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The NBA’s Division III pipeline

By Jack Copeland

With Brad Stevens’ recent ascension to the helm of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, Division III is fast becoming the league’s coaching incubator.

Stevens, with the Boston Celtics, will join three other graduates of Division III schools in NBA coaching jobs – including two others also making their league head coaching debut -- as the new season tips off this week. All were standout players on their collegiate teams – and all are representative of the Division III student-athlete experience.Stevens’ rise has been rapid. Before joining the Celtics, he took Butler to the Division I championship game before tackling the professional ranks as the NBA’s youngest head coach (he turned 37 this week).

By contrast, Tom Thibodeau’s journey to the top job with the Chicago Bulls, where he is beginning his fourth season, was long and circuitous – a trip that began first as a student-athlete and then as a coach at Salem State.

Neither claims that they dreamed of  coaching professional basketball when they were college students, but both discovered their passion for coaching in school – and in Stevens’ case, held on to that love for the game even after accepting a corporate job following participation in DePauw’s Management Fellows program.

“I just wanted to go and get a great education and figure out what I wanted to do next,” Stevens recently told the Greencastle (Indiana) Banner-Graphic about his college choice. “I knew that if I went to DePauw I’d be challenged to think and learn and grow.”

Thibodeau remembers “great teachers, a lot of great coaches, and certainly the guys I played with in college” for the role they played in setting the Salem State team captain on his career path – a journey that began with three years as an assistant and then one year as head coach at his alma mater before he joined the staff at Harvard. He then assisted NBA teams in Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston and Boston.

“It was a great experience for me,” he told the Salem State alumni magazine about his student days. “By my junior season, I knew coaching was something I wanted to do.”

Mike Budenholzer also played golf at Pomona-Pitzer, where as a philosophy, politics and economics major, he took a year off from playing for the Sagehens to study abroad before serving as team captain during his senior season. He was a long-time assistant at San Antonio (working for former Pomona-Pitzer head coach Gregg Popovich) before taking the helm of the Atlanta Hawks this year.

Following Steve Clifford’s four years on the basketball team at Maine-Farmington, he graduated with a degree in special education and taught and coached at the high school level. He now leads the Charlotte Bobcats after numerous stops in the collegiate and professional coaching ranks – and not surprisingly, he cites Thibodeau as a career role model.

As for that argument that Division III is a hotbed for NBA coaches?

There’s even more evidence. Two other current head coaches initially enrolled in and played at Division III institutions before transferring elsewhere. The Indiana Pacers’ Frank Vogel was a two-season starter and junior season team captain at Juniata before becoming a student manager at Kentucky. And the Memphis Grizzlies’ David Joerger averaged five assists-per-game as point guard and earned team MVP honors starting every game during his sophomore year at Concordia College in Minnesota before moving crosstown to Minnesota State Moorhead.

Tom Thibodeau was nominated for inclusion in the 40-in-40 series by Nicolle Wood, student-athlete affairs coordinator and head women’s soccer coach at Salem State.