Ranking The Greatest College Basketball Coaches Ever
In college basketball, players come and go, but coaches tend to stick around for a looong time. Well, at least the good coaches do. In fact, elite coaches are the ones who drive college basketball programs to success.
Every once in a while, an average head coach at an established program will be able to ride the wave of success. But more times than not, it’s good coaching that’s responsible for making a program one of the best in the nation, not the other way around. That’s the way it’s always been, whether it’s John Wooden at UCLA and Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. More recently, Creighton’s Greg McDermott and Gonzaga’s Mark Few have built programs more or less from the ground up.
Here we've ranked the 10 greatest coaches in NCAA Men's Basketball history.
10. Jim Phelan
Not every great coach in college basketball ends up at a powerhouse program. Just take former Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan, for example, who ran the program from 1954 to 2003. That’s nearly 50 seasons of quality coaching.
When Phelan took over, the Mountaineers were a Division 2 program, albeit a successful one, winning the 1962 NCAA College Division championship. He finally led the transition to Division 1 in 1988, ultimately taking the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament in 1995 and 1999 before retiring at the end of the 2003 season.
Despite winning 830 games and coaching more than 1,300 games, Phelan’s accomplishments are largely overlooked and underappreciated. On the bright side, he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, finally getting the recognition he deserves.
9. Phog Allen
Allen might have the most remarkable career of any college basketball coach. For starters, he played under James Naismith at Kansas and later became his successor as coach.
Allen coached the Jayhawks for 50 seasons in Kansas, helping to develop future Hall of Fame coaches in Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp.
Allen won 746 games while also dabbling as a football and baseball coach. Kansas is credited with three national championships and 24 conference titles during Allen’s tenure. Given everything he did for the game, it’s fitting that Allen was a member of the inaugural Basketball Hall of Fame class in 1959.
8. Jim Calhoun
Calhoun is a great example of how a coach can almost singlehandedly build a championship-caliber program. He built Northeastern into a quality mid-major and then turned a mediocre UConn program into a national champion.
Calhoun won almost immediately after getting to Connecticut. He totaled over 600 wins and three national championships in 26 seasons. He also made the Huskies a perennial Big East contender and a breeding ground for NBA talent.
Unfortunately, health problems forced Calhoun to retire sooner than expected. But after a few years, Calhoun returned to coaching college basketball. He's now over 900 all-time wins.
7. Dean Smith
Smith was both successful and influential as head coach at North Carolina for 36 seasons. During that time, he won 879 games while taking the Tar Heels to the Final Four 11 times, winning two national championships.
In addition to all those wins, Smith played a huge role in changing the way basketball was played. He instituted aggressive defenses and an offensive style that emphasized passing, encouraging unselfish play.
Perhaps most importantly, Smith had a progressive stance on racial equality, recruiting Charlie Scott, who became the first African American scholarship athlete at North Carolina.
6. Hank Iba
All you need to know about Iba is that the Coach of the Year award is named after the legendary coach. He made Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) a national powerhouse throughout for more than three decades, winning back-to-back National Championships in 1945 and 1946.
At the college level, Iba won 751 games. He also coached at three Olympics, taking home the gold medal twice. Iba’s mark on the game continued long after his coaching days were over. He served as a mentor for Larry Brown, Don Haskins, Bobby Knight, Eddie Sutton and several other notable coaches who either played or coached for Iba.
5. Jim Boeheim
Boeheim keeps racking up more and more wins at his alma mater. No college basketball coach has become more synonymous with a program than Boeheim is with Syracuse. He was a player and assistant with the Orange before taking over as head coach in 1976. Since then, Boeheim has climbed to second on the all-time wins list — behind only Mike Krzyzewski — winning well over 1,000 games and counting.
Boeheim rarely recruited at the same level as many of the top programs, but he's been able to out-coach and outsmart his peers. Using his patented 2-3 zone, Boeheim’s teams at Syracuse often overachieve, reaching five Final Fours and winning an NCAA National Championship in 2003. His longevity and remarkable consistency are two things that no other coach in college basketball history can match.
4. Adolph Rupp
Slowly but surely, Rupp is being passed on the all-time wins list. But his influence on basketball has been everlasting. Rupp was instrumental in popularizing many offensive sets and he's one of the first coaches to have his team run the fast break. Rupp even experimented with trapping defenses.
Ahead of his time, Rupp's strategic superiority led to incredible success at Kentucky for four-plus decades. Rupp's Wildcats won the SEC regular-season title 27 times and were crowned national champions four times.
Kentucky’s home arena is named after Rupp, who set the foundation for the Wildcats becoming the powerhouse that they are today. While his 876 wins have been passed by half of a dozen other coaches, his .822 winning percentage is the second-best of all time.
3. Mike Krzyzewski
Coach K is the biggest reason why every college basketball fan either loves or hates Duke. In fairness, the Blue Devils had plenty of success before Krzyzewski arrived, but he’s the one who turned Duke into a program that expects to dominate the ACC and contend for a national championship every season.
As of 2020, Coach K's taken Duke to a dozen Final Fours and won five national championships. He also has over 1,100 wins and counting, making him the most winningest coach in NCAA Men's Basketball history.
You might hate Coach K, sure, but he did coach Team USA to Olympic Gold Medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016, so maybe he's not pure evil.
2. Bobby Knight
Knight was as fiery as any coach in college basketball history. His temper landed him in hot water on multiple occasions. But Knight sure knew how to coach and get results.
Indiana had on-and-off success before Knight took over in Bloomington, but the former Indiana coach made the Hoosiers a dominant force that won three national championships in a 12-year span.
Knight elevated Indiana to a level that other coaches haven’t been able to replicate. He also had a good run at Army earlier in his career. He also brought life to the Texas Tech program late in his career. Despite all of the criticism and controversy, Knight finished his career with a then-record 902 wins.
1. John Wooden
It’s a safe bet that no coach will ever top the accomplishments of the Wizard of Westwood. Wooden took over a ragingly mediocre UCLA program in 1948 and turned it into one of the greatest sports dynasties ever.
Wooden led the Bruins to 10 national championships in just 12 years, including seven in a row. The Bruins lost a total of 22 games during those dozen seasons. UCLA finished their season undefeated a ridiculous four times. That level of sustained success and utter dominance is something no coach could ever dream of matching.
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