College basketball is a one-of-a-kind sport. It’s a game where individual greatness is outweighed by a great team led by a great coach. However, when a great coach inherits the best talent, it is all about what he can do with that talent that will define him and his career. The following list takes a look at the 10 best coaches at the college level based on factors such as their wins, their ability to develop talent, and their accolades.
10. Jim Valvano, North Carolina State (1980-90)
Known for his legendary sprint down the court after being in complete shock after his Wolfpack won the national title in 1983, this list could not be made without “Jimmy V.” In that 1983 season, Houston was an enormous favorite to win the national championship led by all-world center Hakeem Olajuwon. The game was tied 52 a piece until a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles sealed the deal, and finally delivered the great Jim Valvano his deserving championship. Valvano also makes this list because of his heart-touching speech at the ESPY awards in 1993. Valvano was fighting cancer, and his message was to live your life to the fullest, and of course to never give up. Sadly enough, Valvano past away just two months later, but his speech, his championship sprint, and his character will never be forgotten.
9. Jim Calhoun, Uconn (1986-12)
The three-time champion Jim Calhoun created a dynasty during his tenure for the Uconn Huskies. He’s always had a knack for managing talent, but his legendary trait was getting the most out of his players. On his 2004 championship team, led by Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, he turned those two players into NCAA legends themselves. Neither really panned out in the NBA, which just points to how good of a coach Calhoun was. At age 68, he became the oldest coach to ever win a title when March Madness became Kemba-mania in 2011. Guys love to play for Calhoun because they know that he’s going to push them to be the best version of themselves. While Kemba has had a solid NBA career, he’s yet to make any noise comparable to that of his Uconn days. Again showing that Calhoun just had a natural talent for pushing guys to perform to the best of their abilities while also playing with more heart than the opponents. He was a master at creating schemes that work to each of his players best attributes and safely finds himself on the list.
8. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse (1976-present)
The architect behind the most versatile 2-3 zone defenses the game of basketball has ever seen, coach Jim Boeheim built a legacy out of it. For over 40 years, he has been running the 2-3 zone, and teams still don’t understand how to beat it, for the most part. This is because Boeheim recruits specific players that fit the zone, and he adjusts it according to what his player’s strengths are. With only one championship under his belt, it would be easy to say that he has underperformed, however, unlike Kentucky’s and Duke’s of the world, Boeheim doesn’t go after the best players; he is more concerned with fit. The one exception to this would be when homegrown Carmelo Anthony decided to come to Syracuse, and of course, they win the championship in his only season there. While this is a compliment to Anthony’s incredible freshman dominance, it only makes you wonder how good Boeheim’s teams could be if they consistently recruited the top players. His true greatness sticks out in the NCAA tournament where he boasts a record of 48-28. Maybe his greatest accomplishment of those wins was taking a Last-four team in the tournament to the final four but he was sure to not allow the Cinderella tag to be put on his guys. In the NCAA’s you have very limited practice time, so adjusting to that 2-3 is much harder than trying to figure out holes in a teams man-to-man defense. Nonetheless, accumulating all these wins with less talent than other national powerhouses, Boeheim safely secures a spot on here.
7. Tom Izzo, Michigan State (1995-present)
With seven final four’s under his belt, two appearances in the National championship including a win in 2000, Tom Izzo has had an incredible run at Michigan State and certainly created a dynasty. With an incredible 18 straight appearances in the NCAA’s consistency is the word to describe Izzo. In some of these season’s Izzo has been blessed with some pretty talented players like Draymond Green and Mateen Cleaves just to name a few, but with him, like the previous guys mentioned on this list, its what he did when the team was low on talent. The reason why Izzo is not lower on this list is that he has been a part of two of the uglier upsets in NCAA history. In 2016, as a two-seed, the Spartans were Vegas’s odds on favorite to win the national title, above that seasons one-seeds. The Spartans lost in the first round to Middle Tennesse, at the time being known as the biggest upset in NCAA history. Then just this past year, the Spartans a three-seed this time, but oddly enough still the favorite to win the championship fell to Syracuse, an 11 seed, in the second round of the tournament. If either of the teams could have played to their potential, Izzo would be at least a couple spots higher.
6. Dean Smith, North Carolina (1961-97)
11 final fours, two national championships, one NIT championship, and a whopping 17 ACC regular season titles, not to mention the 13 times he won the ACC tournament, Smith has the quite the resume. With the opportunity to coach one of the best teams that ever played, Smith cashed in on a championship in 1982. With the likes of James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and the third leading scorer on the team, Michael Jordan, the Tar Heels were able to beat Georgetown 63-62 in the championship. Down by 1 with 25 second to go, Smith drew up a play for the freshman Michael Jordan, due to knowing that Georgetown was going to lock down on Worthy and Perkins. With 17 seconds left Jordan elevated up for his iconic midrange two and nailed it. This was not only a genius coaching move by Smith but it also was the start of the legacy that became Michael Jordan as this was his first game-winning shot. Dean Smith’s legendary attribute was that he knew more about his players than the players did themselves, he was always thinking of the opposing team wasn’t as displayed with the gutsy call in ’82. While six may seem a bit high for him, his failure to win in the 70’s with some pretty dominant groups was a big disappointment, which is why six feels right.
5. Adolph Rupp, Kentucky (1930-72)
The four-time NCAA champion, one-time NIT champion, and 27 time SEC champion, known as the “Baron of Bluegrass,” Adolph Rupp’s coaching career was legendary in all aspects. Learning behind the inventor of the game James Naismith, along with another coaching great in Forrest Allen during his time at Kansas, Rupp was able to implement his knowledge learned into his coaching schemes. During his era of coaching, the game was more defined by the coaches rather than the players. This speaks to Rupp’s greatness because with all thing being equal, his was able to win essentially five championships. The only blemish on his resume, unfortunately, came with his most talented group. In 1966 his Wildcats, who were known as “Rupp’s Runts” for their dominant aggressive play fell short in the national championship to little unknown Texas Western. The political story of this game is a different debate, however, with Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, Kentucky had significantly more talent. But Rupp took Texas Western and their starting five (all African-Americans) lightly and was not the better-prepared team. This blemish is what stops Rupp from getting any higher on the list.
4. Roy Williams, North Carolina (2003-present)
The heir to the legendary Dean Smith, in just 15 years in Chapel Hill, Williams has surpassed the coaching icon. With three championships and nine final fours, Williams career at UNC has been nothing short of incredible. Like Smith, he has inherited a lot of high-level talent through recruiting and has made the most of it. The championship in 2017 was fun, however, it was a weak year for college basketball so we’ll focus less on that one. In 2009, as the pre-season favorites, Williams’ Tar Heels dismantled the Michigan State Spartans in the championship game proving how good this team was. While Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington have all generated some buzz during their time in the NBA, the unquestioned star of this team was Tyler Hansbrough, who just didn’t pan out in the more athletic NBA, proving again that the coaching was the x-factor. Williams made Hansbrough shine like one of the greatest at the college level through his fast-paced offense that allowed for easy buckets, his team’s relentless attack on the offensive boards has also been a trademark of Williams coached teams. This same story was written five years earlier when the Tar Heels shocked the world and beat an Illinois team that could have had an argument for the best collegiate team ever if they would have won that game. Led by Sean May, whose NBA career lasted a whopping two seasons, Williams tactics and schemes of playing fast and attacking the offensive glass set his team up for a shocking upset and his first national title.
3. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke (1980-present)
Five national championships, 12 final fours, 14 ACC titles, and five-time coach of the year, Krzyzewski has one of the most decorated resumes in all of the sports. All of his title teams had their own flare, but his greatness is more recognized for his consistency, similar to Bill Billichek, head coach of the New England Patriots. Bill and Mike have more in common than you think. There must be something in the water at West Point as that is where both of these coaching icons spent their college years. In Krzyzewski’s case, he was learning to play point guard under legendary coach Bob Knight, who will be mentioned later. All of his accomplishments, the one stand that stands out is the development of Christian Laettner and his Duke legacy. Shocking the world twice along with stopping the incredible group from Michigan known as the “Fab Five,” Duke ran the 90s. With star players everywhere you looked, it was Krzyzewski and Laettner that stood tall, earning Krzyzewski a safe spot at number three, with a large gap between him and Williams.
2. Bob Knight, Indiana (1971-00)
He yelled, screamed, threw a chair, argued with refs, argued with his players, argued with opposing player, all en route to one of the finest coaching careers there was. Five final fours, three championships, one NIT championship, and 11 Big Ten titles, Bob Knights greatest achievements came in the mid 70’s when he put together the best group to ever play, while also stopping UCLA‘s championship run. In the ’75 season, Knights group was undefeated entering the NCAA tournament, however, after losing star player Scott May to a broken arm, their run ended in the Midwest Regional. If that injury never happens, then this team would be the best ahead of the ’76 version, that with a healthy Scott May, did not lose a game again and this time won the national championship and is widely considered the best team of all time. May and the rest of Hoosier’s starters, who made up four of the five spots for the first-team All-Big 10 were great, but there were many great players in the 70s. What made them special was Knight did not care who they were or how good they were, he pushed them like they were freshman in some unorthodox manners, only to produce the finest play the college game has ever seen.
1. John R. Wooden
10 championships in 12 years, including a stretch that saw seven in a row, of course, Wooden was going to be at the top of this list. With Lew Alcindor leading the first run, and Bill Walton with the next group, Wooden inherited easily two of the five best individual talents at the college game. As mentioned time and time again, college basketball is a team-oriented game, and you are not going to win unless you have a cohesive team where everyone understands their role and does not get bigger than the team. This is where Wooden captured his greatness. The players had only the utmost respect for him and understood his concise messages which allowed for their unprecedented sustained success. When Lew Alcindor was playing, he was so much taller than everyone else that he would just dunk the ball over everyone. This caused the NCAA to implement the no dunking rule, which was imposed to stop UCLA’s dominance. It didn’t because Wooden adjusted Alcindor’s game and developed the iconic hook shot, that was unguardable once he mastered it during his time in the NBA. The list could go on and on about how good of a coach this guy was, but the development of Kareem-Abdul-Jabar should say it all. If not, just check out how Bill Walton did during his time with the Bruins.