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Keith Strudler: Help Wanted - No Experience Required

For everyone who sits at home at watches, let’s say the Knicks, and thinks they could do a better job coaching the team than whatever clown they’ve got, here’s the good news. You may someday have a chance. Because it seems one of the historic barriers to getting the job, years of coaching experience, is no longer important. In fact, you don’t need to have coached a single basketball game in your life. Just ask Derek Fisher, the newly crowned coach of the Knicks. He’s never coached before, and now he’s got perhaps the biggest job in the sport. Same goes for Steve Kerr, who left the broadcast booth for his first coaching gig, head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Gone are the padded resumes and decades of apprenticeships. Gone are the so-called recycled candidates, coaches who’ve already led two or three other NBA teams. Here are the days of new faces and out-of-the-box thinking, which is one of the world’s most ambiguous catch phrases.

Now before you quit your current job for the NBA, you should know that there does seem to be one prerequisite – that you’re a former NBA star player. And it’s great if you’ve also done some TV as well. That’s the case for Kerr and Mark Jackson, who coincidentally was just fired from the very position Kerr will inherit. Fisher is coming straight from the court, where he won five NBA championships, all with the LA Lakers, where not coincidentally Knicks president Phil Jackson coached most recently. And the Knicks may only be trying to keep up with their crosstown rivals the Brooklyn Nets, who also hired a freshly retired NBA point guard in Jason Kidd as their head coach last year.

It’s not necessarily the case that every NBA coaching gig will go to a newbie. Stan Van Gundy was just hired by the Detroit Pistons after losing the head coaching job in Orlando two years back. Doc Rivers left for the LA Clippers after coaching the Boston Celtics to a title. And even the Celtics replacement, a young Brad Stevens, coached Butler to two consecutive national title games.

But if you want a trend in head coaching hires in the NBA, it’s younger, greener, and far less experienced. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see a former player spend two years as an assistant before going straight to the top job, like Jacque Vaughn did before taking on the Magic. A generation ago, when head coaches simply rotated jobs, this would have been unimaginable. Hiring a thirty-something former player as a coach would have been like hiring a high school debate champ as a Supreme Court justice. It just wouldn’t happen.

So what changed? Clearly, NBA teams recognize the importance of coaches relating to their players. In a league where superstar athletes drive the bus, coaches are far less empowered than ever to do things like, I don’t know, coach. So they want a coach who doesn’t think today’s kids are lazy and a bunch of spoiled whippersnappers. Also, the toll on an NBA head coach is, to put it mildly, extreme. It’s like taking the SAT every day. And it’s only getting worse with rising salaries, 24-hour media, and constituents that make gnats seem patient. That might be more tolerable to someone who hasn’t yet been dragged down by the process. So think as Derek Fisher as a new set of brake pads. He’s just not worn out yet.

But perhaps this hiring shift is more philosophical than that. The Harvard Business Review recently published a piece that suggested the most important criteria for hiring aren’t experience or even success. It’s potential. The ability to do the job at hand, regardless of how it evolves. Phil Jackson clearly thinks that Fisher, and Steve Kerr who he also tried to hire, have potential, even if they don’t have experience, not at least relevant experience. It’s the difference between hiring a resume and hiring a person, because, as we all know, resumes can’t coach.

Some of this may be easier said than done. I’ll be honest, I’d rather have the guy doing his 100th heart bypass than his first, even if the new guy is awesome. I’m afraid of the learning curve like everyone else, especially if it’s my team. On the other hand, there’s Mike D’Antoni. Just ask the Lakers how all that experience worked out.

All of that will soon be irrelevant to Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who will be judged not on his past, but on his future. I hope it works out for him, since that opens the coaching door for all of us. 

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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