Bill Battle’s wheelbarrow full of money simply wasn’t enough to lure Gregg Marshall away from Wichita State. But the Alabama athletic director had a bold backup plan up his sleeve, as he recently handed Avery Johnson a six-year, $18 million contract to become the Crimson Tide’s next men’s basketball coach. Johnson doesn’t lack for coaching experience from his stints as the head coach for the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, but he’ll be making the rare coaching transition from the NBA to college ranks. The only coaches who come to mind having recently done this are Isiah Thomas at Florida International and Eddie Jordan at Rutgers. Jordan, however, spent five years as a college assistant in the late 80s and early 90s before a long coaching career in the NBA.
Thomas was a disaster at FIU (26-65 over three seasons) and Jordan’s first two years rebuilding Rutgers have gone about as well as expected (22-43). But that tiny sample size certainly doesn’t mean much as it relates to the 50-year old former NBA Coach of the Year, who might actually be exactly what Alabama needs right now. It’s easy to rattle off multiple reasons to be concerned. Does Johnson have requisite AAU and high school connections to recruit? Can he rally boosters as an Alabama outsider (he’s originally from New Orleans and went to Southern University)? Will he be able to adjust to the realities of the student-athlete environment? On the flip side, Johnson has a number of things in his favor that most other college coaches cannot match. He’s a basketball authority and familiar face after a long stint at ESPN, and his NBA credibility — with a championship ring on his finger as a player with the 1999 Spurs and as a successful coach of the Mavericks — could go a long way toward attracting elite talent to Tuscaloosa.