that Stevens, who comes to Boston via Butler University, will be any more successful.


When it comes to the NBA, Stevens is as green as the team he will coach. The 36-year-old has never been an NBA head coach or assistant, and the recent record of college coaches transitioning to the NBA is like a “Real Housewives” reunion, a train wreck waiting to happen.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is not afraid to take a risk, and hiring the unproven Stevens Wednesday as the franchise’s 17th coach might be the biggest one he’s taken as Keeper of the Parquet.

In a little over a week the Celtics have gone from having one of the NBA’s most desirable and proven coaches in Doc Rivers to having its most inexperienced and unexpected.

More-equipped college coaches than the likable Stevens have graduated to the NBA and been sent scurrying back to school.

John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger, Leonard Hamilton, and Mike Montgomery all flopped in the NBA like they were named Battier.


When Pitino came to Boston, he had a two-season stint as Knicks head coach (1987 to 1989) on his résumé. He still failed, trying to use the same dictatorial style he had employed at Kentucky, failing to connect with his players.

Age isn’t the concern with Stevens. Auerbach began coaching pro basketball at age 29. He coached his first game as Celtics coach when he was 33 years old.

Another three-letter word is — ego. I’m pretty sure that Stevens never dealt with anyone as restive as Rajon Rondo at Butler.

If Rondo didn’t always follow Rivers’s marching orders then heeding a coach who is five months younger than Kevin Garnett and was drawing up plays in the Atlantic 10 last season seems dubious.

The first Rondo tantrum Stevens has to deal with he’s going to think, “Shelvin Mack never spoke to me like that.”

The hiring of Stevens might provide a hint about how Ainge plans to go about this rebuild. You don’t hire such a callow coach if you think you’re going to make a quick segue from the New Big Three Era to championship contention again.

This is the type of coach you select if you expect to have a team full of draft picks and young players who need to be groomed on and off the court. Who better than a college coach to oversee the maturation and growth of unfinished young players? Fostering athletic and personal growth is part of a college coach’s job.

On that level, hiring Stevens makes sense.


The professorial Stevens, who took Butler to back-to-back Final Fours in 2010 and 2011, has the persona of a teacher, not a taskmaster.

That ability to teach and nurture is why he was one of the most respected and sought after coaches in college basketball.

Before answering the Celtics’ call, Stevens turned down another basketball blueblood in distress — UCLA.

But Stevens could be a John Wooden-Auerbach hybrid and it won’t matter if he’s saddled with the roster Rivers had during the 2006-07 season, the last one before Garnett arrived.

That’s the secret that coaches like Rivers and Phil Jackson figured out — always follow the talent.

Stevens did wonders at Butler. He was the Houdini of Hinkle Fieldhouse, turning the Indianapolis mid-major program into a college basketball household name.

He won 77.2 percent of his games over six seasons, took the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA title games and was a Gordon Hayward almost half-court heave away from winning a national title in 2010 against Duke.

But coaches have a much greater effect in college than they do the pros (see: Erik Spoelstra beating Gregg Popovich in the NBA Finals).

The fact is college coaches get taken to school in the NBA in part because college basketball is about the name on the front of the jersey and the name of the coach on the bench. The NBA is all about the players. They are the sun and pro hoops is decidedly heliocentric.

I sent Celtics co-owner and CEO Wyc Grousbeck an e-mail, asking him why the team thought Stevens could be a successful NBA head coach when many college coaches failed to make the transition?


Grousbeck responded, but he didn’t really address the question.

“Brad is a winner by nature and a very high character coach,” wrote Grousbeck.

“I spent the morning with him today and was very impressed with his demeanor and his emphasis on teamwork and commitment. He and his family are excited to become Celtics, and we believe he is a key piece of our drive to win Banner 18.”

Stevens may be all of the things Grousbeck said he is. But if he can’t adapt to the NBA food chain, or if Ainge doesn’t get him players, it won’t matter.

Stevens isn’t Pitino 2.0. But that doesn’t mean his old college try won’t be subject to the same fate.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.