The NCAA Tournament will soon be underway, and there is one person who has had a hand in almost every team that made it. That man is Pat Riley. With his success with the Miami Heat (he won four championships), he became an iconic figure in basketball coaching history. But when the NBA brain trust called to see if they could lure him away from North Carolina, he found himself at a crossroads in life that would shape his future forever: should he stay or go?
Pat Riley is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, winning 5 championships with the Miami Heat. His career could have ended before it ever began thanks to an unlikely offer from the Dallas Cowboys.
Imagine a world if Pat Riley, as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and executive, didn’t win nine NBA championship rings. Riley had many Super Bowl rings as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and executive in an alternative timeline where he is still president of the Miami Heat at the age of 76. It seemed improbable. However, at least one NFL executive considered the possibility.
Riley didn’t leave the NBA for the NFL, at least not in our version of reality. Riley spent nine seasons in the Association, including portions of three as an assistant coach, before taking over as head coach for three clubs for 24 years. Since his arrival in South Beach in 1995, he has also been the Miami Heat’s personnel decision-maker. Riley, on the other hand, is prone to “what if” scenarios.
Pat Riley was a high school athlete who excelled in a variety of sports.
Riley was a three-sport athlete at Linton High School in Schenectady, New York. According to Newspapers.com, he was not only a distinguished basketball player, but also a highly regarded baseball prospect and the football team’s quarterback.
It’s hardly surprising that he’s a natural athlete. Lee Riley, his father, spent 22 years in the minor leagues. In 1944, he played four games with the Philadelphia Phillies at the age of 37. Lee Riley’s elder brother, who was also called Lee Riley, was a football player at the University of Detroit. From 1955 through 1962, he played in the NFL for the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and New York Titans.
Riley turned his attention to basketball after enrolling at the University of Kentucky in 1963, where he was a two-time All-SEC standout and was named SEC Player of the Year as a junior in 1965–66. Kentucky made it to the final four of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso).
Riley was the first player picked by the fledgling San Diego Rockets in May 1967. However, he had gotten an unexpected second choice as a professional athlete a few months before.
The Dallas Cowboys were impressed by Riley’s performance.
The National Football League draft in 1967 was hardly the quick event it is now. In 1967, instead of seven rounds, NFL and AFL teams went for 17 rounds and 445 picks.
In March 1967, Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt took a chance on an athlete he felt might develop into an excellent wide receiver or tight end in the 11th round at New York’s Gotham Hotel.
As a result, in 1967, Kentucky basketball star Pat Riley’s name was added to the NFL draft list. Riley, the 285th overall selection (bite your heart out, Tom Brady), elected to focus on basketball instead.
He played nine seasons in the NBA before retiring in 1976, although he was never a standout. He was a member of the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers championship squad as a reserve. Riley was also a part of two additional NBA Finals (in 1973 with LA and 1976 with the Phoenix Suns).
Riley, listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, would have been a great wide receiver for the age. Pettis Norman, a 6-foot-3, 222-pound veteran tight end, was the Cowboys’ starting tight end in 1967. Bob Hayes (6-feet, 187 pounds) and Lance Rentzel were the starting wideouts (6-foot-2, 202 pounds).
Riley, on the other hand, chose professional basketball, much to the joy of Lakers, Heat (and, for a time, Knicks) fans in the future.
Pat Riley’s journey to coaching started with a near-fatal bicycle accident.
Pat Riley has nine NBA titles to his credit as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and executive, but he might have gone in a completely another direction. | Photo courtesy of Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
In a bicycle accident early in the 1979–80 season, Lakers coach Jack McKinney suffered serious brain injuries. McKinney was hired to replace Jerry West on the bench and led the Lakers to a 10–4 start.
Paul Westhead, an assistant coach, took over as temporary head coach and worked without an assistant for more than three weeks. General manager Bill Sharman shifted radio and TV commentator Pat Riley to a temporary assistant coaching position at that moment.
Riley took over for Westhead after 11 games in the 1981–82 season. As a Lakers coach, he earned five rings. In 1980, one was hired as an assistant, and four more were hired as bench bosses (1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988).
Riley went on to lead the Knicks from 1991 to 1995 before becoming the Heat’s president and head coach, a contentious move. After stepping down from the front office to replace Stan Van Gundy in 2005–06, he earned his sixth ring in Miami. After the 2007–08 season, he retired from coaching.
In 2010–11, Riley was named NBA Executive of the Year. He made a few modest moves as a free agent (bringing in LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-signing Dwyane Wade). In 2012 and 2013, two additional rings were added.
With a career record of 1,210–694, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach in 2008. Riley was named Coach of the Year at each of his three appointments. In 1989–90, New York in 1992–93, and Miami in 1996–97, he was rewarded with the Lakers, New York in 1992–93, and Miami in 1996–97.
Pat Riley has been a player, coach, and executive in the NBA for more than five decades. If he had accepted the Cowboys’ offer, the league may not have been the same.
Basketball Reference, Pro Football Reference, Baseball Reference, SRCBB, and Stathead provided statistics.
RELATED: Shaquille O’Neal Was So Angry With Pat Riley During A Practice That He Almost Injured a Heat Teammate Trying to Break Up the Fight: ‘He tossed me about like a bag of potato chips.’
Pat Riley is a legendary NBA coach who has led the Miami Heat to three consecutive championships. However, if he had taken an offer from the Dallas Cowboys in 1973, his career could have ended before it ever began. Reference: pat riley player.
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