The idea for this column came from a very heated Twitter debate. A very heated Twitter debate over this column on Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim.
Now for those of you who have no interest in reading about Boeheim, just know that the guy is overrated. That’s not just my opinion. The facts back it up.
At the same time, the “facts” are of little use to Syracuse fans, who wanted to hear no such tomfoolery. Their coach was the greatest thing since sliced bread (which ironically was invented just a few short years before Boeheim showed up at Syracuse), and they refused to hear any opinions to the contrary. Every fact I brought up was shot down, every logical argument I made they altered, and changed to a conversation that suited Boeheim better.
The argument, if you can call it that (which you can’t, since I was right) hit a crescendo when one Syracuse fan argued with me that Boeheim was unequivocally one of the three best coaches in the sport right now. Not of all-time. Not statistically. But X’s and O’s, results based, in 2013. To which I laughed out loud. No, I literally laughed out loud. Had this guy not heard of John Calipari? Bill Self? Tom Izzo? Again, just to be explicitly clear I asked him one more time, “Are we talking about now, in 2013? Or just who has been the greatest over the course of their career?” He said now, in 2013. And that’s when I had to end the conversation right there. Clearly this man knew nothing about basketball.
At the same time, our stupid Twitter disagreement got me thinking: We always argue about who is the best coach in the game, but has anyone actually taken the time to lay out the facts? To put all the numbers on one piece of paper and let them speak for themselves?
No one has that I’ve ever found. Which is why I decided to do that today.
Now a couple of notes on this list: The first and most important is that this list is not a career achievement list. If that’s what you’re looking for, go find the all-time wins list, see that Coach K and Jim Boeheim are two of the three winningest coaches of all-time and end the debate right there. Disregard guys like Self and Calipari, Tom Izzo and Thad Matta, because they simply don’t stack up. That’s not what this list is about, because if it was, than Steve Fisher (one National Championship and three Final Fours) would have to be on there somewhere. And I don’t think anyone, anywhere is arguing that Steve Fisher is one of the 10 best coaches in college basketball. Crap, I’m pretty sure Steve Fisher himself would giggle at the notion.
No, this is a list about the here and now in 2013.
Also, beyond just recent success, what I tried to do is somehow, someway tangibly balance regular season success with postseason success in coming up with these rankings too. Yes the tournament is the absolute pinnacle of the sport, but in putting together a list like this, it can’t be the only barometer you use. There are too many chances, too many flukes, too many bounces and breaks, to judge a coach solely on what he does in the tournament. Crap, with one or two more free throws, Memphis would’ve won a title in 2008. Had Kendall Marshall not gotten hurt, Carolina could’ve potentially won one last year. Had Fab Melo not gotten suspended, Syracuse would’ve been in the conversation too.
Now that’s not to say that winning tournament games doesn’t count for anything, but being great in the regular season has to count for something too. That’s why I weighed 30-win seasons a little bit more than most others would’ve. hink so.
Either way, here is my list for all to see. Disagree if you want, and as always, you’re more than welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below or via Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
Just remember that above all though, a list like this is supposed to be fun.
Well, unless you’re a Syracuse fan anyway.
10. Billy Donovan, Florida
19th year as a head coach (17th at Florida): 442-181 overall record (407-161 at Florida); 171-67 (SEC)
Tournament Numbers: Two National Championships; three Final Fours; five Elite Eight’s; six Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: Four conference regular season championships; three conference tournament championships; two 30+ win seasons
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: Many would make the argument that outside of those great Al Horford-Joakim Noah-Corey Brewer teams, Donovan hasn’t done a ton, and frankly, it’s hard to argue against that. After all, his two National Championships (and two of three Final Four berths), only two 30+ win seasons and all three SEC Tournament championships came from that group.
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: Yes, he had one uber-talented team, but still, how many people could’ve coached them to back-to-back titles? Speaking of which, let’s also not forget that Donovan has coached Florida to four Elite Eights in the last seven years, which is no small feat anywhere. Let’s also remember how completely and utterly irrelevant Florida hoops was before he got there.
Fun Fact: Remember when everyone used to call Billy Donovan, “Billy the Kid?” Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it?
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Had you asked me a year ago, a month ago or a week ago if I thought Billy Donovan would make this list (or that I’d be making this list at all, for that matter) I’d have laughed in your face. Then I would’ve laughed some more. Then I would’ve mentioned that there was a better chance DePaul would win the Big East this season or that Archie Goodwin is voted governor of Kentucky than Billy Donovan named one of the Top 10 coaches in college basketball.
Then I started to think about it, started to look at the numbers and how they stacked up against everyone else and kind of realized: Wait a second. Maybe this guy isn’t so bad after all.
Now obviously the biggest argument against Donovan (and admittedly, it is a justifiable one) is that he rode one incredibly talented class to a ton of his success; as I mentioned above, two of his three Final Four berths were at the hands of Joakim Noah, AL Horford and Corey Brewer, and so too were both of Donovan’s 30+ win seasons and three SEC Tournament championships. Those are the facts.
But while we’re here, let’s go ahead and give those facts a little context too. If you’ll remember back to those two title teams you’ll remember that those titles came in a season after the Gators’ three leading scorers skipped town (for you college basketball dorks, those three were Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee) and that those three were replaced by a group of sophomores that was largely unheralded other than Corey Brewer. Neither Horford, Noah or Taurean Green was a McDonald’s All-American and Noah and Green weren’t ranked inside the Top 75 players nationally by Rivals.com.
Because of those facts, that also means that Donovan either…
1) Identified talent that no one else saw, specifically in Horford and Noah. Or, more likely…
2) Developed talent that wasn’t totally there.
Whichever it was, that’s no small feat. Neither is winning a National Championship with a team that was still considered to be a “year away” and entered that tournament on no one’s radar.
Of course what may have been even more amazing (at least to me, anyway) is that they repeated a year later; if you’ll remember, from the second all five starters announced they be returning for the 2007 season (sometime in April or May of 2006) the focus immediately shifted to a repeat that was a full 12 months later. You know how much pressure those guys played every, single game with during that 2007? And you know how tough it was to handle that pressure night-in and night-out straight through that National Championship Game? Simply put, winning six straight single elimination games to claim an NCAA title is the hardest thing to do in sports. Winning 12 in a row (that’s two years straight for those who aren’t math inclined) is damn near impossible.
But really, the reason I decided to add Donovan to this list is that he’s had a bit of a career renaissance these last few years. Yes he struggled in the immediate aftermath of his entire title team leaving (going to back-to-back NIT’s), but he’s also made two Elite Eight’s in the last two years, despite the handicap of coaching Erving Walker in each of those two seasons (kidding, of course. Well, sort of anyway). And had it not been for a meltdown in each of those years, he could be looking at two more Final Fours on his resume.
Not to mention that Donovan and Florida could very well be an NCAA Tournament favorite this year as well, and with the way he is recruiting there’s no reason to think he can’t be a factor for years to come too.
And even if Donovan doesn’t get to a Final Four or even an Elite Eight this year, the run he is on is still impressive. Would you believe that Donovan’s four Elite Eights in the last seven tournaments are as many as Coach K, Jim Boeheim and Thad Matta combined?
9B. Brad Stevens
Sixth season as head coach (sixth at Butler): 160-45 overall (73-17 Horizon)
Tournament Numbers: 0 National Championships; two Final Fours; two Elite Eights; two Sweet 16’s
Relevant Other Numbers: Four regular season conference championships; three conference tournament championships; two 30+ win seasons
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: Even now, Stevens is still in just his sixth year as a head coach, and compiled most of his victories against vastly inferior competition in the Horizon League.
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: Winning single-elimination tournament games is an acquired skill, and few have that skill mastered quite like Stevens. I mean, how many really good coaches never make two Final Fours in their entire careers? Well Stevens made two in his first four years as a head coach, and he did it at….Butler? To quote Cris Carter… “C’Mon, Man!!!”
Fun Fact: Stevens is the only coach on this list who could pull off this move. And he’s awesome because of it.
9A. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
29th season as a head coach (12th at Wisconsin): 639-212 overall (316-136 Division I; 286-109 Wisconsin); 140-57 (Big Ten)
Tournament Numbers: 0 National Championships; 0 Final Fours; one Elite Eight; five Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: Two Big Ten regular season championships at Wisconsin (10 total); two Big Ten Tournament championships; 30+ win seasons at Wisconsin (five total); three Division II National Championships
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: I mean, those zero Final Fours stick out like a sore thumb, don’t they?
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: Well, does anyone get more out of less talent than Bo Ryan does? Quickly, how many McDonald’s All-American’s can you name who’ve ever played for Wisconsin? Crap, how many players can you name from the Bo Ryan era at Wisconsin, period? There’s Jordan Taylor, Alando Tucker, and…
Fun Fact: According to this old Rick Reilly article, Bo Ryan’s wife was engaged to another man when he met her, and Ryan not only talked her into leaving that dude and marrying him instead. Kind of a cool story during the Valentine’s Day season, huh? Well unless you’re that other guy, anyway.
Why I Have Them Ranked Where I Do: I know, I know, this is supposed to be a list of 10 coaches, but I only thought it was appropriate that I include these two together. After all, don’t these two perfectly represent the biggest argument that comes with a list like this? In other words, what’s more important: High level tournament success? Or year-in and year-out regular season consistency?
Starting with Stevens, well, I already know the argument against him being on this list: The guy is like 11-years-old and has been coaching for about 20 minutes, at a school that has 25 guaranteed wins a year on their schedule (or at least that DID have them until Butler moved to the Atlantic-10 this past year). Most want to know what he would do against better competition. Most want to see him do it for more than a couple years. Most would correctly argue, “Wait a second. Didn’t Butler miss the tournament… LAST YEAR??”
Those are fair arguments, but taking it all into consideration, how many guys have done more than Stevens the last few years? If you want to knock the missed NCAA Tournament, that’s fine. Until you remember that a lot of schools- including North Carolina, UConn, Kentucky and Arizona- have missed the NCAA Tournament within the last five years. At the same time, how many schools have made two Final Fours over that same stretch? Heck, how many have made two Final Fours over the last three years? The answer is “Kentucky, and that’s it.” If this is really a list of the best coaches in college basketball today, how can you not include Stevens on this list?
Of course on the flip side is Bo Ryan, a coach who is consistently good in the post season, consistently really good in the regular season, but has never, at any point been great, except at the DII level, where he won three National Championships at Wisconsin-Platteville.
It also leads me to a question that I always ask myself whenever I watch the Badgers play (and one which led to a fun, if not heated argument on Twitter over the weekend): “Would I like being a Wisconsin fan?” As in, would I enjoy knowing I was going to win 25 or so games every year, make the Sweet 16 most seasons, win 3-4 games a year that I have no business winning… and have essentially a zero percent chance to ever win a National Championship? Frankly, I’m not sure I’d like it. But I can also think of about 320 college basketball programs which would love to have the success that Wisconsin has had the last few seasons.
So in the end, it comes down to the question of which is better: Short-term, high-level postseason success with the occasional down year? Or maddeningly consistent regular season success, with relatively little postseason success to follow.
Frankly, there probably isn’t a right or wrong answer.
Heck, why can’t we enjoy both?
8. Thad Matta
12th year as a head coach: 341-71 (239-71 at Ohio State); 106-44 (Big Ten)
Tournament Numbers: No National Championships; two Final Fours; three Elite Eight’s (at two different schools); five Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: Eight regular season conference championships (at three different schools); three conference tournament championships (all at Ohio State); three 30+ win seasons
Argument Against Ranking This High: The guy just hasn’t been around very long relative to the other guys on this list. Can you believe that Billy Donovan has been a head coach for seven more seasons than Matta has? Also, that “o-fer” in the National Championship department doesn’t help either. Although with the way he recruits, and the way he wins you do have to think he’ll get one eventually.
Argument He Could Be Higher: Other than John Calipari, does anyone not only recruit better, but also coach that talent up better than Matta does? Thad Matta might not have the tourney resume of others on this list. But you also never seem to leave a season thinking, “Man, Thad Matta could’ve gotten more out of those guys.”
Fun Fact: Matta gave current Butler head coach Brad Stevens his first job in basketball, as an unpaid volunteer assistant at the school, back in 2000. Think that worked out well for the Butler?
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Much like he does every regular season and postseason, Thad Matta quietly sneaks onto this list at No. 8. Admit it, when you first clicked on this link, you might’ve thought of names like Coach K, Izzo and Boeheim. But Matta was one that slipped your mind. Wasn’t it?
And really is there one better way to describe Matta’s coaching style than “quiet(ly).” The dude just wins games and wins them in bunches. Yet he’s never really in the discussion when it comes to these lists, you know, despite the fact that his teams always seem to find themselves at the top of the Big Ten standings at the end of the year. Matta’s three straight Big Ten regular season championships is something Coach K, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams or even John Calipari can’t claim.
What’s most interesting (and impressive) to me about Matta though, is that few guys are able to change their coaching style to better fit his personnel than Matta does. Remember, three years ago the Buckeyes won because of a highly-regarded wing player in Evan Turner. Then Turner left, and the next year Ohio State did it with a slew of perimeter players like William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty. Last year Buford was still around, but the offense ran through Jared Sullinger. This year, it’s come back full-circle to DeShaun Thomas leading the Buckeyes from scoring on the wing.
As a matter of fact, just about the only thing keeping Matta from moving further up this list is his lack of high-level tournament success. Of course in Matta’s defense, other than Stevens, no one on this list has less actual head coaching experience than Matta. To which I ask, how the hell has this guy only been a head coach 12 years? It feels like 20!
Of course with the way he recruits and the way he coaches, it’s only a matter of time before he starts consistently making Final Fours. He’s going to start winning National Championships (plural) sooner, rather than later as well.
In the meantime, the 28.9 wins Matta has averaged in his first 12 seasons ain’t bad either.
7. Mike Krzyzewski
38th season as head coach (33rd at Duke): 949-294 overall record (876-235 at Duke); 345-52 (ACC)
Tournament Numbers: Four National Championships (Eight National Championship Games); 11 Final Fours; 12 Elite Eights; 16 Sweet 16’s.
Relevant Other Numbers: 13 conference regular season championships; 12 conference tournament championships; 12 30+ win seasons; two Olympic Gold Medals (as head coach); one World Championship (as head coach).
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: There probably isn’t one, although in recent years, Coach K has been surprisingly average. Can you believe he’s only been to two Sweet 16’s since 2006?
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: My God that resume is impressive. Coach K has simply put up numbers we’ve never seen before, or will ever see again.
Fun Fact: Coach K employs a full-time staff of eight Soviet scientists to help keep his hair the same shade of black it was in 1965. Ok, I made that “fact” up. I think.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Look, I already know what you’re thinking: You have Coach K at No. 7? As the best coaches in college basketball right now? Really Aaron? Your hate for Duke is thinly veiled and pathetic. I bet you figured out a way to sneak Kevin Ollie into your Top 5, didn’t you?
To answer that last question, no I didn’t (although I seriously thought about it), and if anything, there is no one who is more surprised I have Coach K so low on this list as I am myself. As a matter of fact, after bashing Coach K both publicly and privately for years (because besides Duke fans, who doesn’t?), I’ve actually grown to have a new found appreciation for him. Not only does the guy continue to win games at an insanely high-level, but the thing I can’t help but notice is the respect that all the NBA guys who played for Coach K in the Olympics have for him. After all, it’s one thing to hear Jon Scheyer call Coach K great. It’s quite another to hear LeBron say the same. That is, with all due respect to Jon Scheyer of course.
At the same time, this is a list of the best coaches now, and when I actually pulled up Coach K’s resume, I was stunned at how, well, average he has been over the last few years (at least relative to the insane standard he set for himself in the 1990’s and early 2000’s anyways). Yes there was the 2010 National Championship, but can you believe that season was the only one since 2004 that Duke has advanced past the Sweet 16? Or that he’s only been to two Final Four’s in the last 11 tournaments he’s coached in? That’s not bad. But again, relative to the insane standard he once coached by (and compared to those below him), it’s not enough to garner him moving up this list either.
And while I hate to say it, the guy just hasn’t been the same since Roy Williams showed up to North Carolina. Sure Coach K had plenty of swag back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but since Williams arrived nine years ago, K has only won or shared three ACC regular season titles (Roy has six over that same stretch) and hasn’t won an outright ACC regular season title since Roy’s third year on campus. Sure, that might change this year, and sure it almost certainly would’ve been different had Kyrie Irving not gotten hurt in 2011 (Coach K would probably have another National Championship as well), but those are the breaks. And this is the reality of the situation.
Still, this isn’t a career achievement list, but more one based on “what have you done for me lately.” And with just two Final Four’s in 11 years and no other trips to the Elite Eight in that stretch, Coach K is right where he belongs on this list.
6. Rick Pitino
28th year as a head coach: 642-238 (288-110 at Louisville); (116-59 Big East)
Tournament Numbers: One National Championship; six Final Fours (at three different schools); 10 Elite Eight’s; 10 Sweet 16’s.
Other Relevant Numbers: Six regular season conference championships (in four different conferences); nine conference tournament championships; six 30+ win seasons.
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: Pitino’s teams don’t always perform well in the regular season, highlighted by the fact that he’s the only person on this list with more conference tournament championships than regular season championships. Just as an example, remember back to last year; Louisville made the Final Four but also finished seventh during the Big East’s regular season.
Argument He Should Be Ranked Higher: Look at what I just said above… isn’t it kind of a testament to his greatness as a coach that his teams perform better later in the season, in tournament settings, than they do over the course of the regular season? Does it really matter what your teams do in November and December when they crush it in February and March?
Fun Fact: He was the first coach to lead three separate schools to a Final Four. Also, just Google “Rick Pitino and Porci—“ You know what? Never mind.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Of every guy on this list, I think an argument could be made that Pitino is the toughest to rank. Understand that I was visiting Louisville just last January, and at the time there was real talk that Pitino had not only lost his fastball, but his slider, curve and change-up too. At the time he hadn’t beaten Kentucky since John Calipari had taken over, had made just one Final Four in what was his 11th year at the school and the program was coming off back-to-back first round NCAA Tournament losses.
Basically, people thought Pitino was done as a relevant head coach, and he very well might have been… until all of a sudden he wasn’t irrelevant anymore. As we all know, Louisville ended up making the Final Four last year and entered 2013 ranked in everyone’s top three nationally, even throwing in a December win over Kentucky for good measure.
And if anything, last year’s Final Four team is probably the best way to describe what you’d be getting from a Rick Pitino coached club over the course of his career: One which not be all that great in the regular season, but gets good when things matter most. As I mentioned before, Pitino is the only guy on this list who has more conference tournament championships than regular season ones, meaning that while his team’s aren’t always on top of their game from November to February, they always seem to be in March. The 2012 season was the third time in five years Louisville made it to the Elite Eight or further which is no small feat either.
And while- as I’ve mentioned repeatedly- this isn’t a lifetime achievement list, it is still pretty cool to think that Pitino was the first ever guy to lead three separate schools to the Final Four (a mark John Calipari has since matched), including one trip to the Final Four with Providence which seems laughable now. Because I mean, really, come on! It’s Providence! You’ve got to be a great coach to get that school to the Final Four!
Pitino also could very well be the answer to one of the greatest “What if” questions in the history of college basketball: What if he’d never left Kentucky in 1997? Remember, the guy went 69-7 in his final two seasons at the school, with a National Championship and runner-up appearance… and still left enough talent over to win another NCAA title the year after he left.
Had Pitino stuck around Kentucky (well, Lexington specifically) might he now be considered the greatest coach in the history of college basketball? It’s a real possibility.
For now he’ll have to settle with being No. 6 on this list.
5. Jim Boeheim
37th year as a head coach (37th at Syracuse): 911-306 overall (355-185 Big East)
Tournament Numbers: One National Championship; three Final Fours; five Elite Eight’s; 15 Sweet 16’s.
Other Relevant Numbers: Nine conference regular season championships; five 30+ win seasons (two in the last three years)
Argument Against Ranking Him This High: You already know the arguments by now. I mean, those three Final Fours in 37 years seem like they should be better. It also doesn’t help that his one title came when he had unquestionably the best player in college basketball (and I would argue the single most dominant college basketball player I’ve ever seen). And those five 30-win seasons in his 37 years as a head coach? Bill Self has that many 30-win seasons in the past six years.
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: For all the Boeheim bashing, he has achieved a bit of a career renaissance these past few years. He has averaged 29.75 wins over the past four seasons (a staggering number in the current Big East landscape) and could be in line for another this year.
Fun Fact: While it’s impossible to quantify, I’m like 94 percent certain Boeheim has the best looking wife of anyone on this list. That’s got to count for something, right?
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: So at this point you’ve already heard my argument on why Boeheim is overrated historically (if you haven’t, again, just click here). Boeheim is good, yes. Great? Occasionally. But if I’ve said it once, I’ve said 100 times: His win total is more a byproduct of his longevity than anything else. If I were ranking coaches all-time, I’d probably have a class of Wooden, Rupp, Knight, Coach K, Calhoun and Dean Smith on the absolute top, with Boeheim a notch below.
Ironically though, for all my disdain for Boeheim I actually think you could make a very compelling case that right now, over these last few years, he has done his best coaching. Did you know that of Boeheim’s five 30-win seasons, two have come in the last three years? And heck, had it not been for a Fab Melo suspension (which of course has to be attributed in part to Boeheim’s negligence) it was the Orange (not North Carolina like most people assume) that were best suited to take down Kentucky in 2012. The fact that the Orange was a shot or two away from going to the Final Four without Melo is a tribute to Boeheim’s coaching in and of its own right.
Speaking of Kentucky, I’d actually argue that while they’ve done it in completely different ways, Boeheim and John Calipari have actually handled the one-and-done era better than any other coaches. While Calipari continually stockpiles his roster with top-flight, elite talent, Boeheim always seems to have a nice blend of experienced upperclassmen (think Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche) mixed in with high-level underclassmen (Melo, Dion Waiters). For a guy who seems so averse to change, Boeheim has actually adapted surprising well these last couple seasons.
Again, for all the crap I’ve given Boeheim through the years, I do think he’s doing some of his best coaching right now.
4. Roy Williams
25th year as a head coach (ninth at North Carolina): 692-177 overall record (274-76 at North Carolina); 112-44 (ACC)
Tournament Numbers: two National Championships; seven Final Fours; 11 Elite Eight’s; 15 Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: 15 regular season conference championships (including five of the last seven in the ACC); six conference tournament championships; 10 30+ win seasons
Argument Against Ranking This High: The dude has won a ton of games, but that kinda sorta comes with an asterisk since his only two head coaching jobs were at Kansas and North Carolina. That’s not a knock on Roy (not to mention that few could’ve won MORE than he has at those two spots than he did), but at the same time, isn’t winning at those two jobs a little like bragging about being a millionaire when your last two gigs were as President of Microsoft and Coca-Cola? I’d say so.
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: Roy has quietly been really, REALLY good at North Carolina. It doesn’t seem feasible, only he’s actually been to five Elite Eight’s in the past six NCAA Tournaments.
Fun Fact: Roy Williams has technically won a conference “championship” in three separate conferences, despite only having two head coaching jobs. Remember, when he started coaching at Kansas the Jayhawks were part of the “Big 8” conference, before they later added four teams and became the Big XII.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: If Coach K was the guy I expected to higher on this list before I put it together, than Williams is the guy I just presumed would be lower. I mean crap, doesn’t it always feel like Roy Williams coached teams leave you wanting a tiny bit more?
Yeah, apparently not. At least not recently, anyway.
Looking at Williams’ numbers, it’s simply staggering how good he’s been, particularly of late. Forget all those crazy big win totals he put up at Kansas for a second (more on those coming momentarily) and just think about what he’s done recently at Carolina. Would you believe that Roy has made five of the last six Elite Eight’s, won four of the last five ACC regular season championships outright (and won or shared six of eight) and won two National Championships in the last eight years too? Even if you factor in all the talent he’s coached through those seasons, that’s a crap ton of hardware and banners in the rafters. Not to mention the fact that he’s single-handedly made Duke a tiny bit less relevant since getting to North Carolina, and really, doesn’t that have to get him just a few extra brownie points with the rest of the college basketball world?
Speaking of that talent, it really was Roy’s biggest crutch over the early part of his career; in his days at Kansas, he always seemed to win the fewest NCAA Tournament games relative to the talent he had on hand. Now granted, that’s a good problem to have, but it still is a problem none the less. I mean seriously, how did the guy not go to a single Final between 1994-2002, especially when his roster was dotted with guys like Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, Raef LaFrentz, Paul Pierce, and during an era where he seemingly had the No. 1 team in the country from start to finish, every single season? It was impossible. Except it wasn’t. And to anyone under the age of like 22, I cannot express to you what Williams’ reputation was during those days. He was the chokiest of all chokers.
Only much like I mentioned about Boeheim earlier, can’t you argue that Roy has done his best coaching in these waning years? Besides the fact that he got just about everything out of the Tyler Hansborough-Ty Lawson-Wayne Ellington era teams (an Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship in back-to-back-to-back years ain’t too shabby), he also rode a surprising team all the way to the Elite Eight in 2011 and would’ve likely gone to another Final Four last season had Kendall Marshall not gotten hurt. He may have won another title too.
Still, the numbers Roy has put up over the last few years make him worthy of his spot on this list. For whatever shortcomings he had at Kansas, he’s been simply one of the best coaches in the game these past few seasons at Carolina.
3. Tom Izzo
18th year as a head coach (18th at Michigan State): 434-173 record; 208-92 (Big Ten)
Tournament Numbers: one National Championship; six Final Fours; seven Elite Eight’s; 10 Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: 10 regular season conference championships; three conference tournament championships; three 30+ win seasons
Argument Against Ranking This High: I mean, is there one? Just about the only thing you could use against him is that his only career stop has been at Michigan State and that he took over a darn good job. Then again, he also made that Michigan State job great, singlehandedly wrestled the state (and the Big Ten too) away from Michigan, and made East Lansing one of the destination gigs in the sport.
Argument He Could Be Ranked Higher: Just look at that dude’s resume. He wins in the regular season. He wins in the postseason. He usually does it with less talent than other top teams. He rarely loses tournament games he’s not supposed to. This guy is damn good.
Fun Fact: Every player who has started their career as a freshman and stayed through their senior year under Izzo has played in at least one Final Four.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Through the years, the simple truth is that we’ve heard so much about Izzo’s “greatness” that the words have lost a little bit of their value. I mean after all, how “great” can the guy be? At least relative to all the other really great coaches in the sport? Eventually the conversation became so mundane and obvious, it was almost like when your buddy calls you up and says “Dude, you’ve got to check out Kate Upton in the news Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.” Like Izzo effortlessly piling up wins, you can only see a cute chick in a bikini so many times before it loses a bit of its appeal.
Ok, ok, so maybe that’s a bad example, at least in terms of Upton. But with Izzo it’s totally applicable; at this point we really do take his greatness for granted. You do it, and I’ll be the first to admit that I do it too. To be blunt, when I started to put this list together I just assumed that Izzo would probably somewhere around the 6-8 range. After all, the guy “only” has one National Championship (relative to a bunch of other guys on this list who have multiple rings) and for some reason it always seems like his club is playing catch-up in the Big Ten. Or at least I thought that later point, right up until I saw that the Spartans have won three of the last four regular season conference titles. Woops.
What really stands out though are those six Final Fours. Just like that weird smirk Coach K’s makes every time a call goes against his team, you can’t get away from them. Yet those six Final Fours do remain incredible. They’re more than Pitino, Calipari or Self have, all of whom have coached more years in the sport than Izzo’s 18. They’re also double the total that Jim Boeheim has, despite the fact that Boeheim has double the years of head coaching experience Izzo does. Think about that for a second.
And really, above all, those Final Fours are what put Izzo on this list where he is. What might even be more impressive is that unlike so many other coaches, he rarely does it with the most talented players or biggest stars in the sport, and his best players (think Mateen Cleaves, Paul Davis, Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green) aren’t guys that blow you away athletically or physically. Yet all seem to thrive under Izzo’s tutelage.
Ultimately though the best barometer for greatness is those Final Fours. Simply put, if you’re making it to the last weekend of the season, by definition you’re literally just steps away from winning championships. And at the end of the day, the end game here is titles, isn’t it?
Few guys have their team on the doorstep year-in and year-out, season-in and season-out quite like Izzo does.
2. John Calipari
21st year as a head coach(fourth at Kentucky): 564-162 overall record (119-22 at Kentucky); 48-12 (SEC)
Tournament Numbers: one National Championship; four Final Fours (at three different schools); eight Elite Eight’s; 10 Sweet 16’s (at three different schools, including seven in the last seven years)
Other Relevant Numbers: 12 regular season conference championships (at three different schools); 11 conference tournament championships; eight 30+ win seasons (including six of the last seven years)
Argument Against Ranking This High: Over the last few years Calipari undoubtedly had the most talented team year-in and year-out.
Argument He Should Be Ranked Higher: Yes, he always has talent, but few people maximize talent as well as he does either. In other words, how many coaches could win so big, when they essentially have to start over from scratch every year and juggle so many egos in the process?
Fun Fact: Calipari got his first head coaching job at UMass, thanks in large part to a recommendation from Rick Pitino. You probably knew that, but it is still a fun fact none the less.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: Quite possibly the best thing that has happened to the sport of college basketball within the last few years is that John Calipari won a National Championship in 2012. Granted, Cal didn’t need the title to validate his greatness (at least not in my eyes), but what the title did do is silence the critics. As I joked when Kentucky won the championship last year, all of a sudden it became “cool” to like John Calipari. Of course there were a select few of us outside of Kentucky who thought it was cool to like Calipari from the beginning. I am glad the rest of the media finally decided to take the time to learn some facts and join the rest of us.
And thankfully now that the “Can Cal will win with such young teams” song and dance is over, we can now get past the semantics and simply appreciate the man for the great coach that he is. And the man is great. Simply put, this is a results based industry, and nobody gets results like Calipari does. Did you know that in the last seven years Calipari has made the Sweet 16 a grand total of… seven times? That marks goes along with six Elite Eights, six 30-win seasons over that stretch (the only year he didn’t win 30 games was in 2011, when he won…29), three Final Fours and that elusive 2012 National Championship. Not to mention that if it weren’t for one bad shooting night in 2010 or a few missed Derrick Rose free throws in 2008, we could potentially be talking about two more rings on Calipari’s finger(s).
Beyond the results though, what’s most impressive is how Cal has done it. You don’t need me to tell you that the guy’s roster changes over more often than the cast of Saved by the Bell in the early 1990’s (remember Tori? What was her deal?) or that he’s usually going to battle against a bunch of grown men with 18-year-old kids who are a couple months out of high school. Well, more often than not Cal’s kids have gotten the better of everyone else’s men.
And in addition to all that, what might be more impressive is a point I’ve been making every spring since 2006: Calipari’s teams are always better in March than they are in November, and always seem to peak right as the NCAA Tournament is getting started. Not to mention that Calipari always gets guys to buy into the team over themselves (well, right up until Archie Goodwin stepped onto campus anyway) and that just about the only time that guys like Terrence Jones and DeMarcus Cousins listened to…well, anyone, was when Calipari was in their ear. That last point is important, and only adds to his legacy. I mean could Coach K, Boeheim or Roy Williams have kept Cousins under control? I say not, and managing egos in in fact a skill.
Speaking of Calipari’s legacy, that’s exactly what he’s building at this point. He’s got his title, he’s got the detractors off his back, and now it’s not just about winning games in the present, but how he’s remembered in the future.
I found it less than ironic that immediately following his 2012 title Calipari was already talking about having a 40-0, undefeated team, since, I mean if anyone could pull it off in the modern era, isn’t it Calipari?
The man isn’t just good, he’s great. I’m glad everyone else is finally starting to see that.
1. Bill Self
20th year as a head coach (ninth at Kansas): 497-159 overall record; 290-54 (at Kansas); 133-24 (Big XII)
Tournament Numbers: one National Championship; two Final Fours; seven Elite Eights (at three different schools); nine Sweet 16’s
Other Relevant Numbers: 12 regular season conference championships (at three different schools); eight straight Big XII Championships; six conference tournament championships; six 30+ win seasons (five in the last six years)
Argument Against Ranking This High: The man only has one title and two Final Fours on his resume, which are surprisingly low numbers for a list like this.
Argument He Should Be Higher: For the trillionth time, this list isn’t about career achievement, but about who the best coach right here and right now is. And relative to the volume of wins he gets, and relative to the amount of talent on his roster, it’s hard to argue that the answer is anyone but Self.
Fun Fact: Everyone who has ever seen Self in person claims he wears an unimaginably bad hair piece. After watching him on TV for years, I still can’t notice this.
Why I Have Him Ranked Where I Do: I already wrote an extended column about Self prior to last year’s Final Four, and if you haven’t read it, well I highly encourage you check it out. I suspect that it will completely change your stance on Self. At the very least it will make you appreciate him much, much more than you already do.
Of course is reading isn’t your thing (which, considering we’re about 38,000 words deep here, I find hard to believe) let me go ahead and give you a Reader’s Digest of what you’re missing in the article and share a few fun facts on Self: Over the course of his career, the dude has averaged 25 wins a season, and won 30 or more games in five of the last six seasons. For comparison’s sake, Rick Pitino has “only” won 30 games six times over the course of his entire career, and Jim Boeheim five times total. Yet Bill Self has done it five times just since 2006.
Really though, the single stat that continues to define Self is the one that everyone seems to know him for: His eight straight Big XII regular season championships. That’s an incredible feat, especially relative to what teams and players he’s gone through to get them (think Kevin Durant at Texas, Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, Michael Beasley at Kansas State, etc.).
However, that’s only part of my favorite stat on Self, which is this: Over the past 14 years, Self’s teams have finished either first or second in its respective conference standings every single year. That spans back three jobs, and to the 1997-1998 season, meaning that the last time a Bill Self coached team didn’t finish first or second in its conference was when his Tulsa club finished third in the WAC. Just to give you some perspective, that 1998 season was also the first year Tubby Smith coached at Kentucky and the year BEFORE Jim Calhoun won his first National Championship. It was also the last time that a Bill Self coached team was worse than second in their conference regular season.
Really what’s most impressive to me about Self though is that he continues to win a crap ton of games by developing his talent mostly internally, rather than plugging a lot of short-term superstars in his system. Yes he’s had guys like Xavier Henry and Josh Selby on his roster, but if anything, some of Self’s worst coaching has been when those guys have been on his team. When Self is at his best is when he’s got unheralded, underappreciated guys that just work hard and fit his system. lThomas Robinson, Tyrel Reed, Tyshawn Taylor and Jeff Withey weren’t McDonald’s All-American’s, yet all thrived under Self. Speaking of which, did you know that on their way to the National Championship, Self didn’t have a single McDonald’s All-American on his roster? Not too shabby, and frankly I’ve got to wonder if anyone else on this list have gotten that far, with that specific group guys. I’m not sure anyone other than Bill Self could’ve.
And really that’s Self’s greatest feat: His players change, his assistant coaches change, the Big XII changes around him, yet this dude just keeps winning. Big.
By the way, did you notice how Self’s team just so happens to be in the hunt for another 30-win season and Big XII regular season championship, and are doing it with an underrated superstar (Ben McLemore) who was off everyone’s radar up until the beginning of this season?
Just another year in Bill Self’s world, huh?
(*** Note: if you enjoyed this article, Aaron has now started a once-weekly e-mail newsletter for updates on all his writing, podcasts and giveaways. Sign-up where it says “Aaron Torres Mailing List” on the right side of this website or e-mail him at ATorres00@gmail.com to be added to the list.
Also for his continued take on all things sports, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones
And finally, if you loved the article, then you’ll love Aaron’s new eBook: "The Year in Sports 2012” a collection of his best and most entertaining writing from the year of 2012. For the same price it costs to buy a beer at the bar, you can re-live the entire 2012 year in sports!! The book is now available for purchase on Amazon.com!)