The Best Coach in the History of Every Big Ten Basketball Team
Some of the Big Ten Conference's member schools have sired some of the most iconic coaches in the history of college basketball. Others have been led by a faceless procession of anonymous grinders.
While some schools have been led to Final Fours by two, three or even four different coaches, a couple don't even have enough NCAA tournament bids to fill two hands. One Big Ten coach hasn't even gotten to start counting yet.
The Big Ten coaches selected here as each school's best were chosen primarily by the numbers, including wins, Big Ten titles, NCAA bids and the occasional Final Four trip. Some, however, weighed their numbers down with off-court issues that tarnished otherwise impressive legacies (take a bow, Clem Haskins).
An honorable mention has also been offered for each school in case the reader wonders how close his or her personal favorite is to the top.
A few of these coaches are hall of famers, while some would never get there without a ticket. The difference between the two ably spells out the difference between one school's tradition and another's lack thereof.
All coaching records courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.
Lou Henson, Illinois
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Record: 421-226, .651, 1 Big Ten title, 12 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four
Lou Henson had Illinois among the Big Ten's most consistent contenders throughout the 1980s. From 1980 to 1991, Henson's teams finished out of the league's top four only once.
Regardless, the Illini break through only once to win the conference, and that wasn't even with his best team. Illinois' 1989 Final Four team featured five future NBA players and averaged a whopping 86.4 points per game.
The 1990-91 team ended the streak of eight straight NCAA bids only because the Illini had been banned from the postseason for violations uncovered during the recruitment of Chicago center Deon Thomas.
In Henson's final seven years on the job in Champaign, his teams won only one NCAA tournament game, illustrating the primary rub against him. In those 12 NCAA trips, the Illini won only 13 games combined, including getting stuffed as a No. 3 seed by Austin Peay in 1987.
Honorable Mention: Harry Combes (316-150, .678 win pct., 4 Big Ten titles, 4 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours)
While Combes was drummed out in the wake of a "slush fund" scandal in 1967, an event that nearly saw Illinois booted from the Big Ten, his indiscretions are largely tame by today's standards.
Combes coached an up-tempo style that was a far cry from anything that he was involved with as an Illini player. His 1964-65 club scored 100 or more points nine times, a tremendous number in any era of college hoops.
Bob Knight, Indiana
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Record: 659-242, .731 win pct., 11 Big Ten titles, 24 NCAA tournaments, 5 Final Fours, 3 national titles
Bob Knight's credentials speak for themselves: The national championships, the 24 tournaments in 29 years, the unbeaten regular seasons in 1974-75 and 1975-76...the flying chairs, the bullwhips, the accosting of students.
The list of accomplishments, and public embarrassments, goes on and on.
The very same temper and steely determination that made Knight a controversial and occasionally offensive figure also made him one of college basketball's greatest-ever coaches. Unlike his contemporaries at nearly every other school in the Big Ten, Knight and his IU program never ran afoul of NCAA investigators.
Knight's legacy continues unabated through a lengthy list of head coaches who either assisted or played for him. NBA coaches like Mike Woodson, Randy Wittman and Keith Smart rub shoulders with college bosses like Steve Alford, Jim Crews and star pupil Mike Krzyzewski.
Honorable Mention: Branch McCracken (364-174, .677, 4 Big Ten titles, 4 NCAA tournaments, 2 Final Fours, 2 national titles)
Indiana is one of only two Big Ten universities with multiple national titles, with Michigan State being the other. IU is the only school with more than one coach winning multiple national championships, and it has two such men.
Branch McCracken led the original "Hurryin' Hoosiers," a team that ran the fast break all the way to the NCAA's second-ever national tournament championship in 1940. That win gave the 31-year-old McCracken a record that he still holds, as being the youngest coach to win the tournament.
Tom Davis, Iowa
Photo credit: HawkCentral.com
Record: 269-140, .658 win pct., 9 NCAA tournaments
Very few coaches can claim that they never lost a first-round game in the NCAA tournament. Dr. Tom Davis is on that short list. Davis' 13 wins in nine tournament trips matched the number that Lou Henson won in his 12 bids.
Davis, though, never reached a Final Four and that consistent, but unspectacular, success proved to be his undoing. He made an Elite Eight and a Sweet 16 in his first two seasons, but didn't get that far again until his final season, long after athletic director Bob Bowlsby announced that his contract was not being renewed.
Successors Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter struggled and current coach Fran McCaffery has taken four years to get the program poised to be a tournament team again.
In hindsight, the Hawkeye faithful have realized what they had in Dr. Tom. He still lives in Iowa City, emphasizing exactly how large a part of the community he was as coach.
Honorable Mention: Bucky O'Connor (114-59, .659, 2 Big Ten titles, 2 NCAA tournaments, 2 Final Fours)
O'Connor led the Hawkeyes through the 1950s, during the era of a 24-team NCAA tournament that would usually only invite conference champions. He's one of only three Hawkeye coaches to win multiple Big Ten championships, a feat that neither Tom Davis nor Lute Olson could ever pull off.
Both of those Big Ten title teams were spurred by the legendary "Fabulous Five," a crew that all averaged in double figures during the 1955-56 season. They lost four straight games, including their Big Ten opener, then went undefeated until running into Bill Russell's San Francisco team in the national final.
Steve Fisher, Michigan
Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESS
Record: 185-81, .695 win pct., 7 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours, 1 national title
Steve Fisher's tenure at Michigan had a pall over it thanks to a retired Ford Motor Company electrician named Ed Martin.
Still, we're talking about a school that only went to eight of the first 46 NCAA tournaments. The Wolverines' basketball tradition was not exactly illustrious before Fisher and his predecessor, Bill Frieder, arrived.
Fisher became a folk hero by leading the 1988-89 Wolverines to the national championship six games into his head coaching career. Landing one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time, a group immortalized as the "Fab Five," got him to two national title games and an Elite Eight.
Successes of this caliber had not been seen since Dave Strack led three straight top-10 teams in the mid-'60s. Still, Strack never got over the hump to a national championship.
The NCAA may have vacated Fisher's Final Fours due to Martin's association with Chris Webber, but that national title still stands proudly in the minds of Michigan fans.
Honorable Mention: Bill Frieder (189-89, .680, 2 Big Ten titles, 5 NCAA tournaments)
Frieder deserves a chunk of the credit for that national championship team, as well as for laying the groundwork that led to that run. Frieder began winning the in-state recruiting battles that Michigan State's Jud Heathcote was dominating in the wake of his 1979 national title.
He took Heathcote's measure on the court as well. His teams were 10-8 against MSU, winning five of their final six meetings with Frieder at the helm. The 1985-86 Wolverines won the school's last Big Ten title until 2012.
Frieder gets credit for reaching, if not winning, the 1989 NCAA tournament. It should be noted that it was his fifth straight team to reach the dance. None lost in the first round.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Record: 439-178, .712 win pct., 7 Big Ten RS titles, 3 Big Ten tournament titles, 16 NCAA tournaments, 6 Final Fours, 1 national title
Tom Izzo has appeared in more Final Fours than any coach in Big Ten history, including Bob Knight and Fred Taylor.
His Big Ten titles tie him with Taylor for fourth on the all-time list. Only Knight and Gene Keady have made more NCAA tournaments, and Izzo will catch Keady this coming season.
None of Izzo's teams have missed the postseason, with the first two making the NIT and the rest reaching the big dance. The 16 straight NCAA appearances form an active streak only bettered by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
Any questions? Do we need to go on? Eh, didn't think so.
Honorable Mention: Jud Heathcote (336-224, .600, 3 Big Ten titles, 9 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four, 1 national title)
If all Jud Heathcote did was hire Izzo, he'd have a strong place in Sparty hoop history. Even before that, however, Jud hit the ground running.
Heathcote won a Big Ten title behind Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser in his second season, then triumphed over Larry Bird and an unbeaten Indiana State squad to win the national championship in his third.
MSU treaded water after that, making only seven of 16 NCAA tournaments, winning seven March games and a lone Big Ten title. Still, his success was sweet for a program that had only made two tournaments before he arrived.
Louis "Doc" Cooke, Minnesota
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Record: 248-131, .654 win pct., 5 Big Ten titles
Doc Cooke was one of the first full-time college basketball coaches, being put on the University of Minnesota's payroll in 1897. His career predates the NCAA tournament, and even predates the Big Ten itself.
The Gophers were the first recognized Big Ten champion in 1906, but even before that, Cooke was leading them to tremendous success. His 1901-02 and 1902-03 teams were both undefeated and were retroactively awarded national championships by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
UM recorded another unbeaten season in 1918-19, and it was likewise rewarded with a retroactive national title. In an era in which teams averaged around 20 points per game, that Minnesota team won all but two of its games by double digits.
Doc's winning percentage ranks second in Gophers' history, and his win total still tops the program's all-time chart.
Honorable Mention: Jim Dutcher (190-113, .627, 1 Big Ten title, 1 NCAA tournament)
Dutcher has the Gophers' last Big Ten championship that the NCAA still recognizes, winning the crown in 1981-82 behind future pros Randy Breuer and Trent Tucker.
He was the first Gopher coach to record multiple 20-win seasons, and the team's 24-win season in 1976-77 has still only been bettered by Clem Haskins' 35-5 Final Four team in 1996-97.
And for those of you wondering why Haskins is left off while Steve Fisher still gets credit for his Michigan accomplishments, two reasons: Haskins admitted to actively paying a counselor to commit academic fraud, and Ed Martin's influence on the Michigan program predated Fisher's hiring as head coach.
Feel free to discuss in the comments.
Danny Nee, Nebraska
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Record: 254-190, .572 win pct., 1 Big 8 tournament title, 5 NCAA tournaments
Danny Nee never won an NCAA tournament game, but neither has anyone else at Nebraska.
Only Nee's predecessor, Moe Iba, and his 1986 team even made it to the March main event before Nee arrived.
Nee still has seven of the university's 12 20-win seasons and he lasted long enough to nip Joe Cipriano by one victory for the Huskers' all-time record. NU's 26 wins in 1990-91 are still a school record. No other Nebraska team has won even 23 games.
Despite all of that, Nee cultivated a highly volatile relationship with the media, and while his teams won games out of conference, they were never a real threat in the Big 8 or Big 12. The 19 losses in Nee's final season? They equal another school record.
Honorable Mention: Jumbo Stiehm (56-14, .800, 3 Missouri Valley conference titles)
Jumbo Stiehm was a man who was a threat to his conference rivals. He only coached the Huskers for four seasons (1911-15), but in that time, he took three championships in the Missouri Valley Conference.
He also won multiple titles as the Nebraska football coach, but bolted both jobs after the university would not give him a $750 raise to match an offer from Indiana.
Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg, Northwestern
Photo credit: NUSports.com
Record: 236-203, .538 win pct., 2 Big Ten titles
Dutch Lonborg is the only Northwestern player or coach enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. At the rate the Wildcats' program is going, the next coach to bring a trophy of any kind to Evanston should probably be automatically inducted himself.
Every college basketball fan knows by now about the Great Northwestern Tournament Drought, now at 75 years and counting. What occasionally gets lost is that the Wildcats also have only two Big Ten titles in their history.
Lonborg won them both, adding one of those seemingly omnipresent Helms Foundation national titles in 1931. The Wildcats had a tremendous run from 1931-34, finishing either first or second in the conference each year.
Dutch's 236 wins at NU still stand as the school record. Even in this era of 30-plus-game seasons, coaches who struggle to escape the Big Ten basement and can't make the NCAA tournament won't last long enough to amass 240 wins.
As a case in point, we present Bill Carmody.
Honorable Mention: Bill Carmody (192-210, .478)
Carmody had a tremendous run by Northwestern's lowly standards. His second team, in 2001-02, had a winning record, which was only the school's third since 1969. In Carmody's fourth year, the Cats went 8-8 in the Big Ten for NU's first non-losing conference record since 1967-68.
He amassed four of Northwestern's seven NIT bids, reaching the quarterfinals in 2011, and also has the school's only two 20-win seasons. Still, Evanston has continued to suffer from the most depressing dancing drought this side of Bomont, Ga.
Former Duke assistant Chris Collins will get the next chance to play Evanston's answer to Ren McCormick.
Thad Matta, Ohio State
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Record: 250-73, .774, 5 Big Ten RS titles, 4 Big Ten tournament titles, 7 NCAA tournaments, 2 Final Fours
Thad Matta won 20 games in his first season at Ohio State. That remains his low-water mark in Columbus.
While his first Buckeyes' team was ineligible for postseason play after NCAA violations under Matta's predecessor, Jim O'Brien, in Matta's eight seasons since, Ohio State has made seven NCAA tournaments.
The one season the Buckeyes missed came on the heels of departures by freshmen stars Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook. All that 2008 team did was make the NIT and storm to the title.
Matta is the only coach to win four Big Ten tournament titles, and is also one of only 10 Big Ten coaches to make multiple Final Four appearances. He takes the Buckeyes' coaching crown over former national champion Fred Taylor because, unlike Taylor, Matta managed to recover from the loss of a legendary recruiting class.
Honorable Mention: Fred Taylor (297-158, .653 win pct., 7 Big Ten titles, 5 NCAA tournaments, 4 Final Fours, 1 national title)
Four years into Fred Taylor's career as Ohio State's basketball coach, Taylor boasted a record of 89-17, two national runner-up finishes and the 1960 NCAA championship. Once the class of John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Mel Nowell left, though, Taylor's fortunes cooled considerably.
Rather than ride the accelerating treadmill of recruiting, Taylor kept mostly to Ohio and missed out on other skilled Midwestern talent. From 1962-76, he managed only three more 20-win seasons.
Taylor's seven Big Ten titles are still the most in Buckeye history, but like his record for wins, Matta is gaining rapidly on Taylor in that department as well.
John Egli, Penn State
Photo from BigBlueHistory.net
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Record: 187-135, .581 win pct., 2 NCAA tournaments
The Penn State Nittany Lions were independent throughout John Egli's tenure, a condition that is essentially fatal to a team's NCAA tournament hopes today. His teams were strong enough, however, to reach a pair of tournaments, including in his first season.
Behind 26-PPG scorer Jesse Arnelle, the Nittany Lions reached their second consecutive tournament in 1955, but were unable to reach the Final Four, as Elmer Gross' team had done in 1954.
Egli's Nittany Lions returned to the dance in 1965, sporting a gaudy 20-3 record. Even with that, their tournament stay was brief, bowing out to Bill Bradley-led Princeton in the first round.
An award for the outstanding male and female athletes in the PSU system of schools bears Egli's name.
Honorable Mention: Elmer Gross (80-40, .667, 2 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four)
Gross was John Egli's predecessor, and may have been more instrumental in Penn State's hoop tradition than any other coach. He played on the 1942 team that went a gaudy 18-3 and made the school's first NCAA tournament.
As coach 10 years later, Gross led the Nittany Lions' second tournament team, which reached the regional semifinals, then made the program's only Final Four in 1954. That team is the only PSU squad to finish a season ranked in the Associated Press' Top-10.
Ward "Piggy" Lambert, Purdue
Photo credit: PurdueSports.com
Record: 371-152, .709 win pct., 11 Big Ten titles
Only one school has two coaches ranked in the Big Ten's all-time top five for coaching wins. Piggy Lambert's record has been lapped by four other coaches, including fellow Boilermaker boss Gene Keady. That said, Lambert still sits fifth in wins and is tied with Bob Knight for the most Big Ten championships.
Lambert's major claim to fame these days is as the man who coached an All-American guard from Martinsville to a Helms Foundation national title in 1932. That guard—John Wooden—went on to win a few NCAA tournaments as the coach at UCLA.
Including Wooden's three selections, Lambert coached a whopping 13 All-Americans during his 29 years as the Boilers' coach. Purdue has had only 11 such selections in the 67 years since.
Wooden gets the final word on Lambert:
At the heart of my pyramid I have three things: condition, skill, and team spirit. And I think that came from Mr. Lambert, as much as anybody else.
Honorable Mention: Gene Keady (512-270, .655, 6 Big Ten titles, 17 NCAA tournaments)
Keady's 512 wins and 17 NCAA bids trail only in-state rival Bob Knight in Big Ten history. Still, despite everything that Keady accomplished in West Lafayette, the feeling of something missing is hard to ignore.
Six of Keady's Purdue teams finished in the AP Top-10, with three of those in the top five. And yet, Keady could never steer a team to the Final Four, not even with two-time All-American/1994 national Player of the Year/NBA No. 1 draft pick Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson pulling the sled.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
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Record: 291-113, .720 win pct., 3 Big Ten RS titles, 2 Big Ten tournament titles, 12 NCAA tournaments
The third Big Ten team whose current coach is also its greatest, Wisconsin is a school that only made two of the first 55 NCAA tournaments. It has 19 bids all-time, and 12 of those have come during Bo Ryan's tenure.
Ryan hasn't missed the big dance since taking over in Madison, a highly surprising feat for a coach who was a mere three games over .500 in two years at UW-Milwaukee. A four-time Division III national champion, Ryan's resume still didn't quite scream Big Ten icon.
Among coaches with 200 or more wins at a Big Ten school, only Bob Knight and Thad Matta have better winning percentages than Ryan's .720 mark. The 12 NCAA bids tie him for fifth in conference history with Lou Henson, and Henson needed 21 years to rack up that many.
In another impressive feat, Ryan still has yet to finish outside the Big Ten's top four. All he still needs to do is crack a Final Four. The 2012-13 team was Ryan's first to lose its opening tournament game.
Honorable Mention: Walter "Doc" Meanwell (246-99, .713, 8 Big Ten titles)
Yet another Big Ten icon who did his best work before the advent of the NCAA tournament, Meanwell put up a pair of unbeaten seasons in 1911-12 and 1913-14. Those teams, along with his one-loss 1915-16 team, were awarded Helms Foundation national titles.
The Englishman won four Big Ten titles and the three national honors in his first six seasons, losing only nine games in that span. Meanwell left for two seasons at Missouri and a military stint in World War I, then returned to win four more conference crowns with the Badgers.