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Ranking the 10 Best Rebuilding Jobs in College Basketball History

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

Ranking the 10 Best Rebuilding Jobs in College Basketball History

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    Even the greatest college basketball programs fall into disrepair on occasion. Like fine architecture, a school's fortunes on the court can either gradually erode or be blasted to splinters overnight by a calamitous twist of fate.

    Whichever route a university takes to the proverbial dumpster, hiring the right coach can be like hiring the right architect to design a rebuild. The phrase "rebuilding" is used in this context for a reason.

    Relationships with high school and AAU coaches must be repaired. Perceptions among recruits and their parents must be refreshed. Fans and boosters must see evidence of a culture change before they begin bankrolling the project.

    These 10 coaches walked into programs in a state of disrepair and brought excitement where little to none had existed before. Some brought a return to a proud tradition, while others simply produced unprecedented signs of life. All gave fans reasons to believe again.

10. Tom Crean, Indiana

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    Indiana fans are puzzled by their previously ascendant program's stagnation over the last two years, but there can't be any argument that Tom Crean has the Hoosiers in much better shape than he found them.

    When Crean arrived in Bloomington, his roster consisted of two former walk-ons with 36 career points between them. The rest had bolted for the NBA (Eric Gordon), other schools (Jordan Crawford to Xavier) or were dismissed (Armon Bassett, Jamarcus Ellis and others). 

    Despite this epic run of attrition, Crean's first three IU teams managed to win 28 games. It's not a great figure, but it is something close to respectability.

    Then, a true program-changing recruit arrived when Washington, Indiana, big man/McDonald's All-American Cody Zeller committed to Indiana. During Zeller's two seasons in Bloomington, the Hoosiers won 56 games and won their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.

    A pair of Sweet 16 trips demonstrated the rapid rise of expectations surrounding Crean's program. The 2012 team made a rapid turnaround to the fanbase's delight. The 2013 conference champions were a No. 1 seed that was expected to put IU back in the Final Four for the first time since 2002. When that didn't happen, questions arose.

    Touted recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014 will need to truly blossom to get the Hoosiers back on their previous winning track. Until then, however, IU fans still need to remind themselves of where they've been before complaining too vociferously about where they are now.

9. John Calipari, Massachusetts

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    UMass basketball was invited to join the Atlantic 10 in 1982, despite the fact that its previous four seasons had produced a total of 17 wins. The school hadn't had a winning season in 10 years when rookie head coach John Calipari arrived in 1988.

    Not that Calipari was a raging overnight success, but at a school that had only made one NCAA tournament appearance all the way back in 1962, any success was welcome.

    It took Calipari four years to break through to the tournament, but once UMass took control of the A-10 in 1991-92, it didn't loosen its grip until Calipari bolted for the NBA. A run of five straight regular season and tournament titles started with a Sweet 16 team in 1991-92. That team was described thusly by Pat Forde, then of ESPN.com, in February 2010:

    His 1992 Massachusetts team remains one of the most overachieving units The Minutes has ever seen, featuring a shooting guard with range so limited he made one 3-pointer all season (Jim McCoy), a 6-foot-3 power forward (Will Herndon), and a left-handed center who stood all of 6-7 (Harper Williams). Somehow, that collection of marginal talent went 30-5 and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.

    After that Sweet 16 trip, Calipari pulled in the school's first-ever McDonald's All-American recruit, Baltimore forward Donta Bright. Along with fellow frontcourt stars, such as Lou Roe and Marcus Camby, Bright helped the Minutemen make progressively deeper NCAA runs: second round in 1994, Elite Eight in '95 and the program's crowning achievement, a Final Four in 1996.

    While agents' pursuit of 1996 National Player of the Year Camby resulted in the Final Four being vacated, the program was momentarily among the nation's elite, ending three straight seasons ranked in the Associated Press Top 10. Calipari's successor, Bruiser Flint, made another pair of tournament trips, but UMass could never quite recapture that mid-'90s magic.

8. Ray Meyer, DePaul

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    Ray Meyer started near the top at DePaul and made his way to the bottom. In a pre-coaching carousel era, he was allowed time to regroup and nearly got all the way back to the summit of college basketball. A 42-year tenure will allow for such comebacks.

    Meyer's very first group of Blue Demons went to the Final Four before there was such a thing. In the eight-team 1943 NCAA Championship, DePaul fell to Georgetown in the East Regional final, just a step shy of the national title game. That team was led by George Mikan, one of the sport's first feared giants. Two years later, DePaul won the NIT by an average margin of 28.3 points per game.

    DePaul remained competitive, if not always truly relevant, for much of Meyer's tenure. Despite enduring only five losing seasons out of 42, the program's independent status hindered NCAA tournament selection hopes.

    After making only six NCAA tournaments from 1943 to 1975, the Blue Demons truly caught fire in the late '70s and early '80s. Aided by an expanded field, DePaul made seven tournaments in Meyer's final nine seasons and reached a true Final Four in 1979.

    Meyer was 65 years old when he returned to the national semifinals, 36 years after his first trip. No coach has survived long enough to make a pair of Final Fours so far apart.

    The most impressive part of DePaul's renaissance was that Meyer's teams, led by stars like Dave Corzine, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, weren't just squeaking into the dance. From 1977-1982, the Demons posted a total record of 132-15, an .898 winning percentage. His final team in 1983-84 started 16-0, finishing 27-3.

    That's not bad for a guy who should have been a fossil by then, a relic of a bygone era of basketball.

7. Gary Williams, Maryland

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    What took Lefty Driesell 17 years to build at Maryland, successor Bob Wade managed to tear down in three. The Terrapins won only seven ACC games in Wade's tenure and were being investigated for major NCAA violations when former UM point guard Gary Williams arrived from Ohio State.

    After an NIT bid in Williams' first season, the NCAA hammer fell: two lost scholarships, a two-year postseason ban and a one-year television blackout. It took five seasons before Williams was able to steer the Terps to an NCAA tournament, but the Joe Smith-led team got there in style, reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 10 seed.

    Three more Sweet 16 appearances in the following five seasons established Maryland as an ACC contender as the 1990s drew to a close, but that was all prelude. A nucleus led by in-state products Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter took Maryland to its first two Final Fours in 2001 and 2002, with the second trip culminating in UM's only national championship.

    That victory elevated Maryland to a level where it was able to compete for McDonald's All-American recruits, such as Massachusetts guard Mike Jones, who would arrive the next fall.

    Williams began missing on the kind of local competitors who made him a champion as he chased other recruits elsewhere around America. That misguided focus and a refusal to glad-hand AAU power brokers sent Maryland sliding back down the ACC pecking order. Despite that, Williams' work in pushing the program from NCAA jail to unprecedented heights is nothing short of impressive.

6. Bob Huggins, Cincinnati

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    If you're not up on Cincinnati's basketball tradition, consider this: There are exactly three programs that have ever made more than three consecutive Final Fours. UCLA, of course, was ever-present from 1967-1976. Duke made every semifinal from 1988-1992. Cincinnati, though, was the first to accomplish such a dynasty, running a five-year streak from 1959-1963.

    By 1989, the Bearcat program was sputtering along, barely a threat in the Metro Conference. New coach Bob Huggins arrived from Akron and set about restoring UC to its former national prominence. The first two years were spent recruiting "Huggy Bear"s type of players and reaching the NIT.

    In Huggins' third season, a Bearcat team built out of junior college and Division I transfers like Herb Jones, Corie Blount and Nick Van Exel burst out of the newly minted Great Midwest Conference. UC swept the regular season and tournament titles in the GMC, then smashed conference-rival Memphis by 31 points to reach the school's first Final Four since that five-year streak ended in the early 1960s.

    Huggins thrived more with hungry junior-college players than with McDonald's All-Americans, such as Danny Fortson or Dontonio Wingfield, but his persistent winning made Cincinnati a destination for players of both varieties. His Bearcats made 14 straight NCAA tournaments, only once winning fewer than 22 games.

    All the winning brought a harsh spotlight, as Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff wondered whether Huggins had built his program "the right way" in a December 1996 profile. Shaky graduation rates and off-court troublesfor both players and Huggins himselfled outsiders to question Cincinnati's priorities and dismiss Huggins' success.

    What can't be changed is that Huggins got the alma mater of Hall of Fame players Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman back on the map. It can be argued that that's where Cincinnati belongs.

5. Guy Lewis, Houston

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    An argument could be made that there isn't much "re" in Guy Lewis' building of the Houston Cougars basketball program. After all, UH had only fielded a men's team for 10 years, the first four as an NAIA member.

    Over Lewis' 30 years in charge, however, he presided over two golden eras of Houston basketball. The first was launched in 1964 by Lewis' progressive recruitment of African-American high school stars Don Chaney and Elvin Hayes. The pair led Houston to the Final Four in both 1967 and '68, suffering only six losses in the two seasons combined.

    In the early 1980s, Lewis brought in stars, such as Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon, part of a group collectively known as "Phi Slama Jama." The balls-to-the-wall, high-flying Cougars did their predecessors one better, reaching three straight Final Fours, including a pair of title games.

    There was a fallow decade in between the two high spots, a 10-year span in which the Cougars reached only four NCAA tournaments and failed to win a single game in those events. Houston still averaged nearly 20 wins per season in that span but never caught a winning streak at the right time, despite the presence of stars like Lou Dunbar, Dwight Jones and Otis Birdsong.

    Another compelling argument exists that Lewis helped shape the game into the mixtape culture that exists today. His teams' above-the-rim style shifted basketball from a reliance on the fundamentals to a mad orgy of athleticism. Whether that's a good or bad thing is in the eye of the beholder, but Lewis' role in popularizing the game nationwide is every bit as important as his architect status in Houston.

4. Lute Olson, Arizona

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    Arizona basketball enjoyed only momentary success in the early 1970s, winning a WAC title and reaching an Elite Eight under coach Fred Snowden. The program's fortunes flagged, however, winning only 13 games combined in the 1981-82 and '82-'83 seasons. Somehow, it was able to attract a Final Four coach in Lute Olson.

    Olson had taken Iowa to the national semifinals in 1980 and the Sweet 16 in 1983, but fresh off the latter, he bolted for the desert. His first season in Tucson was an improvement with 11 victories, but it offered little glimpse of what was to come.

    A trip to the 1985 NCAA tournament was a fleeting one-game cameo, but Arizona would not leave for another 25 years, continuing the run for two more years after Olson's retirement. Such was the strength of Arizona's basketball brand under its North Dakota-bred coach.

    Olson's first four NCAA tournament wins as Wildcat coach all came in the 1988 championship, as recruits, such as Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert, Anthony Cook and Steve Kerr, led UA to its first-ever Final Four. Arizona got back three more times under Olson, winning the 1997 national championship. From '88 to 2005, the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 11 times in 18 seasons.

    Olson's teams stampeded to 11 Pac-10 regular-season titles, failing to win 20 games only twice in his 24 years. His 46 NCAA tournament victories37 at Arizonaare one fewer than John Wooden and one more than Bob Knight, so there's no denying his credentials to place among the greats of the game.

    Both Arizona and Iowa were highly mediocre before Olson's arrival, but he didn't stick around Iowa City long enough to guide the Hawkeyes to the heights he achieved in the Valley of the Sun. It's Iowa's loss.

3. Steve Fisher, San Diego State

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    Steve Fisher started his college head coaching career with six straight wins and a national title. Later, he brought Michigan one of the most touted freshman classes in history. The university would ultimately fire him for being oblivious to the actions of a rogue booster. He needed a place out of the spotlight to rebuild his reputation.

    San Diego State's basketball history was largely forgettable, with three NCAA tournament bids and two 20-win seasons to its credit in 30 years. The Aztecs won only four games in the 1998-99 season, resulting in coach Fred Trenkle's firing. The school needed a coach with a name that could draw interest and recruits where none of either had ever been heavy on the ground.

    The two have been together for 15 years now, and the match appears to be made in heaven. His third team reached the 2002 NCAA tournament, the first such bid since 1985. The following season, SDSU went to the second round of the NIT, the school's first Division I postseason win of any kind sincewell, ever.

    Fisher is now on a string of five straight NCAA appearances, with a pair of Sweet 16 trips in the mix. The school with so few 20-win seasons before Fisher's arrival has accomplished the feat nine straight years. Of the school's 680 Division I victories, 312 have come during Fisher's tenure.

    Viejas Arena is a constantly full, constantly deafening college basketball stronghold, whereas previous venues were often empty and church-quiet. The student section, known nationwide as "The Show," is as outrageous and controversial as the coach is measured and professorial.

    Once a complete basketball backwater, San Diego State now has a coach and a program that can capitalize on the area's natural advantages and draw fans indoors out of the beautiful weather. The magnitude of that kind of success should not be understated.

2. John Thompson, Georgetown

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    What if I told you that John Thompson wasn't the first coach to lead Georgetown to the Final Four? Of course, the 1943 tournament only invited eight teams, but Elmer Ripley did have the Hoyas playing for the national title, falling to Wyoming in the championship game.

    However, when Thompson was hired in 1972, Georgetown had never seen a minute of tournament action since that game. Only three Hoya teams had even won more than 15 games in any season between 1943 and Thompson's debut. The 1971-72 team won a total of three.

    From there, the school that had only won 18 games three times in its history did so in 23 straight seasons, from 1974-1997. Thompson, a Washington, D.C., native, was firmly vested in making his hometown a top destination for college basketball talent.

    We're well familiar with Georgetown's impact on college basketball in the 1980s. The program that was a complete afterthought in the D.C. area became one of the nation's most prominent under Thompson.

    From 1980 through '89, the Hoyas reached six of 10 Elite Eights, played for the championship three times and won it all in 1984. In the first decade of the Big East's existence, Georgetown won four regular-season titles and six conference tournaments.

    A 2007 profile by The Washington Post's Mike Wise detailed Thompson's desire to make a difference in players' lives through education, not just through basketball. The coach's belief that other things were more important than the game led to him resigning his position at the first hint of slowing down in 1999. He cited a difficult divorce as the primary cause for his stepping down.

    The man who was dubbed college basketball's answer to historical ogres both real (Idi Amin) and fictional (Darth Vader) may not have been the most cordial ambassador for the game, but he made a moribund program one of sport's greatest brand names. That's often hard to do while being friendly with everyone.

1. Scott Drew, Baylor

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    In the summer of 2003, the Baylor basketball program was a flaming sack of dung on the doorstep of college basketball. Coach Dave Bliss had been forced out amid allegations of rampant drug abuse by players, one teammate accused of murdering another, assorted ancillary violations and a major coverup of the whole thing.

    Into this mess stepped Scott Drew, fresh off his first season as a head coach replacing his father Homer at Valparaiso. Scholarships were cut, what little talent remained would be banned from postseason play in 2003-04 and nonconference games were cancelled for the 2005-06 season.

    After four years in the wildernessthe Bears were 36-69 in Drew's first four campaignsthe coach's fully handpicked roster finally broke through. The 2007-08 team won 21 games and put the Baylor name in the NCAA tournament for only the second time since a solid run in the late 1940s.

    Drew pulled in strong recruits, such as guards Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn and forward Quincy Acy, a group that would form the nucleus of an Elite Eight team in 2010. From there, RSCI top-10 talents Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin joined the program in successive seasons.

    Under Drew, Baylor has made as many tournament appearances in the last seven years (four) as it had in its entire history to date. Over the past six seasons, the Bears are a combined 17-6 in the postseason, with three trips to the NCAA tournament's second weekend, an NIT runner-up finish and an NIT championship.

    Say what you like about Drew's coaching acumenand many, many, many people dobut the results constitute a level of success that was a mere pipe dream a decade ago. A program left for dead is now a national player on a level it's never known.

     

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