Elite-8 Greatest College Basketball Coaches of All Time
In a world where player performance, stats, Instagram videos, and highlight reels dominate the sports scene, college basketball is one of the few venues where coaches stand equal to the players that surround them. The impact coaches have on college hoops is significantly more tangible and visible compared to the professional sports that make up today’s media, and college coaches are lauded and revered in a way that differs from the professional ranks. As such, they have left behind legacies that are idolized and often discussed come tournament time each year. This week on the Mental Dimes Basketball Podcast, Trevor and Shea’s Elite-8 segment breaks down the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. Be sure to vote on who you feel has the best list below.
Trevor’s List: Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun
Shea’s List: John Wooden, Dean Smith, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins
John Wooden has to be on the Mount Rushmore of not only the best college basketball coaches all-time, but for best coaches of any sport period. There’s Bill Belichick, Phil Jackson, Nick Saban, Coach K, Geno Auriemma, and the list goes on and on; but you can’t forget about John Wooden when having the conversation of the best leaders to ever do it. He won 10 National Championships while at UCLA, which is double the amount of the coach with the 2nd most in college basketball history (Coach K). Even more impressive, he won 7 consecutive titles over a period between 1966 and 1973, and led the Bruins on an 88 game win streak in the early 1970’s. No team on the men’s side of college hoops has been able to replicate that, or even get close to it. Overall, Wooden won over 600 games at UCLA with a ridiculous winning percentage of .808. His resume speaks volumes for consideration as the GOAT in NCAA Basketball coaching history.
No list is complete without the polarizing character of Bobby Knight. Knight practically built the Hoosiers program with three decades of dominance featuring 11 Big Ten titles, five final-four trips and three national championships. His final record was 899-374 and he is one of few coaches to have a perfect season which he completed with the 1976 Hoosiers. While his win totals are certainly legacy building, perhaps an even greater impact Knight made on the game was his employment of the motion offense, one of the most widely used offensive sets in basketball today.
Beyond his success, he developed an unfortunate reputation for being a hot-head—throwing chairs, cursing refs, and getting physical with his own players—but no one can deny his winning formula. To give you an idea of who he was—I once heard a story that he drew up a play at the beginning of tryouts early in pre-season. He then proceeded to have all day workouts and a full practice slate, and then at the very end of the day he told the guys to run the play he’d drawn up hours before. Of course, many of them didn’t remember the play that he’d only drawn once and had done so long before, so he told the confused players to leave—asking how was he supposed to trust a player who doesn’t pay attention, and he can’t count on when the game is on the line?
Speaking of polarizing coaches—there is no greater hero or villain in the hearts of college hoop’s fans than Coach Mike Krzyzewski. And whether you love or hate him, no one can deny that he is one of the greatest coaches of all time. The picture below breaks down the numbers:
There is no one who is remotely close to coach K. in terms of winning numbers. Wooden is the only person in a league beyond him because he has 10 titles—but the debate on who is better is similar to that of M.J. and Lebron. M.J. has the rings and dominated in his era. Lebron aslo has rings and dominates in his—an era that may argue M.J. could not compete in. Could we say the same of Wooden if he entered the multi-bid conference era of coach K.? We’ll never know, but there’s no dobut that Krzyzewski belongs in the conversation of greatest coach of all time. The public would likely agree—and there’s a reason that the Cameron ticket prices averaged $5,392 for coach K’s final home game—an average that far surpassed that of a SuperBowl ticket. College hoops won’t find another one of these icons for a very, very long time.
The fact that North Carolina’s home venue is named the “Dean E. Smith Center” says it all. From 1967 to 1997, the Tar Heels only missed the NCAA Tournament 3 times, and not one time occurred after the year 1974. He brought North Carolina to 11 Final Fours, winning it all in 1982 and 1993. When Smith retired in 1997, he had the record for most career victories in college basketball history with 879. To add to the resume, he was also an 8x ACC Coach of the Year and a 4x National Coach of the Year. Dean was an amazing leader off the court as well, with 96.6% of his players receiving a degree. He also recruited the first African American scholarship player (Charlie Scott) for any sport in the history of the Tar Heels. He was heavily involved as a political activist in the fight to stop desegregation at the University of North Carolina. Smith was certainly a man of the people, having impacted the lives of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and thousands of others. In 2006, he was a member of the inaugural class for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Boeheim is one of 6 coaches ever to eclipse the 900 win mark for a career, and the only one to do so at just one school. Headed into his 47th season with the Orange, he has a career record of 998-426, but in reality he’s won almost 1,100 games if it weren’t for the NCAA vacating 101 of his victories. I believe the one stat that proves just how legendary of a coaching career he’s had is this- when Syracuse made the NCAA Tournament in 2021, it was the 6th different decade that Boeheim led the Orange to a tournament appearance. Boeheim is a Syracuse lifer, he played for the Orange in the 1960’s and took over the head job for the program in 1976, taking them to the NCAA Tournament 35 times since. To create a college basketball powerhouse for so long in a city where it’s got to be hard from a recruiting standpoint to sell to top prospects (trust me- I live in upstate NY and it’s not exactly the most enjoyable weather), is amazing in itself. He is well deserving of a top 8 spot of all-time.
Just down Tobacco Road from his rival, coach Williams, with his clean custom Air Jordans comes strolling into the greatest coaches of all time party with a smile on his face. Unlike Krzyzewski, Williams had a contagiously kind and happy demeanor that carried with it a stellar winning resume. The three-time National Champion coach led the Kansas Jayhawks and the North Carolina Tar Heels to incredible heights—reaching nine final-fours and finishing his career with a phenomenal 903-264 record—he is also the fastest coach to win 900+. He is also one of few coaches to helm multiple bluebloods successfully, and is the only coach to win 400+ games with two separate schools (also the only coach to be elected AP coach of the year with multiple schools). His resume, much like many of the coaches on this list is undeniable, but a major part of his legacy is that Williams was considered a DOG in tournament time. He was 79-27 in NCAA tournament games and only once in 30 appearances did he fall in the first round. Perhaps the greatest part about Williams is that he was unlike most rough and tough coaches of his time. I have no doubt he could rattle some cages, but college hoops fans remember him for his smile—his dancing memes when the Tar Heels reached the final-four, for his shoes he’d wear in support of breast cancer, the incredible sum he donated in the pandemic to fund the extra year of COVID eligibility, etc. While guys like Knight or Krzyzewski were hated, Willaims was loved—and let’s just say that if the greatest coaches of all time truly did party together—Williams would be the guy that showed up with the cooler and the sweetest pair of kicks.
When it comes to the discussion of championships—Jim Calhoun is in the top 5 with 3 titles to his name while at the helm of the UConn Huskies. Calhoun joined the University of Connecticut when they were worst team in the Big-East—the toughest conference in basketball at a time in which 5 future hall of fame coaches were battling for supremacy. He then built a contender that won 10 Big-East regular season titles, reached four final-fours and locked down three national championships. In his time as a college coach he went 917-397, and he is one of the few coaches who is said to have truly built a program from the ground up. Much of his success came late in his career, but the fact that Calhoun found a way to pull the Huskies out of the cellar in a juggernaut easily pins him atop this list.
Huggins has over 800 victories at the Division 1 level but unlike Boeheim, he’s been all over the map to accomplish that feat. He started out with the Akron Zips in the mid 1980’s, winning 20+ games there in 4 of 5 seasons. Next was a 16 year stint with Cincinnati, where he revived a program that hadn’t been relevant for almost two decades. He turned the Bearcats back into a perennial NCAA Tournament team and even took them to the Final Four in just his 3rd season there. He went to the big dance each of his last 14 seasons with Cincinnati. There was a quick stop at Kansas State afterward before finally taking the job where he has cemented his legacy as one of the most influential figures in college basketball history- West Virginia. In 15 seasons with the Mountaineers, he’s won 326 games, made 10 NCAA Tournaments, established one of the best defensive schemes in recent memory with “Press Virginia”, and brought them to a Final Four in 2010 for the first time in over 50 years. He has been named a “Coach of the Year” in 3 different conferences- the OVC, C-USA, and the Big 12. I worked with a guy that had a daughter who attended West Virginia, and he summed it up best to me; “Bob Huggins is like a god to the people of Morgantown and he has the ability to do whatever he wants to do”. Absolute legend.