The Player Most Responsible for Each Great College Basketball Coach's Legacy
They say the first million dollars is the hardest, and the same should be said for the first 100 wins for a great college basketball coach.
Sure, legends like Roy Williams, John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have no trouble landing top recruits and winning 30 games per year now, but what about back when they first started?
What if Coach K wasn't able to sign Johnny Dawkins? Where would Billy Donovan be today without Udonis Haslem? How much of Tom Izzo's legacy is owed to Mateen Cleaves?
For the 19 current men's basketball coaches with at least 450 career D-I wins, we went back and looked at some of their early years to identify the player most responsible for kick-starting their legacy.
After a ton of honorable mentions, the top nine coaches are listed in increasing order of career wins at the D-I level.
Honorable Mentions (1 of 2)
There are quite a few honorable mentions here, as 19 active coaches have at least 450 D-I wins, and it wouldn't have been fair to disregard any of their accomplishments.
Here are the first five of the 10 honorable mentions, listed alphabetically by last name.
Coach: Dana Altman (507 career wins)
Player: Askia Jones, Kansas State
Altman has been coaching at Oregon for the past four seasons, but he made a name for himself at Kansas State long before his time with the Ducks and before his 16 successful seasons at Creighton.
Altman took over at Kansas State after Lon Kruger—whom we will encounter on the next slide—skipped town to take the job at Florida. By the end of his third season as a D-I head coach, Altman had an overall record of 44-42.
But over the next two seasons, Askia Jones helped ignite Altman's legacy. As a senior during the 1993-94 season, Jones averaged 22.0 points per game and led the team to a 20-14 record. That summer, Altman took the job at Creighton and soon turned the Bluejays into one of the top annual mid-major threats in the country.
Coach: Rick Barnes (584 career wins)
Player: Eric Murdock, Providence
Despite nearly 600 career wins, Barnes hasn't ever really gained legendary status. This is perhaps due to the fact that in 27 seasons as a D-I head coach, he has only been to three Elite Eights and zero national championship games.
Also, Barnes never really had much of a peak in his career. If we equated his coaching career to that of a baseball player, he'd be Raul Ibanez. Ibanez has more than 300 career home runs and more than 2,000 career hits, but he was only an All-Star once. He just kind of coasted along for a long time as a better-than-average player who eventually accumulated nice-looking numbers.
Having said that, Barnes can probably thank Eric Murdock for what turned into a long and fruitful career. During Barnes' first three years at Providence from 1988 to 1991, Murdock led the team in scoring twice and just barely missed doing so a third time. The Friars made it to the NCAA tournament in Barnes' first two seasons, even though they had an 11-17 record the year before he arrived.
Coach: Fran Dunphy (477 career wins)
Player: Matt Maloney, Penn
When Dunphy started his career at Penn, the Quakers were mired in a slump. They were unquestionably the Ivy League team to beat in the 1970s but had just a 74-84 record from 1983 to 1989.
By Dunphy's fourth season, Penn was once again the powerhouse of the brainiacs, thanks in no small part to Matt Maloney. From 1992 to 1995, the Quakers went 69-12 with Maloney leading the team in scoring all three seasons. He was a great three-point shooter who also recorded at least 45 steals in each of those three years.
To this day, Maloney is one of the only players from Penn to have anything resembling a successful career in the NBA. Luckily for Dunphy's career, he came through when he did.
Coach: Cliff Ellis (670 career wins)
Player: Ed Rains, South Alabama
Of the six current coaches with at least 650 career wins, Ellis is by far the most anonymous at this point in time. From 1984 to 2004, he coached for 10 years at Clemson and 10 years at Alabama before taking three years off and returning for the past seven seasons at Coastal Carolina.
His best years from a winning percentage perspective, however, were his first nine seasons at South Alabama, where he went 171-84 and led a no-name school from a new Sun Belt conference to its first two NCAA tournament appearances in 1979 and 1980.
He can thank Ed Rains for that success. During his four years at South Alabama, Rains averaged 15.7 points per game and grabbed a ton of rebounds while leading the Jaguars to an overall record of 86-29.
Coach: Steve Fisher (497 career wins)
Player: Glen Rice, Michigan
In a baptism by firing, Fisher took over as the head coach before the start of the 1989 NCAA tournament, as Bill Frieder was fired after news broke that he had accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State.
We'll never know if Fisher was actually going to be the long-term solution, because he gave the Wolverines no choice but to make him the full-time head coach after he led the team to the title.
Of course, he never would have done so without Glen Rice. During a run of six games that makes Kemba Walker (23.5 PPG during 2011 tournament) look like a mere mortal, Rice averaged 30.7 points per game for Michigan. That championship no doubt played some part in the Fab Five's decision to join Michigan two summers later. The rest, as they say, is history.
Honorable Mentions (2 of 2)
Coach: Lon Kruger (537 career wins)
Player: Mitch Richmond, Kansas State
Kruger has been all over the place in the past three decades. This coming season will mark his fourth with Oklahoma and the sixth school at which he has coached at least four seasons.
His coaching legend really began in the latter half of the 1980s during his time at Kansas State. He was only with the Wildcats for four years, and Mitch Richmond was only there for the first two, but they sure were good years.
Richmond's final season at Kansas State was the team's best during Kruger's stay. Richmond averaged 22.8 PPG, leading the Wildcats to a No. 4 seed in the 1988 tournament. They knocked off No. 1 seed Purdue to advance to the Elite Eight before running into a nemesis on a mission, as Kansas State became just one of Kansas' victims on the way to the 1988 championship.
Coach: Jim Larranaga (508 career wins)
Player: George Evans, George Mason
Much like Rick Barnes, Larranaga's win total is much more a product of longevity than greatness. At the end of his 12th season as a head coach, he had a career winning percentage of 52.2. Prior to the Final Four run that put George Mason on the map, his teams suffered at least 10 losses in each of his first 19 seasons.
But for three of those seasons, George Mason was an annual contender, winning either the CAA tournament or at least a share of the regular-season conference championship each year at the turn of the millennium.
George Evans was almost exclusively the reason why. The 6'7" forward led the Patriots in points, rebounds, blocks and steals in each of those three seasons.
If it felt like he was a grown man playing a children's game, it's because he was. Evans was born in 1971 but didn't even start playing college ball until November 1997 because of military service. As a freshman, he was four years older than most seniors. No wonder he dominated the CAA.
Coach: Bob McKillop (472 career wins)
Player: Brandon Williams, Davidson
Stephen Curry was only four years old when McKillop began cementing his status as coach of Davidson for more than two decades.
In his first three years, the Wildcats went just 25-60, but the winning percentage was gradually increasing. By the time Brandon Williams arrived on campus, they were ready to explode.
Williams played somewhat sparingly as a freshman while Davidson went 14-14 during the 1992-93 season, averaging just 16.2 minutes and 6.7 points per game off the bench. As a starter for the vast majority of his final three seasons, he averaged 15.7 points and led the team in blocked shots each season. The Wildcats went 61-26 those years, including a 25-5 record in Williams' senior year.
Coach: Stew Morrill (602 career wins)
Player: Wayne Tinkle, Montana
Morrill is right up there with Cliff Ellis in terms of names on the career wins list that make you say "Who's that?" That's obviously not because he has done a poor job, but rather because no one bothers to pay much attention to Utah State—where Morrill has won 72.9 percent of games played over the past 16 seasons.
But before his run with the Aggies and his seven seasons at Colorado State, Morrill got his start at the University of Montana with a player who just ended his term as the head coach of the Grizzlies.
Long before his eight years as the coach at Montana, Wayne Tinkle was one of the school's top players in the late 1980s, averaging 16.0 PPG from 1986 to 1989—Morrill's first three seasons at the helm. It wasn't until after Tinkle's graduation that Montana finally made the tournament, but he set the stage for the team's continued success after Mike Montgomery left to become the coach of Stanford.
Coach: Tubby Smith (525 career wins)
Player: Gary Collier, Tulsa
Smith led Kentucky to a national championship in his first season as the head coach at Lexington, but he never would have gotten that opportunity if not for a few successful years at Tulsa, thanks to Gary Collier.
In his three seasons at Tulsa, Collier averaged 16.9 PPG, exploding for 22.0 PPG during the 1993-94 season—Tulsa's first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years and the first of two consecutive trips to the Sweet 16.
After the second tournament run, Smith jumped ship to Georgia for two seasons before his decade at Kentucky. For someone who took three different schools at least as far as the Sweet 16 in nine out of 12 years between 1994 and 2005, Smith sure doesn't get much respect in the discussion of all-time coaching greats.
Coach: Tom Izzo (468 career wins—all at Michigan State)
Player: Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State (1996-2000)
After spending more than a decade as the Spartans assistant coach, Izzo's attempt to replace the legendary Jud Heathcote didn't exactly start out with a bang. Michigan State went 16-16 and failed to make the 1996 NCAA tournament.
Thanks to the arrival of Cleaves the following year, that still stands as the last time Michigan State lost more than 15 games in a season.
He wasn't quite Tyler Ennis, but Cleaves hit the ground running, averaging 10.2 PPG and 5.0 APG as a freshman. The Spartans went 17-12 that year and missed the NCAA tournament for the last time.
Cleaves exploded as a sophomore. He put up 16.1 PPG, 7.2 APG and 2.4 SPG, leading the Spartans to a 22-8 record and the Sweet 16.
Over his final two seasons, he became less of a volume scorer and more of a game manager. In turn, Michigan State advanced to the Final Four in his junior season and won the national championship his senior year.
Coach: Billy Donovan (486 career wins—451 at Florida and 35 at Marshall)
Player: Udonis Haslem, Florida (1998-2002)
In the first four years of his coaching career, Donovan was nothing special. Between Marshall and Florida, he had compiled a 62-52 record and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
But once he was at a school long enough for his hand-picked recruits to take hold, it was game over. Over the past 16 seasons with the Gators, Donovan has a winning percentage of 75.6.
And one could argue that it all started with Udonis Haslem.
Haslem's first year at Florida was also Donovan's first year in the NCAA tournament. The freshman averaged 10.5 PPG and 5.0 RPG. One year later, the Gators were in the national championship game with Haslem averaging 11.8 PPG and 5.1 RPG.
He never really blossomed into a "gotta have him" type of star—he finished his four-year career at Florida averaging 13.7 PPG and 6.4 RPG and didn't even get drafted before churning out a very nice career in the NBA—but he was the type of workhorse in the paint that Donovan's teams have been anchored by ever since.
Haslem was the first in a lineage that would go from David Lee to Joakim Noah to Vernon Macklin to Patric Young.
Coach: Bill Self (532 career wins—325 at Kansas, 78 at Illinois, 74 at Tulsa and 55 at Oral Roberts)
Player: Brandon Kurtz, Tulsa (1998-2002)
Back before JUCO transfers were anywhere near as prevalent or promising as they are today, Self nabbed a pretty nice one in his second season as the head coach at Tulsa.
After coming over from Oral Roberts, Self led Tulsa to a good-not-great 19-12 record during the 1997-98 season. That team came back in great shape with only one noteworthy graduating senior, but Self added a great junior out of the blue from Bakersfield College.
Kurtz led the team in scoring at 11.9 PPG and added 6.0 RPG, providing enough firepower to get Tulsa back to the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed.
After getting blown out by No. 1 seed Duke in the round of 32, the Golden Hurricane came back even stronger than before with a 32-5 record and a trip to the Elite Eight. Kurtz put up very similar numbers (11.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG) but was surrounded with a better supporting cast.
Following that great season, Self made the move to Illinois. He hasn't had a team lose more than 10 games in a season since 1997-98.
Coach: John Calipari (597 career wins—152 at Kentucky, 252 at Memphis, 193 at Massachusetts)
Player: Tony Barbee, Massachusetts (1989-1993)
Well before the Marcus Camby scandal that will forever hang as a black cloud over his tenure at Massachusetts, John Calipari had already established his coaching prowess with the help of a player who would shortly thereafter become a part of Calipari's coaching tree.
In the season before Tony Barbee arrived at Massachusetts—Calipari's first year as a head coach—the Minutemen had a pretty dreadful 10-18 record. It was their 11th consecutive sub-.500 season and the only such season in Calipari's coaching career.
From the time he arrived on campus, Barbee was Calipari's personal Swiss Army knife. In his four-year career, Barbee had more than 1,500 points, more than 500 rebounds, more than 250 assists and approximately 125 steals and 50 blocks. The forward did a little bit of everything.
In his junior season, the Minutemen went 30-5 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years.
Once his playing days ended, Barbee rejoined Calipari as a graduate assistant in 1995 and again served as an assistant at Memphis from 2000 to 2006 before becoming the head coach at UTEP. (Let's not talk about those last four years at Auburn.)
Coach: Bob Huggins (668 career wins—150 at West Virginia, 23 at Kansas State, 398 at Cincinnati, 97 at Akron)
Player: Eric McLaughlin, Akron (1985-1989)
Like so many others on the list, the legend of Huggy Bear didn't exactly begin with a national championship. Akron went 12-14 during the 1984-85 season under the rookie head coach.
But things turned around in a hurry, due in large part to the arrival of McLaughlin. During his four years at Akron, the Zips went 85-32, winning at least 21 games and losing less than 10 each season.
The three-point-shooting point guard finished his career with 1,810 points, 476 assists and 177 steals. Though they didn't make it to the tournament in his senior season, McLaughlin's 22.5 points and 5.6 assists per game made the Zips good enough for Huggins to get a new job at Cincinnati, where he made quite the living over the next 16 years.
Honorable mention goes to Shawn Roberts, the forward who arrived at Akron at the same time as McLaughlin and finished his four-year career with 1,396 points and 665 rebounds. Without his presence in the paint, it's tough to say how dominant McLaughlin would have been.
Coach: Rick Pitino (693 career wins—341 at Louisville, 219 at Kentucky, 42 at Providence, 91 at Boston)
Player: Tony Simms, Boston (1980-1983)
If he hadn't "wasted" those eight seasons in the NBA, Pitino would likely be on his way to the record for career D-I wins.
In his 28 seasons as a head coach, he has averaged 24.75 wins per year. Multiplied by eight years, that's an extra 198 wins, giving him a theoretical total of 891. He'd still be 92 wins behind Mike Krzyzewski, but he's also nearly six years younger than Coach K.
Though Pitino probably won't be reaching the 1,000-win plateau, Tony Simms is a big reason why the coach was able to have such a successful career.
Before the three-point arc was even a standard thing in college basketball, Simms was a shooting guard who averaged 15.8 points per game during his 77 games at Boston. He led the team in scoring during the 1980-81 and 1982-83 seasons, putting up 18.6 points per game as a senior in leading Boston to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years.
Coach: Roy Williams (724 career wins—306 at North Carolina, 418 at Kansas)
Player: Adonis Jordan, Kansas (1989-93)
Talk about having big shoes to fill. Williams' first job as a head coach was taking over for Larry Brown the year after he led Kansas to the national championship. Prior to that, Williams had spent 10 seasons as an assistant to Dean Smith at North Carolina, so at least he had some good experience under his belt.
His first season was a minor flop, as Kansas posted a 19-12 record and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first of just two times in his 25 years as a head coach.
Things improved quickly from there, as he led the Jayhawks to a No. 2 seed and a 30-5 record the following year—Adonis Jordan's first season with the team.
The backup point guard averaged just 3.0 points per game, but he had 3.1 assists and a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. He played a very similar role for that Kansas team as Kasey Hill did this past season for Florida.
With added playing time came more scoring. As a sophomore, Jordan averaged 12.3 PPG and 4.9 APG and had a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. He would put up very similar numbers as a junior and senior, serving as a staple in the backcourt for a team that went 113-25 with him on the roster.
Coach: Jim Boeheim (948 career wins—all at Syracuse)
Player: Roosevelt Bouie and Louis Orr, Syracuse (1976-80)
Boeheim is about to enter his 39th season as the head coach at Syracuse. Along the way, he has been to 31 NCAA tournaments, 17 Sweet 16s, four Final Fours and three national championships with one title in 2003.
He has never finished a season below .500 and has a career winning percentage of 74.8.
There were no growing pains on Boeheim's road to greatness, as Syracuse posted a 26-4 record in his inaugural season—still tied for the second-best single-season winning percentage of the school's past 75 years.
In fact, in Boeheim's first four seasons, the Orange went 100-18 and played in three Sweet 16s.
His first four years just so happened to also be when the "Louie and Bouie Show" spent its four years at Syracuse.
One of the best interior duos in the history of college basketball, Roosevelt Bouie finished his career with 1,560 points and 987 rebounds, while Louis Orr had 1,487 points and 881 rebounds. Neither quite averaged a double-double, but they did combine to post 26.0 points and 16.0 rebounds per game throughout their four seasons.
(Cut to Syracuse fans asking if either of those guys might be eligible to play this year at the age of 56.)
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (983 career wins—910 at Duke, 73 at Army)
Player: Johnny Dawkins, Duke (1982-86)
It's a good thing Coach K's legacy began before the days of Internet forums, because we would have buried him before he even had a chance to thrive.
Eight years into his career, Krzyzewski had a record of 111-106, spent zero weeks in the AP rankings and appeared in zero NCAA tournaments. He was about as wildly successful at Army and Duke as Rex Walters (129-127) has been at Florida Atlantic and San Francisco over the past eight seasons.
Then again, Walters never had Johnny Dawkins playing point guard.
As a freshman—during the last sub-.500 season in Krzyzewski history—Dawkins put up the type of numbers that would have made him the No. 1 overall pick in this day and age: 18.1 PPG and 4.8 APG. He led the team in both categories by no small margin.
He put up equally strong numbers as a sophomore (19.4 PPG and 4.0 APG), while Duke's defense improved dramatically—average points allowed decreased from 83.7 to 72.3. Not only did Duke get back to the NCAA tournament that season, but the Blue Devils earned a No. 3 seed after finishing the year with a 24-9 record.
Dawkins led the team in scoring all four seasons as the defense continued to improve. By the time the 1986 NCAA tournament began, Duke was holding the opposition to 67.5 points per game while scoring 80.4 of its own. The Blue Devils came up just short in the national championship that year but posted a 37-3 record.
Over the next eight years, Duke would advance at least to the Final Four six times. In all 30 seasons since Dawkins became a junior, Duke has been ranked in the top 12 of the AP Poll at some point during the season and has finished 25 of the past 30 seasons ranked in the Top 10.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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