Ranking the 10 Most Shocking Coaching Changes in NCAA Basketball History
The implosion of Mike Rice’s Rutgers career served as a stark reminder that coaching changes don’t always go by the book in NCAA basketball. Some of the biggest names in collegiate coaching history have left jobs (or had jobs pulled out from under them) under some decidedly unusual circumstances.
One coach who found out just how fast success could turn sour was former UCLA head man Jim Harrick. Just over a year after he brought the national championship back to Westwood, Harrick found himself thrown out on his ear for financial improprieties involving his Bruins players.
Read on for more on Harrick’s ouster and the rest of the most surprising coaching moves—voluntary and otherwise—in the annals of the college game.
10. Steve Alford, New Mexico
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In and of itself, leaving a less-prominent program for a shot at the big time is as unsurprising a move as a head coach can make. The reason Steve Alford’s departure from Albuquerque deserves a spot on this list is purely a matter of time—or rather, lack thereof.
A grand total of 10 days elapsed between Alford’s signing a gargantuan 10-year contract extension with the Lobos and his hiring as UCLA head coach.
Alford’s far from the only coach to leave a job where fans expected him to stay for the foreseeable future (see Williams, Roy). Still, he might at least have pretended to hesitate before turning his back on a team that had just been happy to sign its future over to him.
Assistant Craig Neal gets the job of keeping the two-time defending MWC champs on top, a task made that much tougher by the loss of Alford’s son Bryce, a standout recruit now headed to Westwood with his dad.
9. Al McGuire, Marquette
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Sports lore has always had a special place for winners who go out on top, and Al McGuire did exactly that. He just didn’t go out at a time anyone else was expecting.
In December of 1976, the 48-year-old McGuire announced that he was retiring from coaching at the end of the season to take an executive job at uniform manufacturer Medalist.
Even when he proceeded to guide his Marquette team to its only national title at the end of that season, McGuire upheld his commitment to the company and stepped aside. He later went on to a successful announcing career but never returned to the sidelines.
McGuire's assistant Hank Raymonds took the reins of the Warriors (as they were then called), winning 24 games in the first of what would be six fine seasons as head coach.
8. Larry Brown, Kansas
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In some sense, any coaching change involving the famously peripatetic Larry Brown has to be expected, but Brown’s exit from the Kansas program was a strange sequence of events even for him.
In March of 1988, Brown had just finished coaching one of the great underdog champions in history, guiding Danny Manning’s Jayhawks from a No. 6 seed to the national title.
On April 9 of that year, Brown appeared to declare his (uncharacteristic) loyalty to the KU program by turning down a chance to return to mighty UCLA, where he’d gotten his first college coaching job.
And yet, after raising fans’ hopes of holding on to their title-winning sideline leader, Brown pulled his disappearing act yet again.
Before the Jayhawks could even begin their title defense, he jumped to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs for a huge pile of money and left Roy Williams to take over a team about to be hit with major NCAA sanctions.
7. Larry Eustachy, Iowa State
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Even on this scandal-plagued list, Larry Eustachy manages to set himself apart in one category.
None of these coaches managed to sabotage their careers with the same degree of personal embarrassment that saw Eustachy fall from grace at Iowa State within the space of two weeks in 2003.
A pair of Big 12 titles had earned Eustachy a fat contract extension from the Cyclones two years earlier, but even on-court success couldn’t save his job after pictures surfaced of him drinking with underage students (and kissing several of the female ones).
The story broke on April 28, 2003, and by May 6, Eustachy—who has since acknowledged that he was battling alcoholism at the time—had resigned.
He was replaced by assistant Wayne Morgan, who won 20 games in his coaching debut but lasted just three seasons in Ames overall.
6. Clem Haskins, Minnesota
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Rarely has a first-round NCAA tournament upset been more thoroughly ignored by the losing team’s fanbase than Minnesota’s 1999 defeat at the hands of soon-to-be-famous Gonzaga.
The day before the game, the story broke that would end the career of the only coach ever to put the Gophers in the Final Four.
Clem Haskins had become the defining coach in Minnesota hoops history, but the NCAA determined that he had also paid a tutor to write papers in his players' stead, then lied about the incident.
The seven-year show-cause penalty that Haskins received put an ugly end to what had been a fine 19-year career as a head coach.
Oddly enough, the same Gonzaga team that dealt Haskins his final loss also provided his replacement. The Gophers hired Dan Monson away from the Zags for what proved to be seven-plus seasons of dreadfully mediocre coaching performances.
5. Jim Harrick, UCLA
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Presiding over one of the most memorable losses in UCLA history wasn’t, in itself, enough to get Jim Harrick fired in Westwood.
It’s fitting, though, that Harrick’s last game as Bruins coach happened to be the infamous 43-41 defeat that underdog Princeton handed to the defending national champs in the 1996 NCAA tournament.
During the ensuing offseason, Harrick was accused of falsifying expense reports to conceal benefits violations involving some of his current players. Two weeks before the regular-season opener against Tulsa, UCLA sent its coach packing.
Thrust into the fire in Harrick’s stead, Steve Lavin turned in some solid records, including a 24-8 mark in his head-coaching debut.
However, his legacy with Bruin fans is more about his unfulfilled potential in March Madness play than anything he did in the regular season.
4. Mike Rice, Rutgers
If Mike Rice wanted to put Rutgers basketball on the map, he really should have chosen a different method. Few outside of the Garden State had ever heard of Rice before the season started, but his downfall became national news.
By now, anyone who cares to do so has seen the video of Rice berating and bombarding his Scarlet Knights players, and there’s been widespread agreement that his firing was well deserved.
Why a coach with a 44-51 record would’ve expected to dodge the consequences of such obviously inflammatory actions is just one of the mysteries surrounding this entire case.
Rice’s unlucky successor is former Scarlet Knights (and NBA) guard Eddie Jordan.
This can’t have been the return to his alma mater that Jordan would’ve hoped for, but he does have an opportunity to help put an ugly chapter in program history in the rearview mirror.
3. Bob Huggins, Cincinnati
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Ed Jucker owns the only two national titles in Cincinnati history, but no Bearcat coach has even half as many wins as the 398 Bob Huggins amassed in his 16 seasons.
That kind of winning usually allows a coach to leave a program on his own terms, but in 2005, Huggins turned into an exception.
Then-new university president Nancy Zimpher, looking to improve the school’s academic reputation, had been at odds with Huggins and his infamously awful graduation rates since her arrival for the 2003-04 academic year.
After a string of confrontations, Huggins’ forced resignation—mere months after an apparent agreement to keep him on for two more seasons—brought an ignominious end to a hugely successful chapter in the coach's Hall of Fame-bound career.
Andy Kennedy took over in Huggins’ absence, winning 21 games in his lone season with the Bearcats before jumping to his current job at Ole Miss.
2. Frank Martin, Kansas State
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Frank Martin’s first five years as a head coach were marked by a degree of success unprecedented in the history of the Kansas State program.
Obviously, the logical thing for Martin to do was to leave town to take over a low-profile team to which he had no particular connection and that was mired in a decades-long slump.
Despite a host of obvious reasons why nobody would want the head coaching job at South Carolina, Martin took it last spring. He left Manhattan after compiling a terrific 117-54 record and leading the Wildcats to their first Elite Eight in two decades.
Bruce Weber isn’t off to a terrible start as Martin’s high-profile replacement. Though, an ugly NCAA tournament loss to La Salle took some of the shine off the Wildcats' shared Big 12 title and 27-8 record.
1. Bobby Knight, Indiana
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To all appearances, Bob Knight was as untouchable as any coach in college sports. Three times a national champion by 1999-00, Knight had nearly doubled the school-record win total posted by the legendary Branch McCracken as Indiana’s head coach.
However, reports of Knight having choked a player during practice led to then-IU president Myles Brand (later head of the NCAA) declaring a so-called “zero-tolerance policy.”
To the surprise of many fans, Brand backed up his statement, relieving Knight (already a Hall of Famer for nine years at the time) of his coaching duties after further reports of physical altercations with players.
Mike Davis took Knight’s place just over a month before the start of the 2000-01 regular season but did manage a respectable 21-13 record in his first year as a head coach.
He would take the Hoosiers to the national title game a year later—the only Final Four the team has reached since Knight’s departure.