Let's assume it's true that Mike Dunlap is every bit the Xes and Os expert and teacher that George Karl, Steve Lavin, and a bevy of high-level coaches say he is. The biggest question I have is that if Dunlap's among the several hundred or so people with the requisite knowledge to run an NBA team, why does his resume look like it does?
1980-85 Loyola Marymount University, Assistant Coach
1985-86 University of Iowa, Graduate Assistant
1986-89 University of Southern California, Assistant Coach
1989-94 California Lutheran University, Head Coach
1994-97 Adelaide 36ers, Head Coach
1997-06 Metropolitan State College of Denver, Head Coach
2006-08 Denver Nuggets, Assistant Coach
2008-09 University of Arizona, Associate Head Coach
2009-10 University of Oregon, Associate Head Coach
2010-present St. John's University, Assistant Coach
This is, apparently, the first time an NCAA assistant coach has made the jump directly to an NBA head coaching job. Why now? Why this man?
The pessimist might suspect there's something about Dunlap that's kept him away from the NBA and D-I head coaching jobs. His experience through 2006 isn't all that unusual for a guy who worked his way up from the bottom: within a decade he went from West Coast Conference assistant, to Big 10 grad assistant, to Pac 10 assistant, to D-III head coach. Jumping to a pro team in Australia isn't all that crazy for a D-III coach, and could be considered a step up. And then jumping back across the Pacific to a D-II head coaching job after a successful run in Australia smacks of homesickness.
Even a D-II head coach that made nine straight Tournament appearances, made the championship game three times, and won two titles might not get many nibbles at a head coaching job at higher levels, so when the Denver Nuggets came calling to the local D-II wizard, offering an assistant position, that should have been the step that led to head coaching gigs elsewhere.
All that's to say the pessimist wonders what happened after the 2008 season. Karl was coaching the Nuggets. They were a successful team. What changed? Why did Dunlap leave to be an assistant at the University of Arizona?
And those pessimists who don't follow college basketball very closely might still be wondering, but those of you who do follow it more closely might be less pessimistic, because Dunlap's resume doesn't show the clear subtext behind his move: he was all but tabbed as Lute Olson's successor. When Olson resigned just a few months later, Dunlap was expected to be the interim head coach, but he declined because he didn't get a "full commitment" from the school.
Dunlap didn't want to take that head coaching job -- what many people would consider the culmination of a career in coaching -- because it wouldn't have been earned. "Full commitment" meant, to Dunlap, that the school wanted him, specifically, to coach the team and hadn't hired him just because he was there. What's more, that episode gave him an opportunity to talk about his career path and why he went where he did.
For Dunlap, 50, joining the Nuggets was another segment of his learning curve, a chance to see up close the top strategists of the game's highest level — as well as a chance to learn how to deal with huge egos that can sometimes dominate the playing floor.
So by last spring, when a number of Division I schools contacted him about openings, Dunlap had plenty of head coaching experience. He knew the international game. He had NBA experience. The only piece missing, in Dunlap's mind, was working at an elite-level college.
Not able to easily make the jump to an elite job he wanted — the coach said he was a finalist for the Cal job Mike Montgomery accepted — Dunlap opted to work under Olson at Arizona. He signed on for $375,000, but the value to him went beyond money.
"I knew I could learn from coach Olson and plug into (high-level) recruiting," Dunlap said last month before Olson resigned. "Third, I could take a breath from the pro game back into college. When (Cal) fell away, I felt this was the best way to get back into the college level and also learn."
I don't know about the rest of you, but I read this as a guy who dreamed of being a D-I head coach, was widely regarded as a great head coach who hadn't gotten the opportunity yet, but wasn't going to be sold short as he entered his fifties. Leaving UA soon thereafter was probably a foregone conclusion. His quick stopover in Oregon also ended oddly, with his head coach fired, and this time he accepted the interim head coaching job, no doubt with the understanding that he would leave when the season ended.
He interviewed for the Colorado job, but didn't get it, so Lavin pounced. Surely, given Dunlap's reputation (every other article about him calls him a "tactician"), this made all the sense in the world for both parties. Dunlap would be associate head coach at a Big East school for a year or two before moving on to the long-awaited head coaching job.
And that leads us to Rich Cho and the Bobcats, today. With this hire, I think Cho is putting into practice something that every modern sports fan expects his teams to attempt: he's buying low. The risks would be significant for Cho and the team if they were any other team in the NBA (except maybe the Memphis Grizzlies [no disrespect to them or their fans, but it's just some truth]) because the risk is that if this fails the front office looks silly by taking a chance on a career college assistant.
But why should that be a worse decision than hiring a career NBA assistant? The primary difference between coaching in college and the pros is that in the pros, coaches coach at the pleasure of the players whereas in college, players play at the pleasure of the coaches. Dunlap coached pros in Australia. George Karl gives him an unequivocal stamp of approval based on his experience with the Nuggets. I'm guessing Cho understands this point and made sure Dunlap gets it, too. And once that hurdle's been cleared, everyone's on an even playing field.
I'm optimistic about Dunlap because every single thing (EVERYTHING) written about him is that he's a coach's coach and respected by players everywhere he goes. Experience is important -- but only as a proxy for determining the coach's competence. If the guy is already an all-star coach, and he demonstrates that he understands a pro coach's place in the NBA pecking order, then why not hire the all-star coach?