Best mid-major coaches
One of the most impressive feats in recent college basketball memory isn’t attached to a name such as Krzyzewski, Izzo, Calipari, Williams or Calhoun. Instead it’s occurring in Spokane, Wash., where Mark Few has led the Gonzaga Bulldogs to 11 straight West Coast Conference titles.
UCLA – which won 13 straight league crowns from 1967-79 – is the only school in Division I history with a longer streak.
Equally impressive is what has happened the last two years at Butler. After mediocre performances during the non-conference portion of their schedule, the Bulldogs surged at just the right time and advanced to two straight NCAA title games.
As a result, coach Brad Stevens has joined Few as one of the faces of small-school basketball. Together they’ve shown colleagues in non-power leagues throughout America that winning at a high level and becoming a nationally publicized program is entirely possible.
Few and Stevens have each had multiple opportunities to leave their institutions for more money in a Big Six conference. For the time being, though, both coaches appear content.
Though they may loathe the term “mid-major,” their accomplishments in comparison to coaches from the power conferences are truly impressive.
Stevens and Few aren’t the only coaches who are making a name for themselves in non-power leagues. Here is a “Sweet 16” list of other coaches who are rolling in conferences outside of the Big Six.
Steve Alford, New Mexico – The former Indiana All-American and Iowa coach has missed the NCAA tournament three of his four years at New Mexico. But the Lobos won the Mountain West title in 2009 and 2010 and should continue to be a threat under Alford, who is 98-39 at the school.
Tommy Amaker, Harvard – Amaker has made just one NCAA tournament appearance in 14 years as a coach. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with what he’s done at Harvard the last two seasons. Harvard has gone a combined 44-14 during that span. He drew interest from Miami during the offseason but opted to stay at Harvard.
Randy Bennett, St. Mary’s – The Gaels have been a model of consistency thanks to Bennett, who has led St. Mary’s to 25 wins or more for four straight seasons and a Sweet 16 berth in 2010. Last season the Gaels claimed a share of the West Coast Conference title along with Gonzaga. They finished second the previous three seasons.
Mike Davis, Alabama-Birmingham – Any coach who has ever played for the NCAA title deserves to be on this list. Ten years have passed since Davis’ Indiana squad fell to Maryland in the 2002 championship game, but the former Bob Knight assistant is still going strong. UAB won the Conference USA title in 2010-11 and has finished no lower than third in each of the past three seasons.
Fran Dunphy, Temple – The Owls have made four straight NCAA tournament appearances under Dunphy, who guided Temple to the Sweet 16 in 2010-11. Temple has gone 50-14 in the Atlantic 10 during that span. Before his hiring five years ago, Dunphy spent 17 years at Penn, where his teams made the NCAA tournament six of his final eight seasons.
Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The former Michigan coach led the Aztecs to a 34-3 record and an appearance in the Sweet 16 last season. Fisher’s teams have gone a combined 36-12 in the Mountain West Conference the past three seasons and should be competitive again in 2011-12, especially with BYU out of the picture.
Tim Floyd, Texas-El Paso – The former Chicago Bulls coach has also coached NCAA tournament teams at Iowa State and USC. Long regarded as one of the top X’s and O’s coaches in the business, Floyd guided UTEP to a 25-10 record and an NIT appearance in his first season. Even though NCAA violations occurred during his tenure at USC, it wouldn’t be shocking if Floyd ended up at another Big Six conference school relatively soon.
Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa – Jacobson helped orchestrate the Panthers’ shocking second-round upset of No. 1 seed Kansas in 2010, but his achievements at Northern Iowa extend far beyond one game. Jacobson has won at least 18 games in each of his five seasons since taking over for Greg McDermott in 2006-07 and already touts two Missouri Valley Conference titles.
Sydney Johnson, Fairfield – Johnson recently left Princeton to take over for Ed Cooley at Fairfield. You can bet the Tigers were sad to see him go. After winning the Ivy League title, Johnson almost guided Princeton to a first-round NCAA tournament win over Kentucky, but Wildcats guard Brandon Knight made a shot in the final seconds to give Kentucky a 59-57 win. Princeton finished 25-7 and went 22-9 the previous season.
Chris Mack, Xavier –– The Musketeers have gone 50-17 in the two seasons since Mack replaced Sean Miller. They won the Atlantic 10 title in each of those years. Mack was an assistant at Wake Forest under his mentor, the late Skip Prosser, from 2001-04 before returning to his alma mater as an assistant. He was hired as the coach in the spring of 2009 when Miller left for Arizona. Xavier advanced to the Sweet 16 in Mack’s first season.
Chris Mooney, Richmond – Mooney was one of college basketball’s hottest names after leading the Spiders to the Sweet 16 last season. To get there, Richmond defeated Vanderbilt and a Morehead State squad that was fresh off an upset of Louisville. Mooney rejected overtures from Georgia Tech during the offseason and signed a new contract with Richmond that runs through the 2020-21 season.
Stew Morrill, Utah State – Morrill’s teams have been so good the past three years that it’s truly a struggle to find quality non-league opponents. Utah State is 87-17 during that span and 43-5 in the Western Athletic Conference. Unfortunately, because of its low RPI, Utah State has difficulty securing a favorable NCCA tournament seed each year. Morrill’s squad has bowed out in the first round three straight years.
Josh Pastner, Memphis – It’s still too early to judge Pastner as a bench coach, but it was hard not to be impressed with how much his young team matured by the end of last season. His youth isn’t a factor, as his players appear to respect him and believe in his system. On the recruiting trail, the relentless Pastner is hard to beat. It says a lot that he was drawing interest from high major programs from Big Six leagues after just two seasons.
Dave Rose, BYU – The co-captain of the Houston “Phi Slama Jama” team that featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Rose has also had a successful career as a coach. His program has made five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. In 2010-11 the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 behind the play of national player of the year Jimmer Fredette.
Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth – The Rams’ march to the Final Four was no fluke. You don’t beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas by accident. The only strange thing was that VCU entered the NCAA tournament having lost five of their previous seven games. Either way, Smart handled his team masterfully during the postseason. It will be interesting to see how the Final Four run pays off on the recruiting trail, as Smart’s success last season came mostly with Anthony Grant’s players.
Blaine Taylor, Old Dominion – After 10 seasons, the former Montana coach has turned Old Dominion into a perennial contender for the CAA title. The Monarchs won the league in 2010 and finished second last season. They advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament each of those years and have won at least 24 games six of the last seven seasons.
Also deserving of consideration: Greg McDermott, Creighton; Gregg Marshall, Wichita State; Rex Walters, San Francisco; Kerry Keating, Santa Clara; Doug Wojick, Tulsa; Rick Byrd, Belmont; Bob Thomason, Pacific; Larry Eustachy, Southern Miss; Dan Monson, Long Beach State.