Ranking the 10 Greatest Mid-Major Coaching Tenures in NCAA Basketball History
The line of demarcation between college basketball's "major" and "mid-major" ranks is blurry at best. Every observer has his or her own definition of what puts a program in one camp or the other.
Is it based on athletic department spending? A conference's NCAA tournament success? RPI ranking? Simple league alignment? How much the coach spends on his suit? Hotness of cheerleaders?
Because digging for answers to the various definitions gets murky the further back through history we go, we have to apply the quick and dirty definition for this look at the mid-major ranks' greatest coaches ever.
If the coach's employer was part of today's power conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-8/10/12, SEC) at any time during his tenure, he's ineligible. The school's current affiliation is irrelevant.
Luckily, we're still left with a lot of highly impressive coaches. So many, in fact, that stopping at 10 did a disservice. Another 10 excellent coaches are listed as honorable mentions.
Active coaches' listed records do not include this season's games. All records via Sports-Reference.com. All mentions of conference titles allude to regular-season championships.
10 More of the Greats
These 10 honorable mentions are presented alphabetically:
Clair Bee, Long Island University (1931-43)—The first of Bee's two tenures at LIU (he took two years off to fight in World War II) included a pair of undefeated seasons in 1935-36 and 1938-39. That '38-'39 team also won the first of Bee's two NIT titles.
Pete Carril, Princeton (1967-96)—The Ivy League's all-time coaching wins leader, Carril won 514 games, 11 conference titles, four NCAA tournament games and the 1975 NIT title. Despite all that, a 1989 tournament loss to Georgetown may remain the most famous moment of his tenure.
John Chaney, Temple (1982-2006)—The Owls hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1958 when Chaney arrived. Starting in his second season, Chaney won seven in a five-year span. He won 516 games and still ranks as one of the best to never reach a Final Four.
E.A. Diddle, Western Kentucky (1922-64)—Diddle won 759 games in a 42-year stint in Bowling Green. Of those seasons, only five were of the losing variety. Only three NCAA bids, but he won three games in those trips.
Fran Dunphy, Penn (1989-2006)—After three years of getting his bearings in his first college head coaching job, Dunphy and his Quakers stomped to nine Ivy League titles in 14 years.
Nat Holman, City College of New York (1919-52)—The bulk of Holman's coaching career predated the NCAA tournament, but he did reach the 1947 Final Four and win the 1950 title. For good measure, his Beavers won the NIT in 1950, too. No one's doing that again.
John Kresse, College of Charleston (1991-2002)—The seasons listed are only Kresse's years at the helm of Charleston as a full Division I member. Overall, he won 560 games in a 23-year career. Once the Cougars were eligible for a conference title, they never failed to win one, taking five straight in the Atlantic Sun and four straight in the Southern Conference.
Bob McKillop, Davidson (pictured) (1989-present)—From 1970-93, Davidson had all of two 20-win seasons. Since the 1993-94 campaign, McKillop's forged 11. He also won nine SoCon titles in the last 12 years and, perhaps most importantly, he's the guy who recruited Stephen Curry.
Stew Morrill, Utah State (1998-present)—Morrill's won 74 percent of his games in Logan, 366 in all entering this season. He's elevated the program's profile to the point that it's now entering its third conference during his time in charge. His teams took three regular-season titles in the Big West and four more in the WAC.
Jack Ramsay, St. Joseph's (1955-66)—Dr. Jack won at a .765 clip during his stint at his alma mater, making either the NIT or NCAA tournaments 10 times in his 11 seasons. Included in those bids is a trip to the 1961 Final Four, although the postseason wins were later vacated due to player involvement with gamblers.
10. Pete Gillen, Xavier (1985-94)
Record: 202-75 (.729), 7 NCAA bids, 6 conference titles
The numbers don't leap off the page, primarily because Pete Gillen didn't stay at Xavier long enough to keep crushing opponents. However, the Musketeer program's stint in the Atlantic 10 or its new digs in the Big East aren't possible without Gillen running roughshod over the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
Xavier had been to two NCAA tournaments in its history before Gillen replaced Bob Staak in 1985. Gillen went to seven in nine seasons, winning five games in all. The 1990 team, led by bruising frontcourt duo Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong, gave XU its first-ever Sweet 16 trip by beating a Georgetown team led by its own dominant bigs, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
Perhaps no coach on this list has as much claim to building one of today's most respected programs from the ground floor, at least among those who weren't coaching in the early part of the century. Xavier has turned into a cradle of coaching talents, producing names like Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and Sean Miller.
Once again, though, none of it happens if Pete Gillen stays beside Digger Phelps at Notre Dame in 1985.
9. Mark Few, Gonzaga (1999-Present)
Record: 374-93 (.801), 14 NCAA bids, 12 conference titles
Mark Few has been on the sideline for every NCAA tournament game in Gonzaga's history, along with all but two of the school's 20-win seasons and all 16 West Coast Conference regular-season titles. Not all as a head coach, mind you, as he arrived in 1989 as a graduate assistant.
All the players who became March heroes in GU uniforms, from Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm to Austin Daye to Kevin Pangos, have been recruited and/or coached by Few. His familiarity with the program allowed him to keep the nouveau riche Bulldogs rolling after Dan Monson bolted for Minnesota.
A program that could have been a one-year wonder has remained among the game's best under Few. The Zags have only three opening-game NCAA losses with Few in charge, making the dance in every one of his seasons. Only twice have Few's teams failed to win the West Coast Conference championship.
8. Bob Huggins, Cincinnati (1989-2005)
Record: 398-128 (.757), 10 conference titles, 14 NCAA bids, 1992 Final Four
I wouldn't have believed it without photographic evidence, but yes, Bob Huggins did once wear a jacket and tie on the sidelines. His professional image contrasted well with the swagger exhibited by his Cincinnati teams during his 16-year tenure.
Coaches like Tay Baker, Ed Badger and Tony Yates were unable to get the Bearcats back to the glory of the George Smith/Ed Jucker days. To be fair, though, five straight Final Fours—which Cincy accomplished from 1959-63—is a rough mandate for anyone not named John Wooden.
Huggins won 38 games in his first two years, but his third truly launched Cincinnati back to national prominence. Led by future pros Nick Van Exel and Corie Blount, the Bearcats caught a favorable bracket and reached the program's first Final Four since 1963 in its first tournament since 1977.
From there, no Huggins team missed the dance, a string of 14 straight overall. Six of his teams finished in the AP Top 10. If there's a downside to Huggins' performance, eight of his last nine UC teams failed to get out of the tournament's second round.
Off-court issues for not only Huggins, but players and staff, hastened his dismissal in 2005. Cincinnati's graduation rates weren't sterling, but Huggins won games. Not many coaches illustrate the eternal push and pull of college athletics more clearly than the man they call "Huggy Bear."
7. John Calipari, Memphis (2000-09)
Record: 252-69 (.785), 6 NCAA bids, 7 conference titles, 2008 Final Four, 2002 NIT title
Yeah, yeah, get yer ha-has out about the NCAA taking its marker to a bunch of Calipari's accomplishments at Memphis. For all of the issues that came out of Coach Cal's tenure, though, his greatest legacy lies in restoring the Tigers to relevance.
The program that gave us Larry Finch, Larry "Dr. K" Kenon, Keith Lee and Penny Hardaway was falling off the radar after Finch left as coach in 1997. Tic Price and Johnny Jones only won 47 games in three years before Calipari was hired fresh off a stint as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Cal's second Memphis team won the NIT behind McDonald's All-American Dajuan Wagner. Six times in the next seven years, the Tigers made the NCAA tournament, winning 11 March Madness games from 2006-08. That's two Elite Eights and a national final, in case math makes your head ache.
Conference USA became the Tigers' personal hunting ground, never sending more than two teams to the tournament during Calipari's last four seasons. That was a far cry from the 3.8 bids the league averaged during its first 10 years. Still, Memphis cruised to at least a Sweet 16 during each of those last four years under Cal, settling any question of complacency.
6. Rick Majerus, Utah (1990-2004)
Record: 323-95 (.773), 10 conference titles, 11 NCAA bids, 1998 Final Four
Between a Final Four trip in 1966 and Rick Majerus' arrival in 1989, the University of Utah made six NCAA tournaments. Majerus' predecessor Lynn Archibald accounted for only one of those in his six years in charge.
In Majerus' 15 years at Utah, he not only made 11 tourney trips, but one nearly ended with the school's second national title. The Utes were crushing Kentucky on the glass at halftime and held a 10-point lead. No team had ever come back from a double-figure intermission deficit in a national title game, but UK managed it, winning 78-69.
The national final was the third year in a row that the Utes had been eliminated by Kentucky. The always-quotable Majerus told the New Orleans Times-Picayune (quoted here by the Los Angeles Times), "When I die, they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me again."
Salt Lake City is not a place that routinely draws McDonald's All-Americans. Majerus actually landed one (Murray, Utah big man Britton Johnsen) for that team that would make the national final. Since Majerus temporarily retired for health reasons in 2004, Utah has struggled to regain the national stage, but its success in the 1990s certainly helped to get the school into the Pac-12 Conference.
5. Ray Meyer, DePaul (1942-84)
Record: 724-354 (.672), 13 NCAA bids, 2 Final Fours, 1945 NIT title
Under Ray Meyer, DePaul never joined a conference. In his time, being an independent wasn't nearly the kiss of death it is now. The Blue Demon program was even more vibrant under a sixty-something Meyer than it had been when he was in his 30s.
Meyer made the Final Four in his very first season, although it must be noted that the NCAA tournament only invited eight teams in 1943. No matter—he made another in 1979, when the field had expanded to 40 schools. No other coach has as long a span between Final Four appearances.
Meyer's career began with Hall of Famer George Mikan, who led DePaul to the 1945 NIT championship. That DePaul team crushed its postseason opponents by an average of 28 points, with Mikan matching the 53 points of semifinal opponent Rhode Island's entire team.
Four decades later, Meyer was recruiting solid future pros like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. Aguirre was the freshman star of that 1978-79 Final Four team, averaging 24 points per game.
Over Meyer's final seven seasons, his teams went 180-30, making six NCAA tournaments. The Demons finished all of those seasons ranked in the top six of the Associated Press' final poll. Meyer retired at the age of 70, handing his program over to his son Joey, but few would have complained if the elder Meyer had kept coaching until he passed away.
4. Don Haskins, UTEP (1961-99)
Record: 719-353 (.671), 7 conference titles, 14 NCAA bids, 1966 National Champion
No other man on this list has had a movie made about one of his teams. So there's that.
Don Haskins' 1965-66 Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) team was immortalized in the 2006 Disney film Glory Road, a work that dramatized the tensions surrounding the Miners' largely black roster as it worked toward a national championship.
That title came only five years into Haskins' tenure, and what followed was a bit of a dry spell. Over the next 16 years, Haskins' teams won only one conference championship and three NCAA bids. The 1980s were kind, however.
From 1982-92, the Miners took six regular-season WAC titles and made eight NCAA tournaments. Those bids were capped off by a Sweet 16 trip earned with a win over top-seeded Kansas.
UTEP won only 113 games in Haskins' final seven seasons, but that didn't stop his 1997 induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
3. Guy Lewis, Houston (1956-86)
Record: 592-279 (.680), 2 conference titles, 14 NCAA bids, 5 Final Fours
Pictured here with Hakeem Olajuwon, one of his greatest players, Guy V. Lewis made Houston one of college basketball's elite programs before it even chose a conference affiliation. One of the first coaches to actively recruit black players, Lewis was rewarded for his efforts with a pair of Final Fours behind the talents of Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney.
From his fourth season (1959-60) on, Lewis never experienced another losing season. The mid- and late 1970s were somewhat fallow, with only one NCAA berth in seven years. Lewis' career experienced an Indian summer, however, behind the revolutionary force known as Phi Slama Jama.
Larry Micheaux. Robert Williams. Michael Young. Clyde Drexler. Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon. Benny Anders. Alvin Franklin. The names are still legendary in basketball history, never mind Houston basketball lore.
That series of recruiting classes helped Lewis to three straight Final Fours, including the miraculous 1983 victory by North Carolina State. Their high-flying, dunk-heavy brand of basketball often played like today's YouTube mixtapes that make middling talents look like athletic marvels.
If there were no Lew Alcindor, Patrick Ewing or Jim Valvano, Guy Lewis could have five national titles to his credit. As it is, he has his name on Houston's court and a prominent place in the game's evolution.
2. Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV (1973-92)
Record: 509-105 (.829), 11 conference titles, 12 NCAA bids, 4 Final Fours, 1990 National Champion
Since Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels won the national title in 1990, no team outside of today's six power conferences has won the NCAA tournament.
After making Long Beach State a West Coast powerhouse, Tarkanian joined a West Coast Conference fledgling by taking over the five-year-old UNLV program. Four years into his tenure, the Rebels rode Eddie Owens and Reggie Theus to the 1977 Final Four.
UNLV was one of the dominant programs of the '80s, losing only 42 games—against 307 wins—from 1982-92. Every one of those seasons ended with the Rebels winning their conference.
One of the early adopters of junior college talent, Tarkanian rode a gifted forward from Odessa (Tex.) College named Larry Johnson to a dominating 30-point win in that 1990 championship game. The margin of victory over Duke still stands as a championship record. The following year's team was unbeaten until Duke stunned it in the national semifinal.
Tarkanian spent most of his career under NCAA scrutiny, but his teams were often unwavering in their dominance. He was the only coach to start his career with 12 straight 20-win seasons until Thad Matta accomplished the feat with Butler, Xavier and Ohio State.
It took 11 years after his retirement, but Tarkanian was finally inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September 2013.
1. Denny Crum, Louisville (1971-2001)
Record: 675-295 (.696), 15 conference titles, 23 NCAA bids, 6 Final Fours, 2 national championships
We told you the definition of "mid-major" was blurry. Louisville is among the most major of major programs today, and wasn't exactly chopped liver when Denny Crum took over. His first season ended with a Missouri Valley Conference title and a trip to the Final Four, and Crum was off and running.
From the MVC, Louisville went on to join the Metro Conference—sometimes known by its gangster name, the Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference. (Yeah, you'd shorten it too.) The Cards finished first or second 17 times in their 20-year relationship with the conference.
The Metro and Great Midwest combined into Conference USA, but by that time, Crum wasn't able to sustain the kind of talent base he'd enjoyed throughout the 1970s and '80s. His teams made four NCAA tournaments over his final six seasons, but never won a Conference USA title.
Crum coached a who's who of superb college players: Milt Wagner, Rodney McCray, Billy Thompson, Darrell Griffith, Pervis Ellison and DeJuan Wheat, to name just a few. His national titles in 1980 and 1986 and UNLV's from 1990 are the only ones from outside today's six big conferences since 1977.
Crum's numbers may not be quite as gaudy as Jerry Tarkanian's, but his competition was stronger, too. The Metro averaged 2.2 NCAA bids and C-USA averaged 3.5 while Crum coached in them. The PCAA/Big West averaged 1.7 bids while Tarkanian was there.
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