Back at the beginning of the football season, instead of predicting the order of finish of the teams, I ranked the coaches. My reasoning was that predicting final outcomes was damn near impossible, but I could weigh the relative strengths of the coaches. It turns out that my coach ranking came closer to predicting the final standings than I would have come by ranking the teams.
Now I’m gonna do the same with the basketball coaches.
When weighing the strengths of the coaches, I’m including all aspects of the job, or at least all of those that pertain to winning games. This includes recruiting, preparation, player development and in-game coaching. The great coaches, and you need to be a great coach to succeed in the ACC, excel in all four areas. Lack in any one, and you’ll never maintain any success in this league.
1. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke – Well, duh. Coach K is well on his way to being considered the greatest college coach of all time. He might not be there yet, but he has to be in the conversation, along with Dean Smith, John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and probably Bobby Knight. Another title or two might just push Krzyzewski over the top. Let’s run down a few of his accomplishments so far:
- The sixth winningest active NCAA coach (700+ wins)
- The second winningest ACC coach (trailing only Dean Smith)
- Eight ACC Tournament championships
- Ten ACC regular season championships
- Eight times national coach of the year
- Three national championships
- Ten Final Fours
- 64 NCAA Tournament victories (second most all-time)
- 78 weeks ranked as #1 team in the country
- 79.0 winning percentage in NCAA Tournament
I could go on, but you get the gist. The man is a living, working legend. You don’t get that too often, but ACC fans have been blessed to have had two with K and Dean Smith. It could be decades before another like them comes along.
2. Roy Williams, UNC – This was a tough call. I waffled back and forth on which Williams would earn the #2 spot. Roy has a much higher winning percentage, while Gary has that national title. Roy built (OK, maintained) a dynasty at Kansas while Gary built Maryland into a national power. Roy has no peers (other than K) in recruiting, while Gary may be the best in the country at player development.
Eventually, I was swayed by Ol’ Roy’s career record. Coaching his whole career in a top flight conference, Williams has won nearly 80% of his games, the highest percentage of any active coach and the fifth highest of all time. Allow me to run down a bit of his highlights.
- 14 consecutive years at Kansas with 20 or more wins, the third longest streak of all-time
- 79.6% winning percentage (top among active coaches)
- Four Final Fours
- 35 NCAA Tournament wins (fifth all-time)
- 70% NCAA Tournament winning percentage (seventh all-time)
- 15 consecutive NCAA Tournament bids (tied for third all-time)
- Four Big Twelve (Eight) regular season titles
- Three Big Twelve (Eight) Tournament titles
- Three times national coach of the year
- Seven times conference coach of the year
As you can see, Roy has himself a pretty good resume himself. The one thing missing, the one knock on him, is that he’s never won the big one. Despite all those great teams with all those great players, he’s never won it all. Unlike his critics, I don’t think that makes him a choker. I just think it means he’s been unlucky so far. If you recall, there was a time when people said the exact same thing about Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Jim Boeheim and Gary Williams. I think Roy will get his, cementing his legacy as one of the greats of all-time, just a notch below the immortals (the guys I listed above).
3. Gary Williams, Maryland – Like I wrote above, I very nearly put Gary in the second position. In fact, I had decided to go that way before I did my final checking of career numbers. Roy’s were just too good. That said, I’d have no beef with someone who wanted Gary up there. He has two great things on his side – he won that title in 2002 and he’s such a great player developer. Maryland has never really been able to recruit with Duke and Carolina, but Gary continues to find those guys who aren’t rated quite as high but have the heart and desire to become great – Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Drew Nicholas, Steve Blake. He also found a few supremely talented players that others had apparently slept on – Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox.
The one knock I have on the other coach Williams (and boy does he hate being called that!) is his in-game persona. He screams and yells and loses his composure in just about every game. I just can’t believe that that doesn’t negatively impact his team. Sure, his players get used to it quickly, but the coach needs to be able to communicate effectively and call upon different emotions at different times to motivate his team. Gary seems to always go with rage. You can’t convince me that guys don’t play tight when they know their coach will have a Tourettesian outburst if they make the slightest mistake.
In his career, coach Williams has found success at four different schools, American, Boston College, Ohio State and now his alma mater, Maryland. The Terps were in a complete shambles when he showed up in 1989. It took a few years to right the ship, but he now has the program to a point where they are consistently nationally ranked. Maryland isn’t yet a full-fledged power, like Duke, UNC, Kentucky, UConn etc, but they have slipped into that second tier of teams that you expect to see ranked every year.
4. Skip Prosser, Wake Forest – There is a pretty big drop-off after the first three guys. It’s not so much that the next few guys are much worse right now, but they haven’t yet proven over a career that they are Hall of Fame-level guys.
Prosser has done an exceptional job at Wake since coming over from Xavier. The path he followed seems to be the standard for most ACC guys – build a very nice program in a mid-major conference like the Atlantic 10, MAC or Big East and then take on a job at a foundering ACC school. In Skip’s case he was lucky; Wake was actually in pretty good shape. He got the opportunity only because Dave Odom got a wild hair (probably in his comb-over) and decided to finish his career in near-obscurity in Columbia, SC.
Prosser very quickly upgraded Wake’s recruiting and therefore, talent. Against all odds, Wake is the North Carolina school that seems to grab all the top in-state talent. Wake’s three best players, Justin Gray, Chris Paul and Eric Williams, are all natives of North Carolina. With those players leading the way, Wake reached the #1 ranking just a few weeks ago for the first time in their history.
In Prosser’s eleven years as a head coach at three schools (he coached one year at Loyola College in Maryland before taking over the Xavier job when former boss Pete Gillen left for Providence), his teams have been in the postseason ten times, including eight invitations to the NCAA Tournament.
If he continues at this pace, Skip Prosser will join the ranks of the ACC coaching legends.
5. Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech – Paul Hewitt has been a head coach for only seven years, but he seems well on his way to an outstanding career. Before he joined Georgia Tech five years ago, he spent three seasons at Siena, quickly building them into a tournament-worthy team. That quick success got him noticed and the Yellow Jackets snagged him off of everyone’s hot list. In Atlanta, he’s found things a bit tougher, but his teams have gotten better each season. Bobby Cremins had let things rot a bit, so Hewitt had work to do both in recruiting (Cremins had his bad habit of landing one or two superstars every few years and ignoring the rest) and on the court.
In his first three years, his teams hovered just above the .500 mark, making the tourney his first year and the NIT in his third. While the overall record wasn’t stellar, any casual ACC observer could see the difference in the way Georgia Tech’s teams played. In particular, they play much better defense than they ever did under Cremins. Last year, it all came together as the Jackets stormed out of the gate, spanking #1 UConn and winning the preseason NIT. They muddled a bit in the middle of the season, but got going again at the end, making it all the way to national championship game where UConn got their revenge.
So while Hewitt’s career is still pretty young, you can’t do a whole lot better then second place. It’s possible he’ll never reach those heights again, but for now, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying his teams will be forces for a while to come.
6. Herb Sendek, NC State Herb Sendek has had maybe the strangest career of any ACC coach ever. He came into a situation as bad as could be. State was coming out of a long period where they were on probation by the NCAA and then further penalized by having Les Robinson as a coach for way too long. Les was (and is) a great guy, but he was a terrible, terrible coach. State fans hated watching their team and I don’t think any sane player wanted to go there.
In stepped Herb Sendek. I’d seen and been impressed by his Miami of Ohio teams (I watched them nearly knock UVA out of the NCAA Tourney in ’95), but didn’t know much about the guy. From what was said about him, everyone thought that Raleigh was getting a high energy, full-court pressing style. After all, Sendek was a Pitino disciple, right? That run-n-gun-n-win style seemed perfect to fire up a dejected Wolfpack faithful.
Only, that’s not what they got. Instead, Sendek put in a aggressive half-court defense and an ugly half-court offense. The offense eventually morphed into a Princeton-style passing game, which is pretty only when played perfectly. When it’s not clicking, the offense is ugly and boring, not unlike Herb himself who often looks like he’s thinking about his taxes while on the sidelines.
For the first several years, the team got a little better, but only a little. Several times though, they made exciting runs to the ACC Tournament finals. Each season, as they failed yet again to get a bid to the Big Dance, the wolves howled louder. In Sendek’s fifth year, State actually slipped to sub .500 and no postseason. Against all odds, he wasn’t fired and that has turned out to be a great decision. A large part of that faith had to do with Sendek landing top prospect Julius Hodge, a cocky New York City kid who couldn’t possibly seem less suited to Sendek and his coaching style. Nonetheless, Sendek kept his job and with Hodge and several other good recruits (how on earth does this man go into living rooms and convince kids to play for him? I’m baffled!) State finally made the tourney for the first time since 1991. Sendek followed that season up with two more that ended in the tourney.
So, what’s the final verdict? Is he a good coach? His teams win now, but they still go into unexplainable offensive droughts that can last for ten minutes at a time! I now say that he is a good coach, but for a long time I wasn’t convinced. It turned out though that he just needed to figure out what sorts of players work in his system and then get them. Now that he has the right parts, his teams win and they look well-coached while doing it. The only question now is can Sendek break through to that upper echelon of ACC coaches? Can he get a team to the Final Four? That’s what it takes to prove yourself in this league.
7. Pete Gillen, Virginia – A lot of people will argue about this one. Many will say that I’m rating Gillen too highly here. That’s pretty funny when you think of his reputation just a few years ago (check his winning percentage in the table at the bottom of this column). Back then, he was thought of as one of the best coaches in the country, a guy who could win with anyone and who could then work the press corps after the game like Henny Youngman in his prime.
Gillen came in and took over a Virginia squad that was so depleted he had to occasionally play a guy who had been a campus bartender the year before. Somehow, Gillen got some big wins out of that team and quickly built on that success. Just as quickly as the success came though, it went away. In the 2001-02 season, UVA climbed as high as #4 in the country before completely falling apart and failing to make the tournament. The next year saw nearly the same thing happen, albeit not quite so dramatically.
The thing is, it wasn’t just that the Cavs were losing, but how they were losing. Players bitched and pouted. They quit. They got in trouble off the court. Gillen burned through timeouts like Rush Limbaugh popping OxyContin. He looked lost and desperate and his team reflected that.
Luckily for Gillen, Virginia had signed him to a huge ten-year contract, meaning it would be too expensive to fire him. Then, late last season, the light seemed to turn back on. UVA won a ton of close games down the stretch, upsetting Georgia Tech, UNC and Wake Forest en route to the NIT (and nearly getting a bid to the NCAAs). This season has started off strong as well. It seems that Gillen has his fastball back.
Given that his team looks better this year, I’m inclined to give Gillen back the credit he earned during the earlier years of his career when he built Xavier into a power and got Providence into the Elite Eight behind God Shammgod and Austin Croshere. Maybe he’s not the national-level coach everyone thought he was a few years ago, but he’s still pretty good.
8. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State – Just like in picking between the two Williamses, I had a tough time deciding between Pete Gillen and Leonard Hamilton. Each found great success at two prior jobs, Gillen at Xavier and Providence and Hamilton at Oklahoma State and Miami. In between there, Hamilton had an ill-fated detour to the NBA, but I’m not penalizing him for that. I guess the reason I’m picking Gillen over Hamilton right now is that Gillen seems to currently be on a coaching uptick and I don’t think Hamilton is. His team narrowly missed out on the NCAAs last year and were expected to be right back at that level this year. Instead they have started out horribly, losing to Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, Kent State, TCU and Florida International. Not good, and this should be a pretty talented team, with two McDonald’s All-Americans. Is it fair to knock Hamilton down for a bad stretch when he’s had such a good career? Probably not, but that’s how close it is between him and Gillen. If I wrote this same article a month earlier or later, I might pick the other way.
Despite his team’s bad start this year (and they did begin to right the ship this weekend in College Park where they almost knocked off Maryland), Hamilton has had a positive impact on the dreadful Florida State program. When the Seminoles joined the ACC back in 1992, they finished a shocking second at 11-5, but it turned out that that team, with Charlie Ward, Sam Cassell, Bob Sura and Doug Edwards, was their best ever. Coach Pat Kennedy was an effective recruiter, but a terrible game coach. After his career fizzled and he left for Depaul, the Noles brought in longtime assistant Steve Robinson. He turned out to be a pretty mediocre coach as well.
So Hamilton had work to do. FSU has little history, plays in a dreadful arena and has a hard time getting decent crowds. Despite that, Hamilton has recruited well, landing those two McDonald’s All-Americans (Von Wafer and Anthony Richardson) plus several other highly rated recruits. The team defense is drastically better than it was, but their offense is still erratic. In his first two years, the Noles were competitive when hyper guard Tim Pickett scored and got spanked when he didn’t. Unfortunately in the ACC, if you only play well on one end of the court, you aren’t going to win a lot. If coach Hamilton can find an effective offense, he could yet build a strong program in Tallahassee. If he does, he might just climb this chart.
9. Oliver Purnell, Clemson – Oliver Purnell has coached in the ACC just one year. In that one year, he tried to pick up the pieces of a program that has rarely managed to compete in the ACC. Purnell’s first year went about like most Clemson campaigns – poorly, but he showed promise. While he had a team full of odd players, sort of an Island of Misfit Toys team, he found a way to mold them into a solid, if not ultimately successful unit.
Purnell has had a fairly long career already, climbing the ladder from Radford to Old Dominion to Dayton and finally to Clemson. He won at each rung on the ladder, earning coach of the year honors in each conference he was in. He took both ODU and Dayton to the NCAA tourney, and narrowly missed out in his last year at Radford.
So, while he hasn’t been in the ACC long enough to establish himself as one of the top coaches, Oliver Purnell’s resume suggests that he could. If anything, he gives Clemson a hope that they haven’t really had since Rick Barnes left. And before Barnes, Clemson never really had a good coach. Cliff Ellis was the closest, and I never thought he was much of a coach, just a pretty good recruiter. In fact, as good as he was, even Rick Barnes had a sub-.500 career record in the ACC. I think Oliver Purnell has an excellent chance to be the best coach Clemson has ever had.
10. Seth Greenberg, Virginia Tech – Now we get to the tricky part – ranking the coaches who haven’t yet coached in the ACC. Of the two, Seth Greenberg and Frank Haith, it’s pretty easy to pick the stronger candidate. Greenberg had very impressive results at two small schools, Long Beach State and South Florida before his one year in Blacksburg, while Haith is in his first year as a head coach. Advantage Greenberg.
Coach Greenberg really earned his rep as a good coach and great recruiter at his first gig at Long Beach State. In six years, he made the NCAA Tournament twice, won a game at Kansas and sent three players to the NBA. He then moved on to South Florida and Conference USA for seven more seasons. He never got the Bulls into the Big Dance, but he racked up tons of wins against major conference teams including Ohio State, Texas, Florida State, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh. No one wanted to schedule South Florida.
In his one year at Virginia Tech, the Hokies finished at 7-9 in the Big East. For VT, that counted as a monumentally successful season. The Hokies’ Bryant Matthews led the Big East in scoring and was second in assists behind his teammate Jamon Gordon. With Gordon returning and a solid recruiting class, the Hokies could be a surprise in the ACC. I say “could,” because, like Florida State, they’ve had a rough start to the season, losing to VMI and a decimated St. John’s squad. The season is long though, and Greenberg’s team last year turned it on late in the year. If he can even approach 7-9 again this year, he’ll get some consideration for ACC coach of the year.
11. Frank Haith, Miami – Someone has to be last, and I had to go with the new kid on the block. The ACC’s a tough place to break in, especially at a school with little basketball history like Miami. I don’t have a whole to write about Haith, because I don’t put too much credence in what guys did as assistants. All head coaches at major schools have impressive assistant coaching backgrounds, so there’s nothing there to separate Haith. One thing I do know is that his career has had a good start. Very little was expected of the Hurricanes this year, but they already have a big upset, winning at Florida. That kind of offsets the loss to South Carolina State.
Haith is taking advantage of three talented guards, depending on them for the bulk of his offense. It remains to be seen how that approach will work in the ACC where there are a ton of talented backcourts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hurricane trio outplays a few more highly touted guard combos along the way.
All-Time ACC games W L % W L % Mike Krzyzewski 694 240 74.30% 239 108 68.88% Roy Williams 437 112 79.60% 8 8 50.00% Gary Williams 522 293 64.05% 132 104 55.93% Skip Prosser 232 107 68.44% 31 17 64.58% Paul Hewitt 142 81 63.68% 31 33 48.44% Herb Sendek 210 134 61.05% 55 73 42.97% Pete Gillen 360 193 65.10% 41 55 42.71% Leonard Hamilton 235 239 49.58% 10 22 31.25% Oliver Purnell 266 209 56.00% 3 13 18.75% Seth Greenberg 227 183 55.37% 0 0 --- Frank Haith 0 0 --- 0 0 ---
Update: A number of message boards have started threads discussing this article. I thought you might want to go check those out to see what folks are saying. I started one or two of those threads before I realized that people had already found it and were starting their own.
TheSabre.com (Virginia board)
Pack Pride Premium (pay site)
Carolina Blue (I started this one)
Pack Pride (free board – I started this one trying to find out what was going on in the Premium board)
Tech Sideline (Virginia Tech board)
Inside Carolina (only one post here for some reason)