Thursday’s List of 13: Our list of the top 13 college hoop coaches (since 1980)

These are coaches who coached in the ESPN era, from 1980 on, except for one guy; we made an exception for him.

13) Jim Boeheim— Has been at Syracuse as a player or coach since the early 60’s; he’s won 1,065 games, won the NCAA Tournament in 2003; in seven years as an ACC member, Syracuse is 70-58 in conference games, 28-28 the last three years. Would’ve like to have seen Boeheim’s reaction when he heard that Syracuse was getting out of the Big East, to help the football program. It sure hasn’t helped the basketball program.

Here’s how spoiled Syracuse fans are; I was in the Carrier Dome one night, Syracuse was #2 in country- it was the night after the Super Bowl. Syracuse gets beat at home by Pittsburgh, and the fans boo them off the court; they were #2 in the country!!! Tough crowd.

12) Roy Williams— 15 years at Kansas, 17 years at North Carolina, two pretty good gigs. Coach Roy has made nine Final Fours, won three national titles. This past season would’ve been only the third time in 32 years he missed the NCAA tournament.

Problem with doing a list like this is weighing which is harder to do; keep a program rolling when you inherit it, or turning things around where there was nothing. Williams has coached at two of the nation’s elite programs, and done a great job both places.

11) Lute Olson— Replaced Jerry Tarkanian at Long Beach State, went 24-2, then bolted for Iowa, where he went 165-93, making the Final Four in 1980. From there he went to Arizona and built a national power, going 587-190, making four Final Fours, winning the ’97 national title.

He was Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott’s college coach; I read Andre Iguodala’s book last fall, and he didn’t have many good things to say about Olson, which is too bad, seeing how Olson helped make Iguodala into a player who has earned $170M in his NBA career.

10) Jim Calhoun— He was head coach at Northeastern for 14 years (248-137) before going to UConn, where he won 629 games, three NCAA titles, making it to four Final Fours. He is still coaching; he runs St Joseph’s, a D-III team in the Nutmeg State.

Big East was a hell of a league before it broke apart; Calhoun won the regular season title ten times in Storrs, put lot of guys in the NBA. His last three years at Northeastern, he went 75-19.

9) Rick Pitino— You know a guy’s career is very complicated when he’s coached Kentucky and Louisville, the Knicks and the Celtics. He also coached in the movie Blue Chips, beating Nick Nolte’s Western U Dolphins early in the movie.

Five D-I coaching stops, he’s won 770 games, and now Iona will be the sixth team this fall. He got Providence to the ’87 Final Four, went 219-50 at Kentucky, 416-143 at Louisville, winning two national titles, in 1996, 2012.

8) Tom Izzo— Since 1976, Michigan State has had two basketball coaches; Jud Heathcoate and Izzo. In 25 years in East Lansing, Izzo is 628-241, making eight Final Fours, winning the 2000 national title, which oddly enough, is the last time a Big 14 team won a national title.

Izzo has won 10 regular season titles in the Big 14; he doesn’t get the 5-star recruits like Duke or Kentucky, but he’s had great players and he’s developed guys into great players, like Draymond Green and Mateen Cleaves. Izzo is 11-2 in his last 13 first round games in the NCAA tourney.

7) Bobby Knight— Lot of people would have him higher on this list, but he was a miserable person, a bully to the media/refs, a guy who took a lot of the joy out of the game, and that’s coming from guys who worked for him. Once the shot clock came in in the mid-80’s, he couldn’t control the game as well, and his teams regressed some.

Still, Knight had a perfect team in 1976; he won three national titles, and countless coaches around America tried to imitate him, for better or worse. He went 102-50 in six years at West Point, before heading to Indiana, where he made five Final Fours.

I talk about Blue Chips a lot on this site; the basketball scenes were filmed at a high school in Indiana. Nick Nolte spent some time around Knight’s program to get a feel for how college coaches act. The scenes where Nolte’s character flip out in the locker room aren’t fiction, they were things that Knight actually did.

He won a lot of games, so people tolerated a lot of other stuff.

6) John Calipari— You get UMass to a Final Four, you’re in the top on this list. Calipari won the 2012 national title at Kentucky, damn near won the ’08 title at Memphis, blowing a lead late and losing the national title game to Kansas, in overtime. Calipari takes some of the best freshmen in the country, wins a lot of games, watches them bolt to the NBA, then gets more freshmen.

Calipari coached the New Jersey Nets for 2+ seasons, going 43-39 the second year, but after a 3-17 start in the fall of ’99, he was told to take a hike. The guy is a great college coach:
— 193-71 at UMass
— 252-69 at Memphis
— 330-77 at Kentucky

5) Denny Crum— He was a quiet guy so his great record has slipped thru the historical cracks a little; Denny Crum was a UCLA assistant who then coached Louisville for 30 years, making six Final Fours, winning two national titles. His record with the Cardinals: 675-295.

When Crum first coached Louisville, they were in the Missouri Valley Conference; they moved up to the Metro, and later to Conference USA. Not easy coaching in the same state as Kentucky; the teams didn’t play from 1959-83, but because Crum elevated Louisville’s status so much, he forced Kentucky to play them, and it became a great pre-conference rivalry game.

4) Jerry Tarkanian— In the four years before Tark got to UNLV, the Runnin’ Rebels were 60-46, and they weren’t the Runnin’ Rebels yet.

Jerry Tarkanian’s coaching record:
— Riverside City College 143-22
— Pasadena City College 67-4
— Long Beach State 116-17
— UNLV 509-105
— Fresno State 153-80

UNLV won the 1990 national title; their 11pm/midnight games on ESPN were must-see TV, even for those of us who live in the East. I’d go to work the next day and that would be the first thing we talked about. They were great fun to watch.

Funny thing is, much like Gonzaga today, UNLV raised the profile of its competitors, since they got on national TV a decent amount. New Mexico State, Cal-Santa Barbara had terrific teams because they could recruit excellent players to compete against the Rebels, a lot like St Mary’s and BYU do with the Zags now.

3) Dean Smith— He coached the Tar Heels for 36 years, starting when I was one year old, and retiring when I was 37. He made ten Final Fours, won two national titles. He was synonymous with Tar Heel basketball, using the Four Corners offense before there was a shot clock when he had a great point guard like Phil Ford.

Smith emphasized team play so much that he was once described as “…..the only person who can hold Michael Jordan under 20 ppg”

There was a 1979 game at Duke where UNC used the 4 corners despite trailing and the game was 7-0 Duke at halftime, which is probably part of the reason the shot clock became a thing six years later. That and ESPN’s rise to popularity; no one wanted to watch a team hold the ball for 11 straight minutes.

2) Mike Krzyzewski— Played for Bobby Knight at Army, went 73-59 coaching the Cadets, then got the Duke job two years after they made the Final Four, because the previous coach was mad that Duke wouldn’t pave the coaches’ parking lot. Seriously.

Coach K is 1,084-291 at Duke after going 38-47 his first three years; Now Duke/Kentucky fight over the best high school seniors every spring, with Duke using Krzyzewski’s stature with the US Olympic team as a huge recruiting advantage.

12 Final Fours, four national titles; I feel bad for the poor soul (Bobby Hurley??) who takes over for Krzyzewski. Going to be a lot like Gene Bartow taking over at UCLA for……..

1) John Wooden— This is a list of guys from 1980 on, but John Wooden is the best college basketball coach of all time, so he had to be recognized as such, even if booster Sam Gilbert padded the wallets of various Bruin stars over the years (Bill Walton said as much publicly).

When Wooden coached, you had to win your conference just to get into the NCAA’s; Wooden won seven consecutive national titles, ten in all. He didn’t win his first national title until his 15th year in Westwood, but once he won one, he didn’t stop for a while- he won his 10 titles in his last 12 years as a coach. 

TV highlight of the day: Hoosiers was on, a 2003 A’s playoff game was on (the A’s won in 12 innings), and there was hopeful news that there may actually be a baseball season this summer. We can only hope. 

Author: Armadillo Sports

I've been involved in sports my whole life, now just write about them. I like to travel, mostly to Las Vegas- they have gambling there.