Back when he took the Phoenix Suns job in May 2013, coach Jeff Hornacek admitted he never saw himself on an NBA sideline.
"My goal was never to be a coach in the NBA," Hornacek said in 2013. "I always felt I would coach, but I thought that would be on the college level. I felt that what I'd learned over the years would be too much for high school, but the pro guys... they already know everything, so why would I do that?"
Hornacek was a four-year player at Iowa State, just like most of his brethren in college. In those days, only the rarest players came to the NBA early. Moses Malone. Michael Jordan. So when most draft picks entered the league, they already had four years' experience in a solid college system. They knew how to run plays, how to play team defense.
"The view when I played," Hornacek said. "Was when you got to the NBA, it was all about strategy, all about the offense, all about the defensive schemes that you're going to use. Those guys already had the fundamentals."
Of course he went on to admit that the NBA of the 2000s is not the same NBA he played in the 1980s and 1990s.
"There's so many pro guys that are one-and-dones," Hornacek said. "Or didn't get the teaching in college on how to play the game, and they don't know a lot of this stuff.
"That's one thing I've learned over the last couple years being on the bench is that you can't assume these guys know some of the stuff we learned back in college because they didn't have the same experience."
Fast forward to 2015
After a great rookie year of coaching, in which he came in second place in the Coach of the Year balloting after the season, Hornacek was hit hard by the dark side of the NBA sideline.
Players who have been prima donnas their whole lives don't always want to listen to some old guy point about their weaknesses, and especially don't want to be told to man up.
Hornacek is a laid-back guy, but he has zero patience for whining. The NBA was a lot more physical back is his day, and he can't fathom why today's players can't handle a little jostling. This from a guy generously listed at 6'3", 190 during his playing days when the NBA shooting guard position was bigger, everyone was tougher and the rules were looser.
So when players 6 inches and 50 pounds bigger than him complain about being hit in the face, or the back of the head, in live action without a foul call in their favor (and even sometimes when they DID get the foul call!), he can't stand it.
Countless times in the past two years, Hornacek has told his players they need to get tougher, to be willing to fight for the ball in traffic, to shake off the crack on the head and give as much as they receive in live action, but walk it off when the whistle blows.
The Suns players struggled with that last year. You could blame Hornacek for being unable to instill that toughness in his players, or you could blame the players for just simply not being tough enough. Hornacek, for his part, likely doesn't think he should have to teach these guys how to be tough. They're bigger and stronger than he ever was. And the NBA is so much less physical than it used to be.
Add in the uncertainties built into the NBA job and you've got really good reasons to consider going back to college.
"You usually get a good six, seven years before they get panicked," he said to Burns and Gambo on Thursday. "In the NBA it's a little different. They expect things right away, so there is that way."
He wasn't necessarily talking about his experience with the Suns here. Hornacek tends to answer questions the way they were asked, without always applying it to himself. He hasn't been given a playoffs mandate in Phoenix.
But his contract, just like most other NBA coaches, is shorter than a typical college coach. And that's significant when you're weighing options.
"There's probably some [more job security] because they're longer contracts, usually, in college," he said. "They know that guys come and go and you have recruiting classes that you're in charge of as the coach.
Hornacek's NBA coaching contract was a standard three years. Only the best in college and the NBA get longer, and usually only after they've more than proven themselves. Hornacek was a rookie coach, and there's only 30 of these jobs available so of course the owners don't want to commit a lot of years to a single coach.
College, on the other hand, has more than 300 mid-major to major coaching positions available. So when a college likes their coach, they're willing to commit a lot more years to him.
And more money. Hornacek makes only $2 million a year, just like a half-dozen other NBA coaches with his same basic sideline resume. The veteran NBA coaches makes 2-3 times as much, if not more. Gregg Popovich reportedly makes about $11 million a year.
By contrast, many college coaches make more than Hornacek, including his alma mater Iowa State's coach Fred Hoiberg.
Hence the discussion of college versus pro.
Hoiberg is reportedly the leading candidate to replace the fired Tom Thibodeau in Chicago with the Bulls, almost certainly getting a raise over his current $2.6 million per year to coach the Cyclones.
Hornacek, then, is almost certain to get a call from Iowa State to asses his interest in leaving the NBA to join their ranks.
Would Hornacek listen?
"I can't comment on that," Hornacek told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Thursday. "I'm the coach of the Suns. It's an interesting coaching carousel that goes on around the league and even down to the college level. So, if those things ever come about and the timing was right, yes, but as far as I know I'm the coach of the Suns."
In other words, 'I haven't been called or made any kind of offers, so there's nothing to discuss'.
Let's break down what Hornacek said.
...If those things ever come about...
He talking about the Iowa State job coming open, which depends on Fred Hoiberg leaving. Presumably, the Bulls will make Hoiberg an offer to replace Thibs after firing him with a blowtorch yesterday.
If Hoiberg jumps, you can bet that Iowa State will call a lot of candidates, including Hornacek.
Would he take the call?
...and the timing was right...
When is it a perfect time to entertain a new job?
- Hornacek is coming off a very disappointing season where he was challenged and, at times, disrespected by his players.
- He's also about to enter the final guarantee year of a coaching contract that pays him the least amount of money in the league, tied with a lot of other young coaches like Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford and Frank Vogel among others.
- He's working for an owner notorious for letting coaches and front office folks work the life of their contract, and then offering a new contract at the same rate. Sarver doesn't tear up contracts and offer longer, richer ones just because he's put over a barrel. Reportedly, two reasons Steve Kerr left in 2012 were (a) he was offered a pay cut after taking the Suns the WCF and (b) Sarver wouldn't immediately guarantee Genty's option year right after the WCF to give him more job security.
Why would Hornacek stay in Phoenix?
If Hornacek does get an offer from Iowa State, why would he stay in the Valley?
"When Ryan (McDonough) and I came in here," he said to Burns and Gambo. "We wanted to get this team from 25 wins and a lot of stuff that was going on to back to the level that the Suns are used to.
"We had a good start the first year, had some things not go as well last year, but even with that we're still about what we were the year before that."
Hornacek and McDonough are on the same page with their plans for the Suns. They really get along, which is imperative for a coach. Just look at what happened in Chicago. Heck, look at what happened with Kerr and Mike D'Antoni, and later with Blanks and Gentry.
A coach and GM have to be on the same page, and these two are just that.
Even more than that, there are additional responsibilities on the college level.
"But there's also a lot of things on the college level," Hornacek said. "That you don't necessarily have to do in the pro level in the recruiting, so there's pros and cons."
You can't just show up and coach the players. You have to recruit, year round, and with the best players only staying one or two years, you are constantly filling up recruiting classes for next year.
Another factor is that, since the best players don't stay long, you can't build a consistent program anymore. College programs have changed, and there's just not as many fundamentals and "my way or the highway" for the coaches like there used to be. Even the big programs are built on annual turnover now. So while NBA coaching is a transient job, so is college coaching in terms of the kids on the team.
Hornacek has roots in the valley as well. While he grew up in Iowa and went to college there, he's lived in the Valley since the 80s. His kids are still young, so he might not want to uproot everyone for Iowa. As a college coach, you and/or your family can't be living somewhere else. And your family can't be expecting to see much of you at any time of year. He also is Aaron Nelson's brother in law, further rooting him in the Valley.
So Hornacek might not even have any interest in the college ranks.
"As far as I know, I'm the coach of the Suns," he said several times on the air.
Now if the Suns owner would just guarantee Hornacek's final year, or rip up that contract to give him more money and years, this might not even be an issue.
Too many other valley icons and good soldiers have left in recent years due to contract issues or personal reasons that weren't overcome by financial incentive to stay.
Let's not let another one get away.