Mike Anderson to Arkansas: Top 10 Coaches Who Starred Where They Were Assistants
On Wednesday, Arkansas named former Missouri coach Mike Anderson as its new head basketball coach. The move will be a homecoming for Anderson, who served as an assistant at Arkansas during the program’s glory years under Nolan Richardson.
Will Anderson’s second tour of duty bring some magic back to the Razorbacks? If it does, Anderson will be in good company.
Herein, 10 coaches who were able to shine in the top job after having served as assistants for the same program.
Note: Many other great coaches, from Dean Smith to Tom Izzo, were promoted directly from assistant to head coach at a given school. For purposes of this list, only coaches who (like Anderson) left the program and returned later were considered.
10. Skip Prosser, Xavier
Skip Prosser’s entire assistant coaching career took place at Xavier, where he eventually became the top assistant behind revered head coach Pete Gillen. In 1993, though, Prosser got the chance to take over a program of his own, becoming head coach at Loyola (MD).
Gillen didn’t give him much time to establish himself as a head coach. After Prosser had spent just one season with the Greyhounds, Gillen left Xavier for Providence and Xavier responded by inviting Prosser back to take over the top job.
In just seven seasons with the Musketeers, Prosser moved into second, behind Gillen, on the program’s career victories list.
Though his teams (anchored by future NBA forward James Posey) won just one NCAA tournament game in three appearances, he built on the momentum established by Gillen and helped Xavier rise to a position of consistent relevance on the national level.
9. Charlie Spoonhour, Missouri State
Charlie Spoonhour took the long road to college coaching success, spending seven seasons as a high school coach and 14 more bouncing between Division I assistant jobs and junior college head coaching jobs.
The first of his assistant positions, from 1969-73, brought him to Missouri State (then known as Southwest Missouri State).
A decade later, Spoonhour was an assistant to Moe Iba at Nebraska when the Bears (having just ascended to Division I the previous season) asked him to return as their head coach in 1983. He proceeded to orchestrate the best nine-year run in the program’s history.
With Spoonhour at the helm, Missouri State would earn five conference championships in nine years, and win their first-ever game in NCAA tournament play in 1987, behind future NBA guard Winston Garland.
Spoonhour would later enjoy great success as the coach at St. Louis University, where he won national Coach of the Year honors in 1994.
8. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Although Bo Ryan is a Pennsylvania native, his coaching career has been firmly rooted in the state of Wisconsin. After coaching high school ball in his home state, Ryan joined the staff of Badgers head coach Bill Cofield in 1976, staying for the next eight seasons.
After thriving as a head coach elsewhere in the state system, at Div. III UW-Platteville and then UW-Milwaukee, Ryan returned to Madison in 2001 to take over after Dick Bennett’s sudden retirement.
Ryan’s decade as the Badgers’ head man has been a rousing success, with 10 NCAA tournament berths in as many tries, including one Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 finishes. He stands just five wins from second place among Wisconsin coaches all-time.
7. Jay Wright, Villanova
Jay Wright had already established himself on the Philadelphia basketball scene as a Drexel assistant when he joined the staff of Villanova legend Rollie Massimino in 1987. He would stay for five years before following Massimino to UNLV for two more seasons in an assistant role.
His first head coaching job came at Hofstra, where he finished strong with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. In 2001, Wright made his return to Philadelphia, taking over at Villanova from Steve Lappas.
Wright has returned the Wildcats to the role of consistent national contenders, taking them to the Final Four in 2009 for the first time in 24 years. He will likely move into third place on Villanova’s coaching victories list next season.
6. Dave Odom, Wake Forest
Wake Forest gave Dave Odom his first shot at college coaching, making him an assistant under Carl Tacy in 1976. He needed just three seasons at Wake to catch the eye of the East Carolina Pirates, who made him their head man in 1979.
Odom returned to the ACC as an assistant coach at Virginia three years later, and his familiarity with the conference would be rewarded. After four consecutive losing seasons, Wake Forest called on Odom to turn their program around in 1989.
Thanks in part to his recruitment of Tim Duncan, Odom’s teams won two ACC titles and made seven straight NCAA tournament appearances during his twelve-year tenure. He finished his Wake Forest career second only to Murray Greason in victories.
5. Dave Gavitt, Providence
Dave Gavitt’s coaching career proved that you can go home again—twice.
At Dartmouth, he played on the last Ivy League title team the school has produced. After working as an assistant coach at Providence under Joe Mullaney, he returned to Dartmouth, taking over as head coach in 1967.
Two years later, he made another return trip, coming back to Providence to replace the retiring Mullaney.
Gavitt led Providence to five NCAA appearances in his 10 seasons, including the first Final Four in school history in 1973 (a team led by future ABA star Marvin Barnes). He stands second behind Mullaney on the Friars all-time wins list.
Gavitt later played a key role in the founding of the Big East Conference, and served as its first commissioner.
4. Norm Stewart, Missouri
Norm Stewart was very nearly a lifetime Missouri Tiger, having played both basketball and baseball as a student there. However, after three years as an assistant coach following graduation, Stewart left to take his first head coaching job at what’s now Northern Iowa.
He wouldn’t be gone long.
After a successful six-year tenure in Cedar Falls, Stewart returned to his alma mater to become head coach for the next 32 seasons.
Stewart’s Tigers would win eight conference championships in what was then the Big Eight, making the NCAA tournament a total of 16 times. Though he never made a Final Four, Stewart earned two Elite Eight appearances and finished with an impressive 17 seasons of 20 victories.
He is, unsurprisingly, the winningest coach in Missouri history.
3. Jim Harrick, UCLA
Jim Harrick was far from an obvious choice to return UCLA to national-powerhouse status. Though he had been a Bruins assistant for two years, he served not under the incomparable John Wooden, but rather the unremarkable Gary Cunningham from 1977-79.
After an impressive nine-year career at Pepperdine that featured four WCC Coach of the Year awards, Harrick returned to Westwood to take the head coaching job in 1988.
Harrick quickly rebuilt the Bruins into contenders on the national level, capped by the Ed O’Bannon-led 1994-95 team that brought UCLA its first post-Wooden national championship.
Harrick is second only to Wooden in career wins at UCLA, though current coach Ben Howland will almost certainly pass him next season.
2. Tubby Smith, Kentucky
As assistant coaching positions go, serving under Rick Pitino has proven to be a good place to start a career. Tubby Smith had already spent a decade as a Division I assistant when he joined Pitino’s staff at Kentucky in 1989.
After just two seasons with Pitino, Smith was tabbed for the head coaching spot at Tulsa. In six seasons at Tulsa and then Georgia, Smith would lead his teams to three Sweet 16 appearances.
In 1997, Smith returned to Lexington, where he replaced his old boss after Pitino left for the NBA’s Boston Celtics. He started off with a bang, leading Kentucky to its second national title in three seasons.
Though Smith’s decade at Kentucky did not produce another Final Four team, he did reach 100 wins with the school faster than any coach since Adolph Rupp.
1. Roy Williams, North Carolina
Few homecomings in history have been more celebrated, and none more successful, than Roy Williams’ return to Chapel Hill. He had served as an assistant under the legendary Dean Smith from 1978-1988, leaving to replace Larry Brown in the top job at Kansas.
Had Williams simply retired after his 15 years in Lawrence, he would still have been considered an all-time great as a college coach.
Instead, he came back to North Carolina in 2003, where within two years of replacing Matt Doherty, he led the program to its first national title since Smith’s retirement. Williams is at two national championships and counting with the Tar Heels, and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
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