10 Greatest Coaches in NCAA Basketball History
Here at Bleacher Report, we love two things: sports and making lists.
The skill of making lists can very much come in handy in everyday situations. In fact, Liam Neeson’s ability to create lists was what got him cast in Steven Spielberg’s legendary 1993 film Schindler’s List (no, really).
So when I was charged with the unenviable task of determining the greatest head coaches in Division 1 men’s college basketball history, I channeled my inner Liam Neeson and/or Oskar Schindler and came up with my own little list.
And here it is.
10. Jim Phelan
There are likely some younger college basketball fans that aren’t even vaguely aware of whom Jim Phelan is. They’d be wise to do their research on a man who most definitely deserves his rightful place on this list.
When you think of Mount Saint Mary’s basketball, you think of Phelan first and foremost. The coach who always wore a spiffy bowtie around his neck spent all 49 years of his head coaching career at Mt. St. Mary’s out of Maryland.
While there, he transcended the program from the Division III to Division I level, a status the program achieved in the late 1980s (they currently play in the Northeastern Conference). In all, Phelan racked up 830 career victories across all three NCAA divisions, along with the 1962 Division II national championship.
9. Eddie Sutton
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Yes, Eddie Sutton’s college coaching career didn’t end all that gracefully. At his second-to-last coaching stop at Oklahoma State, Sutton resigned in 2006 after being arrested for DUI.
But even an unfortunate incident like this doesn’t prevent the legendary Sutton from finding his way onto this list. Overall, Sutton amassed 804 career victories at the Division I level (888 overall) through coaching tenures at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State and San Francisco.
Along the way, Sutton coached at the Final Four in three separate decades (with Arkansas in 1978 and Oklahoma State in 1995 and 2004). Today, the Cowboys men’s basketball team plays its home games on Eddie Sutton court at the famous Gallagher-Iba Arena.
8. Lute Olson
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It’s safe to say the Arizona men’s basketball program wouldn’t be held in such high regards without the contributions of the retired Lute Olson. Before his stop at Arizona, Olson had successful stints with Long Beach State (winning the Big West title in 1974) and Iowa (reaching the Final Four in 1980).
When Olson arrived in the desert, he took over a Wildcats program that was dormant. Three years into his tenure, Arizona won its first Pac 10 title in 1986. Overall, Olson guided the Wildcats to five Final Four appearances, culminating in a national title in 1997.
And just in case you’re keeping track of the number of victories, Olson tallied 780 at the Division I level.
7. Jim Boeheim
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Over his 36 seasons in upstate New York, Jim Boeheim has almost singlehandedly turned the Syracuse men’s basketball program into one of the sport’s most prestigious. The Hall of Fame coach has dedicated most of his life to the Orange men’s basketball team.
Originally, he played guard at Syracuse in the 1960s and served as a team captain during his career. In his freshman year, Boeheim’s roommate was Syracuse All-American and former Detroit Piston Dave Bing.
After serving as an assistant coach for seven seasons under Roy Danforth, Boeheim was named head coach of the Orange in 1976 and hasn’t looked back since. Currently, Boeheim is the holder of 890 career victories (good for third all-time) and a national championship.
In case you forgot, title came when star freshman Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to the promised land in 2003.
6. Jim Calhoun
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Jim Calhoun may have just retired from the UConn Huskies, but he didn’t do it without pulling off arguably the greatest construction of an elite college basketball program ever. Before arriving at Connecticut in 1986, hardly anyone outside of Storrs knew of the accomplishments of the men’s basketball team.
It’s safe to say many know about Huskies basketball now. Calhoun’s UConn teams won over 600 games, seven Big East Tournament titles, made four Final Four appearances and won three national championships.
The most recent NCAA title came in 2011, which made Calhoun the oldest coach (at age 68) in Division I history to win college basketball’s grandest prize. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the feisty Irishman out of Boston.
Calhoun’s team was placed on probation by the NCAA in 2011 for having a booster-turned-agent try to recruit a player (Nate Miles). Still, it’s tough to deny Calhoun’s lofty ranking on this list.
5. Dean Smith
Dean Smith was granted the North Carolina head coaching job back in 1961 with the task of cleaning up a Tar Heels program that was on probation.
Not only did Smith clean it up, he turned it into one of the most successful programs in college basketball history. In his 36 years behind the Carolina bench, Smith amassed 879 victories, 11 Final Four appearances and two national championships (1982 and 1993).
Not only that, Smith was one of the great innovators of the game on the college level. Never was this more evident than in the implementation of his Four Corners offense, where he would spread his players out over the four corners of the court to ice a victory at the end of a game.
And if these accomplishments aren’t enough to get Smith this high on the list, don’t forget the fact that he coached the Tar Heel who many (including myself) consider to be the greatest basketball player to ever walk the face of the earth: Michael Jordan.
4. Adolph Rupp
Many great players and coaches have come and gone through the mighty Kentucky program over its storied history. Perhaps none other is more revered and accomplished than the Baron of the Bluegrass, Adolph Rupp.
In his 42 seasons as head coach in Lexington, Rupp’s Kentucky teams made the NCAA Tournament 20 times. Six of those teams made the Final Four, and four of those went on to win the national championship.
Rupp was a four-time national coach of the year and a seven-time SEC coach of the year. The man who won 876 games and at an incredible 82 percent rate was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969.
Today, John Calipari’s Wildcat teams play their home games at Rupp Arena.
3. Mike Krzyzewski
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When you hear the nickname Coach K, you know exactly who it refers to.
Through his three-plus decades as head coach at Duke, all Mike Krzyzewski has done is go to 11 Final Fours, win four national championships, become college basketball’s all-time wins leader in Division 1 (927 and counting) and win two Olympic medals (2004 and 2008) as head coach of Team USA.
Not too bad for the Polish-American who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago. A strong case can be made that Coach K is the best coach alive in American sports today.
Even 32 years into his Duke tenure, Krzyzewski’s teams are still competing for national championships on a regular basis.
In an era of competitive recruiting and 24-hour sports networks that combine forces to make coaching harder than it ever has been, the stellar job the Hall of Fame coach continues to do today is simply remarkable.
2. Bobby Knight
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Few coaches in the history of college basketball have been as intimidating, polarizing and utterly successful as the General, Bobby Knight. The second-winningest Division I coach ever (with 902 wins), Knight transformed Indiana into one of the country’s truly elite programs.
In his nearly three decades in Bloomington, Knight’s Hoosiers won 11 Big Ten regular season championships, advanced to five Final Fours and won three national championships. But Knight’s fiery temper and hard-nosed style eventually got him banished from the program he almost singlehandedly built.
Knight was fired by the late Myles Brand (former NCAA and IU President) in 2000 after video footage surfaced of Knight putting his hands on the neck of one of his players (Neil Reed) during a team practice.
Even with the black eye, Knight’s spot at number two on the list is undeniable. He coached Mike Krzyzewski at Army and is the last coach to guide a team unscathed through an entire season in Division I—Quinn Buckner's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
1. John Wooden
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College basketball’s greatest coach ever has to be John Wooden. His UCLA Bruins put a stranglehold on the sport during his time in Southern California.
In Wooden’s 27 years as the Bruins’ head coach, his teams won an unprecedented 10 national championships, including seven straight at one point in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The next closest coaches in terms of titles won?
That would be Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp with a meager four each.
Wooden was a member of the inaugural College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame back in 1961.
Even more important than his basketball accomplishments, though, Wooden was seen as a great leader of young men. His famous and inspirational Pyramid of Success and Seven Point Creed philosophies were followed by scores of his most successful players, including NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.
Given his greatness on and off the court, Wooden topping this list is simply a no-brainer.