Ranking the Best Coaching Jobs in College Basketball
A basketball coach rubs a magic lamp and a genie pops out, granting him one wish to become the head coach of the men's college basketball program of his choice.
Where does he go?
Based on a combination of history (both recent and ancient) at the school, the program's culture/fans and recruiting pull, we've ranked the most attractive jobs in the sport.
Two key things of note that we're not factoring into the mix:
- How the team is doing thus far this season. Duke, Indiana and especially Kentucky have struggled in the past few weeks, but a slow start in one season doesn't fundamentally change a job's allure.
- The FBI situation lingering like a ticking time bomb. Several of these programs have been implicated in the shoe industry scandal that first surfaced in 2017, but we're not going to devalue the Arizona, Kansas or Louisville jobs just because there might be sanctions in the future. At any rate, that unknown didn't stop Chris Mack from leaving Xavier for Louisville three summers ago.
One last note: Try not to get too upset about the order of the top four. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina are clearly in a tier of their own, and we're splitting hairs to put them in some sort of hierarchy. It was tempting to just call it a four-way tie.
Michigan State has been an annual contender for more than two decades, but the Spartans have only had one top-10 recruiting class in the past decade. Tom Izzo has done an incredible job with a seemingly endless string of upperclassmen leaders, and this would obviously be a coveted position if it opened up. There are places better suited for immediate success, though.
Similar to Michigan State, though, this seems like more of a "great coach in a good place" situation that an "any above-average coach could thrive at that program" situation. And if the new coach isn't keen on shooting a lot of threes while playing at a slow pace, he will be pretty much starting over from scratch. At least the Philadelphia market has a lot of talent to tap into, though.
Over the past decade, the Zags have transitioned from a great mid-major team to just a straight-up great team. There's now legitimate NBA talent on that roster year in and year out, and it definitely feels like Mark Few has built something that could continue to thrive even after he moves on to whatever's next in his career.
This is the best job in a talent-rich state and the second-best gig in the SEC (behind Kentucky). Billy Donovan's run from 1999-2014 was no fluke. This really should be an NCAA tournament-bound team ranked in the Top 25 every year. The Gators do usually recruit well, but they could do much better in that regard.
This was definitely a top-10 gig not that long ago. There's a lot of basketball history in Columbus, and from 2006-13, the Buckeyes were either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament six times in eight years.
But the combination of diminished recruiting pull and Thad Matta's less-than-ceremonious exit during the summer of 2017 has brought Ohio State back to the pack a bit. Chris Holtmann has done an impressive job since taking the reins, though.
UNLV has been a mess in recent years, but the Rebels can still attract substantial talent to the desert. This program is something of a sleeping giant just waiting for the right coach to come in and bring back the glory days.
The birthplace of Nike doesn't have a particularly rich or deep history of basketball success. Oregon has only been to one Final Four since winning it all in 1939, and it has never been ranked higher than No. 4 in the AP poll.
But over the past couple of years, Dana Altman has turned Eugene, Oregon, into a popular destination for both 5-star recruits and coveted transfers. We wouldn't call the Ducks a Pac-12 juggernaut yet, but they're getting close.
It's hard to understand how Texas has only been to one Final Four since 1947, or how it has only spent two weeks at No. 1 in the AP poll throughout program history.
The Longhorns have plenty of recruiting pull (see: Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Mo Bamba, Myles Turner and a dozen other 5-star recruits dating back to 2004). But whether it has been Rick Barnes or Shaka Smart running the show, "underwhelming" is probably the most fitting word one could use to describe what this program has accomplished year after year.
But we might be underselling the Texas job at No. 9 because it's kind of the perfect combination of talent pipeline and realistic expectations that could allow a coach to get comfortable for a long time.
Texas fans will be ready to run an underdelivering football coach out of town midway through his first season, but they don't demand immediate greatness on the hardwood. However, it's a place where a coach could thrive right away and where he could become the greatest in program history in short order.
At every other program in our top eight, your best-case scenario after five years is getting the fans to say something like, "Oh, he's good, but he's no [insert legendary coach who made multiple trips to the Final Four during his more than two decades with the team]."
At Texas, though, turn a few top-10 recruiting classes into teams that finish the season ranked in the Top 10 and you're at least in the mix with Barnes for the best the Longhorns have ever had on the sideline.
Bobby Hurley has come on strong in recent years with Arizona State, but for the longest time, Arizona had the luxury of being the destination for top-100 recruits willing/wanting to spend their college days in the southwest.
Lute Olson (Arizona's coach from 1983-2007) didn't need to venture far to see/attract guys from Las Vegas, southern California or western Texas, and he capitalized on that proximity to talent by building a program that spent at least one week ranked in the AP Top 10 in 20 consecutive seasons.
The first two years after Olson retired, things didn't go all that well under Kevin O'Neill or Russ Pennell. But it didn't take long for Sean Miller to put Arizona back on the national radar as a title contender.
Similar to Texas, some lot of NCAA tournament good that has done for this program lately. Arizona hasn't been to the Final Four since 2001 and has only ever won one national championship (1997).
That shouldn't make the job any less attractive, though. Arizona repeatedly signs the talent to compete for Pac-12 titles, and that tradition should carry on with the next coaching staff—provided the whole FBI thing doesn't eventually force this program to start over from scratch.
At the very least, UCLA is a lucrative gig. You might get fired after three years, but you can at least afford to drive away in a pretty sweet ride.
According to USA Today, Mick Cronin was the third-highest paid college basketball coach last season, trailing only John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski. Not too shabby for a guy who has only been to one Sweet 16 in his entire career.
With all that money comes high expectations, though, so maybe this job isn't attractive unless you thrive under pressure.
Steve Alford went 31-5 with the Bruins in 2016-17, and he got fired 46 games later. Ben Howland led them to three straight Final Fours in 2006-08, and he was fired five mediocre years later. UCLA knows it can and should sign extremely skilled players every single year, and it doesn't take kindly to disappointing stretches.
The fans and the administration aren't demanding John Wooden levels of annual dominance, though. Expectations are high in Los Angeles, but they're not delusional. All the same, they're beyond ready to join fellow blue bloods Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina on the list of teams expected to at least reach the Sweet 16 most years.
It's hard to believe, but UCLA hasn't opened a season ranked in the AP Top 10 since 2008, and that Lonzo Ball-led team in 2016-17 was the only one in the past decade to spend any time ranked in the Top 10. If someone could come in and at least bring the Bruins back to that level, he would be much appreciated and well-compensated.
The last few years of Rick Pitino's time at the helm were tumultuous, to say the least, but Louisville's 46-year run under Denny Crum and Pitino was mighty impressive. One of the three national championships and two of the nine Final Four appearances were later vacated, but this program has been a near-constant contender for the past half-century.
And despite Pitino's unflattering exit prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, Chris Mack had the Cardinals back up to No. 1 in the AP poll just last season. That says a lot about Mack, but also a lot about the winning culture at Louisville, that it can withstand multiple major scandals without much more than a brief hiccup.
Mack is only 50 years old, so it's probably going to be a long time before this job opens up again. However, there is not a single non-blue blood school that would be more intriguing to a basketball coach if Louisville did happen to have an opening tomorrow.
And while some might point to nearby Kentucky's dominance on the recruiting trail and on the hardwood (excluding the first disastrous month of this season, of course) as a potential drawback to taking the Louisville job, it's not a problem on the same level of, say, Jim Harbaugh's inability to beat Ohio State as Michigan's football coach.
Louisville is only 2-11 against Kentucky since John Calipari landed in Lexington, and the Wildcats have consistently out-recruited the Cardinals. But as Duke and North Carolina have demonstrated for decades, you can be a Top 10 team in the country without being the best team within a 100-mile radius. Louisville has thrived in that role for a long time.
Kindred spirits with the UCLA job, all new Indiana coaches should have to sign a "You know what you're getting yourself into, right?" waiver.
Things haven't gone well in Bloomington over the past two decades. The Hoosiers did make a surprising run to the 2002 Final Four as a No. 5 seed, and they had a really nice team in 2012-13, earning a No. 1 seed before getting ousted in the Sweet 16. Outside of that, they've experienced nothing close to the success they enjoyed in the heydays of Bobby Knight and Branch McCracken.
That hasn't much lowered expectations, though.
It's almost as if Indiana fans wake up every morning thinking it's still the 1990s and they should be one of the best teams in the country even though they have only earned a share of three of the last 27 Big Ten regular-season crowns and have never won a Big Ten tournament.
But as long as you sign a significant chunk of the top high-school players in the state and put a competent product on the court, you can stick around for a good while. Archie Miller has done well in that regard, signing at least two of the top six recruits from Indiana in each of the past three years, including home-grown 5-star guys Romeo Langford and Khristian Lander.
And if you happen to build a legitimate title contender out of players from the Hoosier state, you can just about name your price in your next contract negotiation.
While there is no question that Duke is a top-five job, I absolutely do not envy the first coach who has to try to fill Mike Krzyzewski's shoes.
Because if it's anything like what happened after Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun retired, the next Duke coach will reach a Final Four in either his first or second season, yet he'll be gone within six years. That was the fate of Bill Guthridge, Mike Davis and Kevin Ollie.
Moreover, with Krzyzewski all-in on the one-and-done approach, that next coach better be able to hit the ground running in regard to recruiting 5-star talent because Duke's roster gets stripped down to the studs every year. There's almost no chance the next coach will be inheriting a group of veteran leaders.
That said, Duke is an institution, and as long as the next guy gets Coach K's seal of approval on his way out the door, it's hard to imagine this program losing its recruiting pull and crumbling to the ground any time soon.
The Blue Devils have been extremely successful for a long time and have long been one of the teams kids dream about playing for when they grow up. That's going to give the new coach a few years to prove himself in the ACC while benefiting from Coach K's pedigree.
Not only has Kansas been to 30 consecutive NCAA tournaments, but the Jayhawks were also a No. 4 seed or better in 28 of those years. They only won one national championship during that stretch, but they are a serious threat to win it all every year. They haven't had a losing season since 1983.
Kansas also has one of the best fanbases/home environments in the nation. The usually raucous Allen Fieldhouse isn't providing any real advantage this year, but fans will eventually be able to pack that building full of "Rock Chalk" chants again.
And the Jayhawks have already proved on several occasions that they can change head coaches without missing a beat. There was no drop-off when Bill Self replaced Roy Williams. And when Williams took over for Larry Brown, it only took one mediocre year for the Jayhawks to rejoin the nation's elite.
Even way back in the 1950s, Dick Harp led the Jayhawks to the national championship game in his first season after replacing Phog Allen.
That doesn't mean the next coach is guaranteed to succeed immediately, but "Kansas coach" has clearly been a fortuitous title for a bunch of years.
2. North Carolina
At North Carolina, the recruiting basically takes care of itself.
"It's one of the winningest programs in NCAA history. Every game is on national television. The home games are in the house that Dean Smith built. Twice a year, you'll play in the most high-profile regular-season game this sport has to offer. You also get to play in the most recognizable jerseys. Arguably the best player in basketball history went here. You get to wear his shoes. We've got him on speed dial."
Duke and Kentucky have cleaned up on the one-and-done front, snatching up the guys who are eager to make a name for themselves in the NBA as soon as possible. But North Carolina will always be one of the most popular destinations for players intrigued by college basketball history and interested in forging a legacy of their own.
Barring some seismic shift, North Carolina should just about always have one of the three most talented rosters in the ACC and, at worst, a borderline top-10 roster from a national perspective.
From there, as long as Roy Williams' successor is above-average in the X's and O's department and can earn the respect of a locker room, success is almost certain to follow.
Kentucky has more wins than any other program in men's college basketball history. Only UCLA (11) has more national championships than Kentucky's eight, and the Bruins last won it all over a quarter-century ago.
Because of the rich history, there's a lot of pressure to excel in Lexington. The good news is Big Blue Nation will be a large, aggressively loyal fan club as long as you do a better job than Billy Gillespie did.
Following in John Calipari's footsteps won't be easy. Similar to the point we made with Duke, Cal's successor almost has to be ready, willing and able to embrace one-and-done life. Otherwise, it might be three years before that next coach has a roster that can actually compete—and the Kentucky fans and administration probably don't have three years' worth of patience.
But as long as one-and-done is still a thing by the time Calipari leaves, you'd likely want to keep it going.
Kentucky is great at college basketball, sure. But more importantly to the nation's top high-school talent, it has become the superhighway to the NBA. There are currently 33 UK alumni on NBA rosters, which makes up over 5 percent of the entire Association. Casually throw out those numbers during a recruiting visit and you're liable to sign just about anyone who wants to play one season of college hoops.
And as Calipari has repeatedly demonstrated, you can win a whole bunch of games with rosters full of inexperienced McDonald's All-Americans.
Recruiting info courtesy of 247Sports.