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The 10 Most Polarizing Coaches in College Basketball

Thad NovakCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2016

The 10 Most Polarizing Coaches in College Basketball

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    College basketball players come and go, but coaches provide fans with a more constant focal point for their love (or hatred) of a particular program. Often, the ones who inspire the strongest emotions are also the ones who have the most success—whether fans see it as deserved or not.

    West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, for example, has racked up 23 seasons of 20-plus victories. He’s also developed a reputation for dismissing the “student” part of “student-athlete” even more than most coaches, one that hasn’t endeared him to fans who already think his teams’ physical defense crosses the line into thuggishness.

    Herein, a closer look at Huggins and the rest of the 10 active coaches who inspire the most intense reactions, good and bad, from the college hoops world at large.

10. Kevin Ollie, UConn

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    The iconic Jim Calhoun would’ve placed even higher on this list, but his replacement in Storrs has immediately become a source of divided opinions.

    Non-UConn fans, of course, are mostly glad to see Calhoun out of the picture (regardless of the alternative). UConn Husky loyalists, though, have some strong feelings on both sides about whether Kevin Ollie is the right man to take over the powerhouse team.

    Supporters can point to Ollie’s familiarity with the UConn program (as both a player and assistant under Calhoun) as well as his long NBA experience as a teammate of stars from Allen Iverson to Kevin Durant.

    However, the doomsayer contingent is a substantial one. It believes that hiring a first-time head coach with little name recognition will automatically doom the Huskies’ brand.

    Until Ollie’s team survives this year’s postseason ban and proves that it can resume contending for the Final Four on a regular basis, his critics will be both plentiful and vocal.

9. Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

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    Nicknamed “The Mayor” in his incandescent playing career in Ames, Fred Hoiberg is making himself just as beloved by Iowa State Cyclone fans as the team’s third-year head coach.

    His solution to making Iowa State a winner, however, hasn’t been nearly as popular with fans and coaches elsewhere.

    Hoiberg has turned Iowa State into a career rehabilitation center for talented transfers who didn’t get along with the coaches at bigger-name programs.

    The Big Ten has proven especially fertile ground for Hoiberg, who’s already snapped up Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Korie Lucious (ditto) in his brief tenure.

    The recent uptick in high-profile transfers around the country has its share of coaches grumbling about players who bail out rather than put up with discipline.

    The more games Hoiberg and his transfer-loaded team win, the more of that frustration will be focused on the Iowa State head man.

8. Ben Howland, UCLA

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    At this time two years ago, there would have been no reason to include Ben Howland on this list. The coach who took UCLA to three straight Final Fours had hardly anything negative on his resume at that time.

    Last year’s UCLA Bruin meltdown, though, spawned a host of detractors questioning both Howland’s ability to win and his influence (or lack thereof) over his players.

    Amid reports that he allows the inmates to run the asylum, Howland has been committing the greater sin of losing at UCLA. Last year’s 19-14 debacle looks even worse with the Bruins having fallen from the Top 25 so quickly this season.

    Home losses to the likes of Loyola Marymount (last November) and Cal Poly (this season) have made many fans question whether Howland belongs in Westwood, regardless of his previous successes.

7. Larry Eustachy, Colorado State

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    Plenty of college coaches have lost high-profile jobs to scandal, but few have managed to do so with quite the same personal-embarrassment factor as Larry Eustachy.

    Two years after guiding Iowa State to one of the greatest seasons in school history, Eustachy resigned. Not only had photos surfaced showing him drinking with underage students, but he was accused of propositioning women at those same college parties.

    Eustachy, who admitted battling alcoholism at the time, has avoided any further notoriety in subsequent stints at Southern Miss and, starting this season, at Colorado State.

    Still, he’s an awfully easy target for anyone looking to complain about how quick athletic directors are to overlook bad behavior in exchange for a winning record.

6. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke

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    Although he doesn’t come in for nearly as much vitriol personally as his much-detested program gets, Mike Krzyzewski still weathers his share of criticism.

    After all, it’s impossible for a program to develop the reputation for arrogance and entitlement that the Duke Blue Devils have garnered without some of that image reflecting on the head coach who built it into a national power.

    Coach K deserves credit for keeping pace with the country’s best recruiters without running afoul of the NCAA.

    His detractors, though, would love to see an ongoing NCAA investigation (into former player Lance Thomas’ jewelry purchases) put a blot on the squeaky-clean image of the college game’s winningest coach. 

5. Tim Floyd, UTEP

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    Having landed with a UTEP Miners program that’s even farther under the radar than its nickname, Tim Floyd isn’t much in the public eye anymore.

    If he can build UTEP into a contender, though, you can bet that fans will remember the cloud under which he left his last, much more visible, gig at USC.

    Floyd resigned from the Trojans job amid allegations of one of the few unforgivable transgressions for a winning coach: cash payments for star recruits.

    Whether he did or didn’t shell out money to bring O.J. Mayo to L.A. is immaterial here. The mere perception of his involvement in such a scandal will leave his name unalterably blackened for many fans—regardless of his success or conduct in El Paso.

4. Bob Huggins, West Virginia

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    In his 16 seasons at Cincinnati, Bob Huggins built a reputation as a consummate winner. He also became the poster boy for winning at the cost of any pretense of caring about academics.

    Huggins’ overall graduation rate for his Cincinnati Bearcats players was 28 percent, and he recorded four different seasons of zero-percent graduation.

    Now running the show for his alma mater, Huggins has helped instill the same dedication to defense that made his Cincinnati teams so difficult to beat.

    For many fans, though, it’s his perceived lack of dedication to anything other than basketball that makes him a symbol of all that’s wrong with college sports.

3. Rick Pitino, Louisville

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    Setting aside the NBA fans who cringed at his attempt to win with the Boston Celtics, Rick Pitino has found plenty of critics at the college level as well.

    Unlike many of his peers, though, he’s gotten the most criticism for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball.

    As part of the fallout from an extortion attempt made against him, the married Pitino admitted to having sex with the wife of his team’s equipment manager in 2003.

    A coach’s personal life is arguably his own business, but it’s not hard to make the case that such a public misstep makes Pitino a poor choice to be mentoring student-athletes.

    Pitino also invited a different kind of vitriol when he became the rare coach to take a job with his former team’s bitter rival, going (indirectly) from Kentucky to Louisville.

2. Larry Brown, SMU

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    No player or coach in SMU basketball history has attained the success in his career that Larry Brown has had.

    For all that he’s won over 2,500 games between college and the pros, though, Brown’s success can come at a high price for his teams and their fans.

    His notorious distaste for playing rookies/freshmen frequently results in his leaving top talents on the bench. He averages less than four seasons with any one team before pulling up stakes and heading to a new job.

    Most worrisome for SMU Mustangs fans, Brown has held two previous college jobs (UCLA and Kansas), and both programs have been hit with major NCAA sanctions as a direct result of his tenure as head coach. 

1. John Calipari, Kentucky

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    Outside of Kentucky, there isn’t a more hated figure in the current college basketball landscape than John Calipari.

    The game’s most unstoppable recruiter has opposing fans counting the days until the major NCAA violation that brings down his wildly successful program.

    Given Calipari’s track record, such speculation isn’t entirely unfounded.

    Although Calipari himself has avoided any culpability, both of his previous programs—UMass and Memphis—have had Final Four appearances vacated due to violations committed by star recruits.

    He’s also one of many coaches who suffers from the pervasive perception that any successful recruiter in contemporary college sports has to be cheating in one way or another.

    Small wonder, then, that fans who aren’t getting the benefit of his extraordinary skill are hoping his presence will backfire on the program he guided to a national title just eight months ago.

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