Ranking the 10 Most Polarizing Figures in College Basketball History
College sports are great. They provoke passion and reactions like few other topics.
If you are a college basketball fan, certain notable individuals arouse strong opinions.
These coaches, players and other assorted luminaries provoke people to take extreme opposing positions. Love them or hate them. Fan or foe. Respect or loathe.
The following is a list ranking the 10 most polarizing figures in collegiate hoops history.
Every person on this list has accomplished a high level of success. In most cases, it is their tremendous achievements that ignite everyone's deepest emotions.
10. Dick Vitale and the Cameron Crazies
So, is it cheating to combine Dickie V and Duke’s fanatical student section into the first polarizing figure on this list? Since they absolutely share a fervent love for the Blue Devils, we are just being more efficient in merging the two, right?
Dick Vitale has been selected for the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has been given props for his unabashed manner in freely expressing his opinions on anybody and anything related to the great game of college hoops.
Where he catches some significant flak is when he goes on and on and on about the virtues of Michael William Krzyzewski and his vaunted program from Durham.
The Cameron Crazies are second to none. ESPN.com’s Page 2 called them the “the rowdiest, wittiest, best-organized college basketball fans in the land.” Overall, that is good. Few groups of undergrads are as devoted to their team as the Crazies are to the Blue Devils.
Not everyone is an admirer of the Crazies. PR Newswire.com reprinted a GQ article that named the top 10 worst college sports fans. It said that the Cameron Crazies are “the Clay Aiken’s of college sports fans-too loud, too geeky, too cute, and terminally annoying. It'll take twenty consecutive losing seasons just to make them tolerable again."
9. Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing was one of the most dominating college centers of all time. During his four years as a Hoya, Georgetown basketball became a national sensation, and he became the face of the program.
He led them to the championship game of the NCAA tournament three times. In 1984, they won it all, and Ewing was selected as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
He was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year all four of his years at GU. No one else in conference history has been given this honor more than two times in their collegiate career. Impressive.
The seven-foot center compiled 493 blocks over his four years as a Hoya, an average of 3.4 per game. Ewing won multiple national player of the year awards as a senior (1985).
But Ewing’s success did not lead entirely to popular acceptance and approval. In fact, Ewing was the target of an assortment of racist activities. Grantland’s Robert Mays recalled the severity of the incidents by drawing from Washington Post articles from 1983:
At Providence nearly a month ago, a fan raised a sign that said, "Ewing Can’t Read," and Coach John Thompson pulled his Georgetown basketball team off the court until the sign was taken down.
Nine days ago at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Villanova fans held up several similar signs. One raised bed sheet read, "Ewing is an Ape."
Mays said that "During pregame introductions that same day in Philly, a banana peel was thrown at the court when Ewing’s name was announced."
While many athletes have to endure the scorn of opposing fans, few in modern times have had to withstand this type of bigotry. Even if it was from a small handful of idiots, this type of behavior is inexcusable.
8. Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough is one of the best players in Atlantic Coast Conference history. He is the league’s all-time leading scorer. He was a three-time All-American selection (2007-09).
As a junior, he won almost every national player of the year award. He put the icing on the cake during his senior season by leading the North Carolina Tar Heels to the 2009 national championship.
If you look at what he accomplished on the court, it’s hard not to be impressed with Hansbrough’s four years in Chapel Hill.
One of the signature features of his collegiate hoops career was his pull-out-all-the-stops style of play. He was tireless and tenacious, gritty and always on the go. Hansbrough was expressive and emotional.
No one out-hustled him. No one worked harder than him.
These qualities are what made him successful. These are the characteristics that people loved about him or they could not stand about him.
7. Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino has put together a unique college basketball coaching resume.
He is the only college basketball coach who has taken three different teams (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four. He is also the only coach who has won NCAA championships at two different schools (Kentucky and Louisville). He has now won 664 games and has logged a 73.6 winning percentage.
Pitino’s teams have always played with an in-your-face brashness, applying huge amounts of pressure on both ends of the court. Personally, he has a distinctive and demonstrative sideline style.
At times, he works as hard as the players on the court. From the time that he walks onto the court until the moment he leaves the locker room, Pitino is motivating and moving, bartering and bargaining, disputing and debating.
There are legions of people in Lexington who still love him since his successful stretch (1989-97) coaching the Wildcats. There are just as many in the Big Blue Nation who could forgive him for leaving, but nearly lost their minds when he took the job at Louisville.
6. Adolph Rupp
Few coaches have had the success that Adolph Rupp had in his 41 years of coaching the Kentucky Wildcats. He was the architect and builder of the fabled UK program that continues to this day to be one of the principal hubs of collegiate hoops.
Among Division I coaches, Rupp’s 876 wins puts him at No. 5 all time. His 82.2 winning percentage puts him in second place. His teams won four NCAA championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958) putting him in a tie with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at No. 2 (behind John Wooden, who has 10 titles).
Rupp had the reputation of being a tough and demanding coach. His practices reminded many of "a military boot camp." He was outspoken. He once said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game – that’s what they say. Well, that’s a lot of hogwash. Why the hell do they keep score if that’s true,” per the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Sept. 19, 1972.
Former players intimated that Rupp used verbal jabs and stabs to motivate. UK star Bill Spivey once said that Rupp “wanted everybody to hate him, and he succeeded.” (h/t Doran Miller-Rosenberg and Jim Weber of USA Today)
Even today, Rupp is simultaneously legendary (among the long-term Wildcat devotees) and loathed (among those who despise anything related to the Big Blue Nation).
5. The Fab Five
The Fab Five, Michigan’s 1991 recruiting class, has been thought of as the “best recruiting class of all time.” Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson made up this celebrated group that took the Big Ten and college basketball by storm.
They all were starting by February of their freshman season. They made it to the 1992 and 1993 NCAA championship games (as both freshmen and sophomores).
As much as they were a success on the court, the Fab Five made a serious impact in all the issues surrounding the actual games that they played and won.
The Atlantic’s Kevin Craft summarized how their influence was unique:
The Fab Five are something of an anomaly, a team whose achievements are far greater than those of the championship winning teams from that era of college basketball.
They were a cultural phenomenon, a group of young men whose novel style of dress (black shoes, black socks), on-court bravado, and exciting style of play made them bigger than the game.
To this day, the Fab Five are credited and criticized for who they were and what they did.
4. John Calipari
John Calipari has carved out a reputation as being one of the best recruiters of all time. In his four years at Kentucky, he has reeled in one elite-level recruiting class after another. The Wildcats, on his watch, have won 123 games in four years, including winning it all in 2012. They love him in Lexington!
Calipari also had success at his other collegiate head coaching stops.
His eight years at UMass resulted in multiple March Madness trips. However, the Minutemen had to vacate their 1996 Final Four trip because of a player having banned contact with an agent.
Coach Cal also did extremely well in Memphis, where he went 214-67. Unfortunately, the Tigers had to vacate the entire 2007-08 season because of an academic scam concerning a player’s test scores.
Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price points out that “the NCAA hasn't held him accountable for any major violation. Dark rumors about his recruiting methods have never stuck.” But, this has not stopped Calipari’s detractors from accusing him of wrong doing at every possible opportunity.
3. Christian Laettner (Duke)
Christian Laettner was a college basketball player who inspired intense love and powerful hate.
If you were a Duke fan between 1988-1992, you were overjoyed that Laettner was getting it done at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He helped lead the Blue Devils to four consecutive Final Fours, winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992.
He won just about every national player of the year award in his senior season (1992) and was selected as an All-American in both his junior and senior seasons.
If you were not a Duke fan in this time period, you not only disliked him because of his skills, but you may have detested him because of his on-court persona and pomposity. Grantland’s Mark Titus points out that Laettner not only was selected as “most hated college basketball player in the last 30 years” but that he won that title “by a landslide.”
2. Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski is the all-time wins leader among Division I coaches. After the 2012-13 season, Coach K has won 957 games and counting. His Duke Blue Devil teams have won four NCAA championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010). He has built the college basketball program that is considered the gold standard in terms of success for the long haul.
His Duke teams have been filled with elite-level talent. They play disciplined and up-tempo basketball. On a season-by-season basis, the Blue Devils are normally in the Top 10 in the rankings and make a decent run in March Madness.
USA Today’s Chris Chase outlined “ "The 12 Biggest Reasons Everybody Hates Duke." While he gives 11 other reasons, Chase’s No. 1 reason is very telling: “Because they are the best.”
And Coach K, rightly so, gets most of the blame or credit for the quality of the program.
1. Bob Knight
There has always been very little middle ground with people’s perception of Bob Knight.
His run at Indiana from 1971-2000 was one of the most successful spans of all time. Overall, Knight posted a 902-371 record, good for No. 3 among Division I coaches (behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim). He won three NCAA championships (1976, 1981, 1987) and won 11 Big Ten Championships.
Knight was one of the best tactical coaches in the history of the game. He was great in preparing his teams to compete. He was also a mastermind in terms of in-game adjustments.
However, his on-court theatrics and tantrums turned many people off. His post-game press conference antics were condescending and distasteful. His infamous "Chair Throw" was only the most visible example of Knight absolutely losing it.
There was never a question about whether or not Knight ran a clean program, that his players graduated or that the Hoosiers won games. It’s all the “other issues” that made Knight so controversial and so polarizing.