This column originally appeared at WDRB.com on March 22, 2018.
On Wednesday, Louisville interim athletic director Vince Tyra said on more than one occasion that the university needs an “elite coach.” With a search under way for the next coach of the University of Louisville basketball team, that begs the question – what is an elite coach, and who are the elite coaches in the game today, from a college standpoint?
The hard part about defining your terms in something like this is that everyone’s definition is likely to be different. There are elite coaches based on what they have accomplished, coaches about everyone could agree on, and there are coaches you think could be elite coaches, but who haven’t built those credentials yet.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll try to identify those coaches who are elite coaches already. Here are my criteria, and this definition is mine. Yours may differ. (Also, this discussion is only about elite coaches. This discussion does not focus at all on the likelihood of Louisville hiring one of them, or even attempting to. That’s a different discussion.)
An elite coach has a proven record of high achievement over time. An elite coach has won an NCAA championship, or played in the title game. An elite coach has been to the Final Four at least once, preferably multiple times, or as a non-Power 6 (I include the Big East with the Power 5 for college basketball) coach has taken a team to the Final Four. In the absence of those, an elite coach has won multiple conference championships in a Power-6 league, or been selected national coach of the year.
There also is a time element involved. If an established coach hasn’t been to a Final Four in ten years, or a young coach in five, his “elite” status may be questioned. For instance, Tubby Smith, based on the above criteria, at one time was an elite coach, but folks in Memphis or Minnesota might say otherwise. In the case of elite coaches, there should be little debate about whether a coach fits or not. There are elite coaches, and there are elite coaches at the top of their games. Those are two things. I’m assuming Tyra was talking about hiring the former, not the latter.
That’s about it. What you don’t see in there is a specific mention of recruiting accomplishments, because it is assumed that if you have accomplished those things, you have been not only an accomplished recruiter, but have the ability to coach those players once you recruited them.
So given those criteria, who are the elite coaches in the game today?
On the first tier of elite coaches, those who have won multiple NCAA championships, you have Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Billy Donovan of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Also on that lead lap, coaches who have won the title, and remain at the top of their games, I would list Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jay Wright of Villanova and Bill Self of Kansas.
Think about this: Of the last 18 NCAA championships, those men have won 13. Two others who are unquestionably elite – Rick Pitino, with one title in that time, and Jim Calhoun with three – are out of the game. One other, Kevin Ollie, who won the title at Connecticut, was just fired. (Larry Brown, another elite coach, is basically out of the game for head coaching purposes, at age 77.)
Ollie is an interesting case. Is he an elite coach? I think he deserves mention in the class, but he’s also coached teams to losing seasons in the past two seasons, so that leaves him out when it comes to “top of his game” mention.
So those eight guys in the game currently are the cream of the elite when it comes to college basketball. You can’t question their inclusion in this list.
But are they the only elite coaches in the game? Hardly. Let’s take a look at the next tier, coaches who have been to Final Fours, been to title games, been national coach of the year, or otherwise have claim to “elite” status.
Among this group you find guys like Brad Stevens, currently in the NBA with the Boston Celtics, Mark Few of Gonzaga, John Beilein at Michigan, Gregg Marshall of Wichita State, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, Ben Howland of Mississippi State, Bob Huggins of West Virginia and new additions from last season, Dana Altman at Oregon and Frank Martin of South Carolina.
Those last two belong in a separate class of elite coaches, those who have been to the Final Four once recently, or even the recent past, but who either need to follow it up with unbroken success or haven’t followed it up with similar success.
Shaka Smart of Texas made the Final Four in 2011 and undoubtedly has been included on lists of elite coaches (if they existed) in the recent past, but hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014. I’ll include him. Tom Crean, recently hired by Georgia, went to a Final Four with Marquette in 2008 and then took over a shambles of an Indiana program in 2009 and began a total rebuild. His star was tarnished by the necessary losing seasons than ensued. He’d be on everyone’s list of elite coaches had a couple of highly ranked teams not lost in the Sweet 16 in 2013 and 2015. Bruce Weber, who led Illinois to the Final Four in 2005 but hasn’t been past the Sweet 16 since then, is in a similar position.
Who else? Tony Bennett of Virginia would make everyone’s list as an elite coach, and in fact I’ll include him on mine, based on multiple national coach of the year awards. He has yet, however, to crack the Final Four. Sean Miller of Arizona you’ll frequently see mentioned. He also lacks the Final Four credentials, but also lacks the national coach of the year mentions. I don’t include him yet.
And then there’s one more list. And I don’t think they can yet be called elite but maybe fall into the class of next-generation elite candidates. This group is large, and ever-changing. In the rush to find the next elite coach, they are names that most often make up the pool. There are plenty of them, from Matt Painter of Purdue to Xavier’s Chris Mack to Mick Cronin of Cincinnati. Chris Beard at Texas Tech is certainly one of them, as is Chris Holtzman of Ohio State. Mike White of Florida is in this class, as is Eric Musselman at Nevada, Dan Hurley at Rhode Island and Brad Brownell of Clemson fall into this category. Archie Miller of Indiana is in this group, and Buzz Williams of Virginia Tech. Mike Brey isn’t young, but I consider him a first-rate coach. I suppose this is the place to put him, too. This list could go on for a while. But you get the picture.
That, pretty much, is my criteria, and my list. I’ll sum it up one more time.
In my mind, the elite coaches in college basketball today, based on accomplishment and current performance, are the following, listed alphabetically. Because quadrants are all the rage, I’ll group them accordingly. Now, who am I leaving out?
(National champions, multiple Final Fours, multiple title game appearances)
Jim Boeheim Syracuse
John Calipari, Kentucky
Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Bill Self, Kansas
Roy Williams, North Carolina
Jay Wright Villanova
In the NBA: Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City, Brad Stevens, Butler
Out of the game, but available: Rick Pitino
(Multiple Final Fours, or a title game appearance, or Final Four with a track record over time and sustained success after)
John Beilein, Michigan
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Ben Howland, Mississippi State
Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
Jim Larranaga, Miami
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
(Final Four credentials, haven’t followed it up, or need to build on it)
Dana Altman, Oregon
Tom Crean, Georgia
Frank Martin, South Carolina
Shaka Smart, Texas
Bruce Weber, Kansas State
(Coach of the year, but without a Final Four)
Tony Bennett, Virginia