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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 10 Big Ten Basketball Coaches of All Time: Who is the GOAT of Big Ten Basketball Coaches

Top 10 Big Ten Basketball Coaches of All Time: Who is the GOAT of Big Ten Basketball Coaches

Publish Date: 02/14/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Greatest Coaches

The Big Ten has always been considered an elite basketball conference; as of late, the conference has taken a hit as it has been over two decades since a Big Ten team has brought home a National Championship. Still, over the last century, the Big Ten has had some legendary coaches, and today, we will give you our top ten of all time!

Criteria

Wins and losses, of course, but also the coach’s impact on innovations and how he contributed to the school. Longevity helps, but it is not an end-all. National Championship and Big Ten Championships also weigh heavily in this ranking. If this list interests you, check out our list of the greatest Big Ten basketball players of all time!

10) Jud Heathcoat, Michigan State Spartans

He led the Spartans to their NCAA championship in his third season as a coach at Michigan State. MSU beat the Larry Bird-led Indiana State Sycamores on the court in Salt Lake City in the title match. Coach Heathcote, in 1979, coached one of the greatest Big Ten Basketball teams of all time.

The Spartans have made nine NCAA Tournament appearances during Heathcote’s nineteen-year tenure at Michigan State. They also made three National Invitation Tournament appearances. Jud was a tremendous defensive coach; his speciality was preventing the opposing team from getting to the hoop. Heathcote, who won 418 and lost 275 games in the 1994-1995 he retired with a winning percentage of.603.

Video: Remembering Jud Heathcote

Remembering Jud Heathcote

9) Lute Olson, Iowa Hawkeyes

Olson took over an Iowa basketball team that was 8-16 under Dick Schultz. They finished 10th in Big Ten and had suffered four consecutive losing seasons. Olson transformed the Iowa Basketball program, making it 19-10 in his second season. In 1978-1979, Iowa won the Big 10 Conference Title. This was the start of five consecutive NCAA Tournament berths.

Olson was the Hawkeyes’ leader in 1979-1980 to a Final Four appearance at the 1980 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. The Hawkeyes reached the 48-team NCAA tournament with an 18-8 record (10-8 in the Big 10), despite being unable to play much of the season without All-American guard Ronnie Lester (knee). Lester was back for the end of the regular season and the tournament. Iowa was seeded #5 in the NCAA East Regional. They defeated Virginia Commonwealth (86-72) and North Carolina State (77-64), as well as #1 seed Syracuse (88-77). Then, they rallied to defeat Georgetown on a last-second basket and free-throw from Steve Waite.

After scoring 10 of Iowa’s 12 first-half points, Lester injures his knee during the NCAA Semifinal. The eventual NCAA champion Louisville beat Iowa 80-72. Iowa finished 15-1 when Lester was fully present and 8-9 without him.

Video: Lute Olson Returns to Iowa and Reflects on Career

Lute Olson Returns to Iowa and Reflects on Career

 

8) Ward Piggy Lambert, Purdue

Lambert was the coach of Purdue University (1916-17 and 1918-1946) and led the Boilermakers to a 371 -152 record in 29 seasons. This included 11 Big Ten Conference titles. His teams were known for their speed and ability to use fast breaks. Stretch Murphy and John Wooden were two of his star players.

Lambert’s 1931-32 season ended with a 17-1 record; Purdue was retroactively named the national champ by the Helms Athletic Foundation and the Prem-Porretta Power Poll. He coached 16 All-Americans as well as 31 All-Big Ten selections.

Video: Ward Lambert

Ward Lambert

7) Bo Ryan, Wisconsin Badgers

Ryan had a record of 364-130 (.737) over 14 seasons. He is the Wisconsin Men’s Basketball’s winningest coach. Ryan owns the highest Big Ten winning percentage, going 172-68 (1.717).

The Badgers won four Big Ten Tournament championships and three regular season titles. He was the 34th NCAA coach ever to surpass the 700-win plateau. His 31-plus seasons saw him finish with a record of 747-233 (.762)

Ryan was named Big Ten coach of the year four times. Ryan Guided UW to 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

6) John Beilein, Michigan Wolverines

Beilein made the Wolverines one of the country’s most elite programs in 12 seasons. He took U-M to two national championship games (2013 and ’18) while also being the school’s winningest coach. Before Beilein arrived, the Wolverines had suffered six straight years of not advancing into the NCAA Tournament. By the time Beilein was done, the Wolverines were once again an elite program.

It would have been nice if Beilein had stayed around instead of leaving. He was such a good coach that it took Juwan Howard a few years to blow it up.

Video: Michigan Basketball - John Beilein Era

Michigan Basketball – John Beilein Era

5) Fred Taylor, Ohio State

Fred Taylor served as head basketball coach of Ohio State University from 1959-1976, leading them to seven Big Ten Championships – including an unprecedented run of five consecutive titles. Ohio State won one National Title during his tenure – 1960; he went runner-up both times (1961 & 1962).

Taylor was winning at the same time Woody Hayes was there, and a school rarely has two dominant Head Coaches in basketball and football at the same time.

4) Gene Keady, Purdue Boilermakers

On April 11, 1980, Gene Keady was named the Purdue Boilermakers men’s basketball coach. Keady was the winningest school coach with 493 wins and the second-winningest coach in Big Ten Conference History, just behind his former rival, Bob Knight. He also won the Big Ten Coach of the Year seven times. The Boilermakers won six Big Ten titles, including three consecutive outright crowns between 1994 and 1996. Keady appointed Matt Painter (1989-1993) as his associate coach for the 2004-2005 seasons. He was chosen to assume the head coaching role.

Video: This Is Purdue - Purdue basketball icon Coach Gene Keady

This Is Purdue – Purdue basketball icon Coach Gene Keady

3) Tom Izzo, Michigan State Spartans

Izzo is the Big Ten Conference’s longest-serving basketball coach. After winning his 341st match on November 29, 2009, Izzo became the school’s most successful coach to surpass Heathcote.

MSU won its second NCAA championship in 2000 when Izzo led it to a win against Florida. Eighty-two per cent of his players, who had completed their eligibility, left MSU with a degree. Izzo does it well, and more importantly, he has done it in the right way. He is the last Big Ten coach to win a National Championship.

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

2) Branch McCraken, Indiana Hoosiers

Branch McCracken won 364 games and two National Titles. Knight is the only other Big Ten coach to have won multiple national championships. Branch emphasised the fast break, earning his team the moniker of the “hurrying hoosiers”. The Hoosiers won in all in 1940 and 1953. Branch collected four Big Ten championships during his 23-year career at Indiana.

Some things happened at IU in the 60s with the football program that hindered the basketball program and the Hoosiers were still a solid program until the end of McCraken’s time as the Hoosiers coach. The branch was innovative and a winner.

Video: Monrovia Moments- Branch McCracken

Monrovia Moments- Branch McCracken

 

1) Bob Knight, Indiana Hoosiers

Knight was 42-21 (.667) in the NCAA tournament during his IU tenure (1971-2000), and more importantly, he won three National Championships. His way of doing it may be questioned, but that is an entirely different argument. Knight was a brilliant X’s and O’s coach, and he beat a lot of teams that were more talented than his. He is the last coach in College Basketball to go through a season undefeated. He made 15 straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1986-2000. There was never even a hint that Knight cheated his program was squeaky clean and his players graduated. Coach Knight coached some of the Greatest Indiana Hoosiers of all time.

Video: NCAA Final Halftime Speech | Perfect in '76

NCAA Final Halftime Speech | Perfect in ’76

Honorable Mentions

Lou Henson, Illinois Fighting Illini

Henson took the University of Illinois job in 1975 to replace Gene Bartow. Bartow had left Illinois to replace John Wooden. Henson won 423 wins and lost 224 games (.654 winning rate) and had a record of 217 wins and 164 losses in Big Ten Conference matches. His 217 Big Ten wins were his third-highest total at the time of retirement. The 1988-89 unit winning a school-record 31 games and reaching the Final Four was his best team in Illinois.

Johnny Orr, Michigan Wolverines

1968 saw Orr become the Michigan head coach, a position he would keep for 12 years. Orr was named Big Ten coach of the year for his 1973-74 team. In 1976, Michigan finished second in the NCAA tournament to the undefeated Indiana Hoosiers. Orr was named National Coach of the Year. His 209 wins were the largest in Michigan history until John Beilein passed him in 2017.

Orr left Michigan and, in just a few years, had turned the Iowa State Cyclones into a big-time basketball school in the mid-80s, proving he could win anywhere.

Dick Bennett, Wisconsin Badgers

In 1995, Bennett took over as Wisconsin’s head coach of men’s basketball. The Badgers won the National Information Tournament bid in Bennett’s first season. The Badgers notched their first winning season in the Big Ten since 1974. He led Wisconsin to three NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2000 Final Four. In 1998-99, Bennett coached Wisconsin to its first-ever twenty-win season. Bennett quit three games into 2000-01 season, citing Burnout.

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