The 16 big college basketball programs currently coached by the greatest coach in their school’s history

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Every team has a greatest coach in its history.

But how many college basketball teams are currently coached by their greatest coach ever?

As quarantine life has trawled along, the question caught my mind recently. I got to thinking about how good the fans of schools like Duke, Gonzaga and Villanova — among others — have it these days and have had it for a long time. A significant reason why those schools continue to pepper the top 10 in the polls and compete for Final Four appearances annually is because the people in charge of those programs are extremely good at their jobs. 

But I’m not out here trying to scan back through the archives for 353 schools and make a master reference list. Instead, I narrowed my search to what I often refer to as the 10 multi-bid leagues: AAC, ACC, A-10, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and the WCC. Those 10 conferences are host to a total of 122 schools. How many are employing their greatest men’s coach right now?

The results are below. Of the 10 biggest conferences, two of them have no schools that qualify.

AAC

WICHITA STATE: Gregg Marshall

The Shockers have a proud program history, with 25 coaches dating back to 1905. The school’s produced 18 NBA players as well. Wichita State has 1,503 wins in its history to go along with 15 NCAA Tournament appearances, including Final Four trips in 1965 under Gary Thompson and 2013 under Marshall. The only coach in the convo with Marshall is the late Ralph Miller, who went 220-133 in 12 seasons, but had only one NCAA Tournament appearance — an Elite Eight showing his final season before leaving for Iowa. Marshall is 337-119 (.739) at Wichita State, with seven NCAA Tournament trips to his name, including the 2013-14 season that was witness to history: Wichita State was a No. 1 seed thanks to an undefeated regular season. That season of course came on the heels of Wichita State’s run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. Marshall, 57, has passed on bigger opportunities to build a top-50 program in college basketball. The biggest compliment to be paid to Marshall: he was so successful for Wichita State, the school (somewhat controversially) severed its deep ties with the Missouri Valley to join the American Athletic Conference. 

ACC

DUKE: Mike Krzyzewski

We don’t need to take too long here, because if I reeled off every Duke coaching record to attached to Krzyzewski’s name, we’d have to add another 2,000 words to the story. Simply put: Duke is the biggest brand in college basketball and Krzyzewski is largely responsible for that being the case. He has 1,084 Blue Devils wins, five national championships, 12 Final Fours (tied with John Wooden for most in men’s D-I history) and 35 NCAA Tournament appearances in 40 seasons. It would have been 36 if not for the coronavirus causing the great sports halt of 2020. He’s the winningest coach in college basketball history and has coached 68 NBA draft picks in 40 seasons. It’s reached the point where Krzyzewski has long since passed his mentor, Bob Knight, and now really only vies with Wooden for the title of greatest men’s coach in college history. 

FLORIDA STATE: Leonard Hamilton

Now 71 years old, James Leonard Hamilton has been in charge of the sidelines at Florida State since 2002, when he quietly took the job after a failed one-year stint in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. Florida State’s in the midst of its strongest run in school history: FSU’s made the past three NCAA Tournaments and would have potentially been a No. 2 seed in a 2020 bracket. Hamilton’s won 63% of his games at FSU, boasting a 379-221 record; he’s the winningest coach in program history and has taken the Seminoles to the Big Dance seven times, including an Elite Eight push in 2018. FSU has become a destination for one-and-done talent, which should be the case again next season, when five-star prospect Scottie Barnes gets to campus. It took a while, but Hamilton is no longer under-appreciated for what he’s built in Tallahassee, Florida. 

MIAMI: Jim Larrañaga

This one might be surprising, but remember that Miami did not field a basketball team from 1971-1985. Strange, yes, but true. So the school losing 14 seasons helps ensure Larrañaga as top coach here. The U is relatively light on hoops history, but “Coach L,” as he’s referred to by his players, has made a pair of Sweet 16s and helped Miami land a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed since he got the job in 2011. Larrañaga’s 190 wins are the most in school history. He’s 70 now and will obviously end his esteemed career in Coral Gables, Florida. Does he have one more deep tourney run in him, is the question. Miami was critiqued by some when it hired Larrañaga nine years ago, but those critics have been proven wrong and Larrañaga’s had the last laugh. He’s the best coach in George Mason and Miami history. 

Jim Larrañaga has proven to be the right coach at the right time for the Canes. USATSI

NOTRE DAME: Mike Brey

If we included all basketball coaches in Notre Dame history, well Muffet McGraw easily wins and wins going away. But staying on the men’s side, it’s a close call between Brey and famed Fighting Irish coach Digger Phelps (who made a Final Four, unlike Brey). I give Brey the edge because of Notre Dame’s circumstances over the past two decades have been more challenging, and thus more impressive, than what Phelps was navigating through in the 1970s. Brey is also the winningest coach in program history (437-233), which was the trump card here. Notre Dame has made two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 on his watch. The Fighting Irish were in the Big East when he started in 2000 and now reside in the ACC. If anything, Notre Dame’s been better in the larger league. The program has five top-two finishes in league play in 20 seasons, while it’s finish 10th or worse just three times. 

SYRACUSE: Jim Boeheim

This human being coach is more synonymous with his program than any man in college basketball history. Whereas Coach K attended and coached at Army, Boeheim has been roaming the athletic buildings at Syracuse since he was 18 years old, dating back to 1962. There’s only a three-year gap when he briefly played minor-league hoops after graduating from SU, in the late 1960s. He’s been the head coach since 1976 and won 964 games (vacated victories included) in 44 seasons. He won the 2003 national championship and made four other Final Fours. Boeheim is Syracuse basketball and will likely hold the majority of the program’s coaching records a millennium after all of us have left this mortal coil. 

VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett

This one was a wrap the minute Virginia won the 2019 national title. Bennett has taken an OK program and turned it into one of the 10 best operations in college hoops. Since arriving in 2009 he’s made seven NCAA Tournaments and would have made it eight in 2020. Virginia’s been the best team in the ACC four times during his run, and it’s earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed five times since 2014. Bennett’s also produced NBA talent with regularity: nine Wahoos have come out of Charlottesville, Virginia, to be drafted into the league on Bennett’s watch. He’s 277-96 at UVA, which bears out to a .743 win percentage. Terry Holland is still the winningest coach in school history (326-173) but Bennett is now indisputably the best.

*I will note that no coach is in a tougher spot than North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who has more national championships than Dean Smith, but Williams himself — as a man who hates to curse — would curse anyone out who dare put his name above Smith’s. And that’s fair. He and Kentucky coach John Calipari are far and away the greatest No. 2 coaches on any list in the history of men’s basketball.   

Atlantic 10

DAVIDSON: Bob McKillop

This silver-haired offensive savant is the third-longest tenured coach in a multi-bid conference, only trailing behind Krzyzewski and Boeheim. McKillop, who turns 70 this summer, has run Davidson since 1989 and coached in 929 games. In that time Davidson’s gone from independent to the Big South to the SoCon to the Atlantic 10. McKillop’s taken the Wildcats to nine NCAA Tournaments, most notably the 2008 version that featured Stephen Curry’s star-turn and Elite Eight push, wherein Davidson nearly upended No. 1 Kansas. McKillop has won a coach-of-the-year award in his league nine times and was the NABC National Coach of the Year in 2008. He owns a 594-364 all time record, which amounts to a .620 win percentage. With six more victories he’ll join 16 other active men’s Division I coaches with at least 600 career wins at the D-I level. (See full list below.)

Big East

VILLANOVA: Jay Wright

Rollie Massimino was responsible for Villanova’s first title, but Wright is king of the VU castle. The Wildcats have 471 wins under the ever-dapper Wright, which is merely 58 more than the man who’s No. 2. It’s a gentleman by the name of Alexander Severance, who coached VU from 1936-1961 and in fact took Nova to the inaugural Final Four in 1939. Wright is legendary in Philly already for guiding Villanova to two national titles, and he might not be done. Villanova’s roster for 2020-21 isn’t yet settled, but even a worst-case scenario has the Wildcats easily as a top-five team. Another national championship is doable. Wright’s got seven regular-season Big East titles, has made the NCAAs 16 times with Villanova and produced 10 NBA picks — with at least two more on their way in the next two seasons. Not-so-small thing: he was named the Associated Press’ AP men’s college coach of the decade for the 2010s. 

Big 12

BAYLOR: Scott Drew

You’ll notice there are more than a handful of absolute no-brainers on this list, and what Drew’s done at Baylor is worthy of inclusion alongside the likes of the legacies Krzyzewski, Boeheim and McKillop have built at their respective programs. With the obvious exception of Terry Teagle, Baylor basketball was nothing on the men’s side for decades. In 2003, Drew took the job under miserable circumstances and managed to slowly but surely turn Baylor ball into a top-40 program, which is saying something for a program that once upon a time wasn’t in the top 150. Drew is 341-209 in 17 seasons. Baylor is coming off a 26-4 season, its best in history, and next season’s team could be just as good. He’s made two Elite Eights in eight NCAA runs — and has an NIT title, too. An absurd Drew stat: Baylor has been ranked for 241 games during Drew’s 17 seasons. Prior to his arrival, Baylor was ranked for two of the programs 2,197 games up to that point. 

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor
Baylor before Scott Drew was basically a bad mid-major program for decades.  USATSI

KANSAS: Bill Self

No coach had a higher bar to clear to make this list than Self. Included in the roster of his predecessors is Dr. James Naismith. You know, merely the man who invented the game of basketball. Alas, Naismith was a sub-.500 coach at KU (55-60). The real competition is obviously Phog Allen, who is still the winningest coach in school history (590-219), but accounting for eras, competition, segregation and other competitive factors, it’s fair at this point to say Self has nudged past the legend whose name is synonymous with the most prestigious arena in college basketball. Self is 500-129 at KU. He boasts a national championship, 15 Big 12 regular-season titles and 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, all of them every year he’s been with the program — and of course it would have been 17 with a 2020 Dance. Kansas would have also been the No. 1 overall seed in 2020, which would have made for the ninth time that’s happened, the most in the past 15 years. Self guiding KU to 14 straight Big 12 championships is an absurd streak, the likes of which I don’t think we’ll ever see again in a power conference. Rocky times may be ahead for Self and his program, but to this point he’s been as dominant a coach within his league as any we’ve seen in major conference college basketball. 

WEST VIRGINIA: Bob Huggins

This was one of the closest calls, as Huggins beat out Gale Catlett, who won 429 games for WVU between 1978-2002. But Huggins has more NCAA Tournament appearances in 12 seasons than Catlett had in 24. Plus, Huggins made the 2010 Final Four, and his .647 win percentage is best in school history. West Virginia’s been relevant most of his tenure, which was only sporadically the case previously under Catlett (and John Beilein to a degree). Huggins, a WVU alumnus, is 66 and figures to have a top-15 team in college hoops for 2020-21. He got big in the business thanks to his impressive run at Cincinnati, but it’s been his continued relevance at WVU that’s made him Hall of Fame material. Huggins has 808 wins at the D-I level and has indicated no intention of hanging up the windbreaker before he gets to 70. WVU’s been a No. 2, 3, 4 5, 6, 7 and 10 seed since he became coach — and 2020 may well have seen WVU receive a No. 8 or 9. There will be no replacing him, for many reasons, whenever his time is up in Morgantown, West Virginia.   

Big Ten

MICHIGAN STATE: Tom Izzo

Izzo long ago passed his mentor, Jud Heathcote, thanks to keeping Michigan State humming as a top-10 program in college basketball for the majority of the past two decades. Izzo served as an assistant for Heathcote from 1983-1995, and has been in charge of a blue blood-level program for basically 20 years going. Izzo of course has that 2000 national title — meaning he has as many championships as Heathcote — but his terrific winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament is what clearly vaults him to senior Sparty status. Izzo has taken Michigan State to 22 NCAA Tournaments and made eight Final Fours in that span. He holds a 52-21 record, a fabulous .712 success rate. He last missed the NCAA Tournament in 1997 — his second season on the job. The only coach with a longer streak is Krzyzewski, who beats him by one year. MSU is 628-241 under Izzo and has won at least 25 games 14 times. He was the NABC Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2012; he was the Henry Iba and AP winner of that award in 1998. He has 10 Big Ten regular-season titles. Twenty NBA Draft picks have come through his program since 1996.

Mountain West

No current coaches are the best in their school’s history.

Pac-12

OREGON: Dana Altman

Altman’s still got this crown at Creighton, too. (Go check his dossier from his time in Omaha, Nebraska.) At Oregon he beats out the only coach to win a national title for the Ducks, Howard Hobson, who won the inaugural 1939 NCAA Tournament. Hobson won 212 games in 11 seasons. Altman’s at 259 and counting and he’s 10 years in. The 61-year-old has proven to be the right coach at the right time for a program that needed to up a level or two. Remember, he took over for Ernie Kent, who did take the Ducks to a couple of Elite Eights in his time. But Altman’s made a Final Four, turned out eight NBA picks and coached Oregon to a third-or-better finish in the Pac-12 in seven of his 10 seasons. Not a bad turn for a guy who got cold feet and bailed a day after taking the Arkansas job in 2007. Sliding doors and all that. In Oregon’s six NCAA trips under Altman, it’s won at least one game in every event. Altman’s competition is fairly thin, as Oregon was a poor program for more than three decades from the early 1960s up until the mid-1990s. 

oregonwithoutdillon.jpg
Dana Altman has a rare claim: he’s the best coach in the history of two schools. USATSI

SEC

No current coaches are the best in their school’s history. As noted above, John Calipari, who is second to Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams are far and away the greatest No. 2 coaches at their school on any list in the history of men’s basketball.     

West Coast

GONZAGA: Mark Few

When you saw this story, I’m assuming Few popped in your head as one of the three or four automatics. All the things I wrote about about most of Boeheim’s records being immortal at Syracuse will also be true of Few and GU. The man has been the coach at Gonzaga for 21 years and qualified for the NCAA Tournament every season; that’s an NCAA record. Gonzaga has won the regular season or postseason WCC championship all but one of those years (2012) as well. He’s sitting on 599 wins, with 31 of those in the NCAA Tournament. Few’s .828 win percentage is No. 1 all time in NCAA Division history. The school needs to name its court — if not the damn arena — after Few, like, yesterday. He’s done as much for the viability of his school, and his conference, as any coach in college basketball. 

SAINT MARY’S: Randy Bennett

He’s been at SMC almost as long as Few. The Gaels have gone 440-182 under Bennett’s tutelage and have made the NCAA Tournament seven times. It would have been eight but, you know, coronavirus. The Gaels have risen and established themselves as the foil to Gonzaga in the WCC for most of the past 15 years. Bennett has grown fond of his post there, similar to what Few’s done in Spokane, where he’s turned down outside offers and chosen stability and autonomy over the enticement of the unknown (and a larger paycheck). Saint Mary’s College is a tiny outpost of a university in Moraga, California, but it’s become a top-10 men’s basketball program west of the Mississippi in the past decade. Cheers to Bennett, who has unapologetically done things his way from day one.

Five notable others

Let’s tip our cap to the less-heralded vets. A quintet of longstanding coaches at small schools who are still active and have definitively carved out legendary status at their respective universities. 

COASTAL CAROLINA: Cliff Ellis

In a way, he’s a doyen of all active D-I coaches because he’s held the job of head coach longer than anyone currently in Division I hoops. Ellis has been in charge of a team every year since 1969, but he’s been a D-I head coach every year since 1975, which ties Krzyzewski. He’s the best coach in Clemson history, too, but he’s been working it well at Coastal since 2007, where he’s accrued 247 wins and made the NCAA Tournament twice. His 16th-seeded Chanticleers team made scaring Virginia cool in 2014, before UMBC did the deed. Ellis is not recognized enough for his longevity; he’s 17th on the all time list for men’s D-I coaching wins (858).

HOUSTON BAPTIST: Ron Cottrell

The Houston Baptist Huskies have had Cottrell patrol the sidelines for the past 29 years. HBU was an NAIA team before going independent in D-I in 2007. It’s resided in the Southland since 2013. Cottrell’s gone 491-430 in his time there, but has not yet broken through to the NCAA Tournament. 

LAFAYETTE: Fran O’Hanlon

The Leopards have made three NCAA Tournaments in O’Hanlon’s 25-year run with Lafayette, most recently in 2015. The 71-year-old has won 343 games while navigating through more than two decades of coaching in the Patriot League. Fun fact: he’s one of fewer than two dozen coaches who doubles as a former NBA pick. O’Hanlon graduated from Villanova and was taken in the eighth round of the 1970 draft. 

OAKLAND: Greg Kampe

Here is a vet’s vet in the coaching business. The only D-I men’s coaches who’ve been at their schools longer than Kampe are Krzyzewski and Boeheim. The Oakland Grizzlies have been run by Kampe since 1984, back when the program was in Division II. (It turned D-I at the end of the last century.) Kampe’s won 632 games in his career, and at 64 years old he’s got at least one more NCAA Tournament push in him. 

YALE: James Jones

Has been in charge of Yale’s program since 1999 and accrued 333 wins, putting him top-five all-time in the Ivy League. He also got Yale to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, slicing away the program’s infamous drought which dated back to 1962. The 56-year-old Jones has five Ivy League titles — and though he’s a conference luminary at this point, is deserving of a shot at a bigger program, should he choose to seek that.

Five next in line

There were some close calls/cuts. Here are five active coaches who stand to overthrow the man in front of them in the next few seasons, provided more NCAA Tournament appearances are on the way. 

AUBURN: Bruce Pearl

The SEC has no coaches who apply, but Bruce Pearl vs. Joel Eaves at Auburn is a tightening race. Eaves won 68% of his games and is the winningest coach in school history with 213 victories. Pearl is probably two more NCAA Tournament trips away from eclipsing him. The 2019 Final Four run is massive, and Pearl currently sits at 125-76 with two NCAA appearances. 

bruce-pearl-auburn.jpg
Bruce Pearl is one or two more NCAA Tournament runs away from surely being the best Auburn’s had. USATSI

BOISE STATE: Leon Rice

The Mountain West’s only imminent overthrow situation is in Boise, Idaho, where Rice (198 wins, two NCAA Tournament appearances) can nudge past Bobby Dye (213 wins, three NCAAs) with one more Mountain West championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearance. 

COLORADO: Tad Boyle

Boyle’s frequently enough referred to as one of the game’s more underrated coaches that he probably shed that label in the past couple of years. He was pilfered an NCAA tourney in 2020, but Boyle will leapfrong Russell “Sox” Walseth in the next couple of seasons, provided he can get to a fifth NCAA Tournament in that time. He’s 41 wins (261 to 210) behind Walseth. 

PROVIDENCE: Ed Cooley

The only three-way debate in this story. Cooley, who is 181-122 in nine seasons, is the only PC coach to make five straight NCAA Tournaments, but Providence has had two great coaches previously in Dave Gavitt — the godfather of the Big East — and Joe Mullaney. If Cooley opts to make Providence his job for life, he’ll easily own the title of best Friars coach in history, and regardless he should ascend to that level by 2023.  

ST. BONAVENTURE: Mark Schmidt

My final cut for the main list was this one. Schmidt falls short, for now, vs. Bonnies legend Larry Weise, who made a Final Four with Bob Lanier in 1970. That counts for a ton. Schmidt has six more wins (208 to 202) and just as many NCAA showings (two) as Weise, but he’s losing in winning percentage (.692 to .555), so needs either one huge year or a few more 20-win seasons to plant the flag. 

**The list of active coaches with at least 600 wins in men’s Division I basketball: Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Bob Huggins, Cliff Ellis, John Calipari, Rick Barnes, Bill Self, Dana Altman, Rick Pitino, Jim Larrañaga, Lon Kruger, Greg Kampe, Kelvin Sampson, Tubby Smith and Steve Alford. Coaches who are 15 wins or fewer away from joining the group include Jay Wright, Mark Few and Bob McKillop.


Matt Norlander

2020-05-22 12:53:17

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