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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 15 College Basketball Coaches of All-Time: Can You Guess the #1?

Top 15 College Basketball Coaches of All-Time: Can You Guess the #1?

The Greatest College Basketball coach ever
Publish Date: 02/04/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Ranking the greatest college basketball coaches of all time is not easy to do. Winning championships is a huge criteria, but also the shape of the program when the coach arrived and what they do to turn it around is huge in ranking a coach. Today, we will rate the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.

Criteria

When judging the greatest coaches of all time, it’s not just about championships. Its also about being an innovative coach who taught more than just the game. Wins are the number one criteria, but they are not everything.

15) Lute Olson

No doubt, the Arizona men’s basketball program would not be held in such high regard without the contributions of retired Lute Olson. Before his time at Arizona, Olson enjoyed successful stints with Long Beach State (winning the Big West title in 1974) and Iowa (reaching the Final Four in 1980).

Upon his arrival in Arizona, Olson took over a dormant Wildcats program and transformed it into something special. Just three years after taking charge, Arizona earned its first Pac 10 title in 1986 and went on to make five Final Four appearances en route to winning a national title in 1997.

In case you’re keeping score at home, Olson boasted 780 victories at Division I level.

Video: In Memory of Lute Olson

In Memory of Lute Olson

14) Al McGuire

Many people remember McGuire for his television commentating days, but before that, he was a legendary coach that built a small Catholic College into a national powerhouse. McGuire led Marquette to the NIT title in 1970 and the NCAA championship in his emotional swan song in 1977. McGuire’s 1974 Marquette squad lost in the NCAA Championship game.

In 1967 Marquette lost to Walt Frazier and Southern Illinois in the NIT final, when the NIT was still a significant tournament. McGuire was a two-time National Coach of the Year and directed Marquette to top-20 appearances in final wire-service polls his last 10 seasons in a row. McGuire built his program at Marquette by being one of the first white coaches to recruit from the inner city.

Video: AL McGUIRE: HIS WIT AND WISDOM (FUNNY)

AL McGUIRE: HIS WIT AND WISDOM (FUNNY)

13) Clair Bee

Bob Knight said, “In the first half of the century, Clair Bee was basketball” and Bee’s record bears out Knight’s statement. Bee boasted an impressive 64-29 mark (.688) with LIU in games decided by six points or less. Bee led an undefeated LIU to an NIT Title in 1939 at a time when the NIT was considered the “real” National Title.

Bee was the Greatest College coach of the first 50 years of the 20th century.

Video: Clair Bee & 1935-36 Blackbirds Inducted into LIU Hall of Fame. Mike Farley Accepts.

Clair Bee & 1935-36 Blackbirds Inducted into LIU Hall of Fame. Mike Farley Accepts.

12) Jim Boeheim

Boeheim has become synonymous with Syracuse University basketball more than any other college basketball coach in history. He began as both a player and assistant, before taking over as head coach in 1976. Since then, Boeheim has gone on to rank second all-time wins list behind only Mike Krzyzewski with over 1,000 wins – an impressive accomplishment in itself!

Boeheim rarely recruits at the same level as some of the top programs, yet he has managed to out-coach and outsmart them all. Utilizing his signature 2-3 zone strategy, Boeheim’s teams at Syracuse often exceed expectations, reaching five Final Fours and winning an NCAA National Championship in 2003.

Video: Jim Boeheim gives emotional farewell news conference at Syracuse | ESPN College Basketball

Jim Boeheim gives emotional farewell news conference at Syracuse | ESPN College Basketball

11) Denny Crum

Denny Crum IS Louisville basketball. At Louisville he built an all-time great basketball program. Crum reached the NCAA Final Four six times–1972 (fourth), 1975 (third), 1980 (champion), 1982 (tied for third), 1983 (tied for third) and 1986 (champion). Crum also holds the NCAA record by winning at least 20 games each of his first 13 seasons as a head coach. Crum had an astounding record of 161-109 mark (.596) in games decided by fewer than six points.

Video: Denny Crum Career Highlights!

Denny Crum Career Highlights!

10) Phog Allen

Allen’s Kansas teams had 17 consecutive undisputed first-division finishes in the Big Six Conference from 1930 through 1946. They won more than 60 percent of his games decided by fewer than six points (156-100, .609). Allen was a great defensive coach who believed defense won championships.

Video: Phog Allen

Phog Allen

9) Jim Calhoun

Calhoun is an inspiring example of how a coach can almost singlehandedly transform an underperforming program into one with championship potential. He transformed Northeastern into a top midmajor and then transformed UConn into an undefeated national champion.

Calhoun achieved success almost immediately upon joining Connecticut, amassing 600 wins and three national championships in 26 seasons. Additionally, his tenure made the Huskies perennial Big East contenders and a haven for NBA talent.

Unfortunately, health issues forced Calhoun to retire earlier than anticipated. However, after some time had passed, he returned to coaching college basketball and now boasts over 900 career victories.

Video: Jim Calhoun opens up about his career at gym naming ceremony | Full interview

Jim Calhoun opens up about his career at gym naming ceremony | Full interview

8) Hank Iba

Oklahoma State won two national titles under Iba, was national runner-up once, finished fourth once and was regional runners-up on four occasions in eight playoff appearances under Iba from 1945-65. Reached Final Four on four occasions–1945 (1st), 1946 (1st), 1949 (2nd) and 1951 (4th)–after directing Oklahoma A&M to three NIT semifinals–1938 (3rd), 1940 (3rd) and 1944 (4th). Oklahoma State’s all-time winningest coach led the nation in scoring defense 16 times in his first 23 seasons with the school. The lone knock against Iba was that he had a losing record in games decided by six or fewer points.

Video: Henry Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense

Henry Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense

7) Tom Izzo

At 28 years, Izzo has achieved an incredible array of accomplishments, including winning the 2000 NCAA National Championship, 10 regular-season Big Ten Championships, six Big Ten Tournament titles, eight Final Four appearances, eight National Coach of the Year awards and 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances – a Big Ten record!

These accomplishments do not make Izzo one of the greats in basketball; rather, his relentless drive to achieve more truly defines him as one of its top stars.

With a career record of 666-267, Izzo has demonstrated his talent for winning. However, more importantly, his 27 years leading the Spartan program have shown that 85 percent of players who completed their eligibility also left with a degree; over the last 22 years alone, 65 Spartans have earned undergraduate degrees. It’s evident that Izzo knows winning, but also winning ethically.

Video: Tom Izzo emotional saying goodbye to players on Michigan State senior night | College Basketball

Tom Izzo emotional saying goodbye to players on Michigan State senior night | College Basketball

6) Roy Williams

Williams retired   after amassing 903 career victories at two illustrious programs: Kansas and North Carolina. He ranks third all-time on the Division I coach’s wins list with 1,161 more victories in fewer games (1,161) than any other coach in NCAA history; his 903 wins in 33 seasons are 100 more than Krzyzewski or Williams’ mentor Dean Smith combined (who we’ll get to shortly). Williams won national championships with UNC three times while leading his teams to nine Final Four appearances — including three runners-up finishes (two at Kansas and one at UNC).

Video: Marcus Paige's Emotional Farewell Speech Leaves Roy Williams In Tears

Marcus Paige’s Emotional Farewell Speech Leaves Roy Williams In Tears

5) Dean Smith

Smith’s Tar Heels’ 11 NCAA Final Four appearances (1967-68-69-72-77-81-82-91-93-95-97). Smith led the Heels to 19-straight final top-20 finishes from 1971-89. Smith’s greatest accomplishment may be the fact that he was the first and still the only coach to lead a team to the final four in four consecutive decades.

Video: A Tribute to North Carolina's Dean Smith

A Tribute to North Carolina’s Dean Smith

4) Adolph Rupp

Coached teams to four NCAA titles (1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958). Coached UK to an SEC-record 24 conference and 13 league tournament titles. Rupp’s teams posted the best record in two consecutive decades, the 1940’s and 50’s.

Video: A Video Tribute to the Adolph Rupp Era at Kentucky

A Video Tribute to the Adolph Rupp Era at Kentucky

3) John Wooden

I believe college basketball was not a deep sport in the ’60s and ’70s, and UCLA got pretty much the twelve players they wanted. It was kind of similar to the UCONN women’s teams over the last decade or more. They get the players they want, and the talent nationwide was not great. Then you have the car dealer Sam Gilbert issue, but you still cannot ignore his record and greatness as a coach. The championships are just too many to ignore. Does Wooden win as much without Sam Gilbet’s help?

Video: The difference between winning and succeeding | John Wooden | TED

The difference between winning and succeeding | John Wooden | TED

2) Mike Krzyzewski

Like his mentor Bob Knight, Coach K started out at Army where he had success. From there, he moved to Duke. The first few years were not kind to Coach K. After that rough start; Coach K built a great program that competes at a high level every season.

Video: Coach K tribute: Take an emotional journey with him at the 2022 Final Four

Coach K tribute: Take an emotional journey with him at the 2022 Final Four

1) Bob Knight

Many people hate Knight, but even John Wooden himself was quoted as saying, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better coach than Bobby Knight.” Now he tempered that by saying he did not like Knight, but this list has nothing to do with a popularity contest.

Knight built Army into a very good basketball program, then he moved onto Indiana University, which hadn’t been good for years. In almost no time, he had them in the Final Four and by 1976, the Hoosiers were crowned undefeated National Champions. Knight led the Hoosiers to three NCAA titles during his tenure and after departing IU, he ended up turning around an average-at-best Texas Tech Red Raiders basketball team and made them a top-25 program.

Video: Bob Knight Clips

Bob Knight Clips

Honorable Mention

Branch McCracken

Branch was the first Indiana Hoosier coaching legend, leading the Hoosiers to two National Championships in 1940 and 1953. Branch has been overshadowed by Bob Knight’s accomplishments at Indiana, but Branch was the first legend at IU.

John Beilein

Beilein was a great basketball coach, and he won everywhere he went in college. He built Michigan into a contender no stranger to deep runs into March.

Mark Few

Few took over Gonzaga and turned it from a mid-major to a yearly contender for a championship year after year. Most would have left for a higher-profile program, instead Few made Gonzaga a powerhouse.

 

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