Chris Mullin: Can You Go Home Again?

Last week, Chris Mullin was named the new head coach of St. John’s basketball team.  This makes for a great story—the best player in school history coming back 30 years later as a coach.  Of course, the fact that Mullin was a really good player in 1985 really has no bearing on whether he can coach (he has never done so at either the college or professional level) or whether he can recruit players (he has never formally done this either).  Certainly, a school does get a nice little temporary boost by bringing back an icon.  This temporary boost could become a really great story if Mullin can succeed.  If he can’t, though, there is some downside.  How do you fire a school legend?  I guess it is not that hard to do but there is a risk of tainting the relationship with the past if Mullin is summarily bounced as a failure or he feels that he was not treated fairly.

On the NBA level, ugly splits with coaches are a frequent problem.  It is easy to remember franchise legend Jason Kidd leaving the Nets last summer and becoming a pariah in Brooklyn.  The NBA landscape is also strewn with legends who were awkwardly fired by their signature franchises (see, e.g., Willis Reed, George Mikan, Tommy Heinsohn).

But how many stars went back to their NCAA alma maters?  We thought we could go back and look to see how many Hall of Famers returned to their old schools and how they did with their second shots at glory:

-Bob Davies, Seton Hall:  Lest you think that Seton Hall’s basketball chops started and ended with the P.J. Carlesimo Era, the Hall’s best players really came from the 1940s and 1950s.  Davies and Bobby Wanzer are Hall of Famers and Walter Dukes was a solid NBA center (he was a somewhat similar player to the more recent alum Sam Dalembert).

Davies’ alumni coaching stint is particularly strange, though, because he was not the typical star returning to campus years later.  Davies had recently graduated and was simultaneously playing professionally with the Rochester Royals.  In 1946-47, Davies was only 27 and at his peak and actually won the MVP in the NBL that same season (the Royals did not yet play in the BAA, the predecessor to the NBA).  At the same time, Seton Hall was going 24-3 behind a team led by Wanzer, who apparently was the player-coach at the times when Davies had to play in the NBL.  This essay, quoted an old article about Davies in 1946-47 that called him “the nation’s No. 1 Sports commuter.”  Davies decided that he wanted to play and stopped coaching after that one successful season.  He would go one to be one of the first true point guards in the NBA and wasn’t interested in coming back to the Hall again as coach.

-Tom Gola, LaSalle:  Gola retired from the NBA in 1966 and returned to LaSalle in 1967-68, when the prior coach had been fired for being tied up in a scandal giving fake jobs to players.  Gola inherited a pretty good team but they were ineligible for the tourney.  Still, Gola led them to a 24-1 record and were considered one of the top teams in the nation.  LaSalle slumped to 14-12 the next season and Gola left coaching to go into local politics.

-Clyde Drexler, Houston:  After Gola, we don’t have another NBA star going back to coach for over 30 years, when Drexler came to Houston in 1998.  During the 1997-98 season, Drexler was 35 and announced that he would retire from the NBA after the season to go into coaching with the University of Houston.  At the time, Drexler was still a really good player (his final season stats: 35.3 mpg, 18.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.5 apg, 19.8 PER).  Drexler had just made $5.5 million and could likely have commanded a similar salary in the open market that summer.  So why did he quit?

In 1998, Drexler told Sports Illustrated that “I decided two years ago that this would be my last season in the NBA, and I didn’t want to leave the game without sharing some of my knowledge and expertise.  I couldn’t pass up this chance to coach at my alma mater and get it back up to speed, because there are a lot of things wrong with it.”   Another factor that Drexler didn’t mention but likely was relevant was the pending labor issues in the NBA.  The NBA was headed for a long lockout the next season.  It is likely that Drexler might not have felt like sitting around for months for the NBA deal to get resolved.

Drexler did not really fix things as a coach.  His biggest star was Gee Gervin (son of George), who led the team in scoring in 1998-99 and 1999-00.  Alas, this was not enough to make a competitive team.  In two years under Drexler, Houston went 20-37 and he resigned.  According to reports at the time, Drexler chose to quit because he wanted to spend time with his family.

So, of the Hall of Fame group, we have two successes and one failure.  Now, we have Mullin.  While the past cases don’t have much bearing on what Mullin will do, it is clear that we likely won’t see another case like Mullin in the near future.   NBA stars make tons of money and don’t have to deal with all the headaches and pressure of the NCAA and recruiting star players.  Mullin, like Drexler, is the perfect candidate for potential return.  He wants to return St. John’s to its previous glory and that is a nice goal.  It’ll be tough for Mullin to improve on the solid record of the previous coach Steve Lavin but this situation is historically unique and I’ll be rooting for Mullin to get the job done.

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