January 07, 2009

The Cradle of Coaches (Part 2)

Here's part 1 of the Big East Coaches breakdown. On with the countdown:

7. Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Vitals: 13-8 (Big East, 1 year); 616-222 (Overall, 25 years); 22-16 NCAAs
Coach Thuggins is a relative newbie to the Big East brand of basketball, but his Bearcat teams of yore (remember the days of the Metro and Great Midwest Conferences?) would have fit right in. In 23 years, including an early successful stint at Akron, Huggins-led teams won 20 or more games 20 times! His overall record is certainly an impressive body of work, except for the unfortunate history of early round flameouts. Out of 14 Bearcat Big Dance recitals, 10 talented teams perished in the first or second round, plaguing Huggins' legacy which started promising with trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight in his 3rd and 4th seasons in the 'Nati. Now he returns to his alma mater to continue building the tradition that John Bielein started. His teams aren't always the most talented, but they get after the ball and make things difficult for the opposition. Let's just hope that this scene doesn't unfold again on the country roads of West Virginia.

6. Mike Brey, Notre Dame
Vitals: 83-58 (Big East, 7 years); 266-138 (Overall, 12 years); 5-7 NCAAs
Man, I wish the two-time defending Big East Coach of the Year could be higher, especially on the heels of a stirring victory over the Hoyas. But I can't in good conscience bump him ahead of Jimmy B. Yes, ND has won the last 3 games vs. 'Cuse, but in the 9 previous meetings, the Irish were victorious once. Brey is still coming into his own in South Bend, establishing a program that excels with offensive fluidity and a healthy reliance on the long ball. Brey's teams traditionally have lacked a consistent lockdown defense, their Achilles heel come BET and NCAA tourney time. For all of the regular season success ND has enjoyed in the Big East, including one regular season championship, Brey is only 3-8 under the lights of Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. At this point, going deeper into the tournament is essential for the program to reach the next level of success. All but one of the coaches ahead of him has taken a team to the Final Four. He learned at the foot of Coach K for 9 years and knows what that kind of success is built on. His penchant for unearthing diamonds in the rough is evident with the resounding success of Luke "The Mongoose" Harangody, as well as Rob Kurz, Chris Quinn, and Russell Carter. Brey is the ultimate player's coach who doesn't ride his guys too hard and expectations are clear. On top of all of this, Mike Brey is the unofficial founder of the CMOB (Coaches for Mocks On the Bench), a movement that saw it's membership swell to at least 2 in 2005. The mock personifies Brey's class and personable demeanor as a man of the people. In the Mock I Trust.

5. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Vitals: 342-192 (Big East, 29 years); 771-278 (Overall, 32 years); 40-24 NCAAs
The institution man, Boeheim is a rare breed who married himself to the Orangemen, through good times and bad. Except there haven't really been any "bad" times (well, there was that microphone problem). Boeheim was an overachieving walk-on who became a starter, helping lead the Dave Bing-led Orangemen to the Elite Eight. He joined the bench as an assistant coach in 1972 before taking the reins in 1976, going a ridiculous 100-18 in his first four years on the job. The man has never felt the pangs of a losing season in his 32+ years at Syracuse. He's reached the summit of the basketball world three times, claiming the championship prize in 2003. A stellar 12 combined Big East regular season and tournament championships banners hang in the Carrier Dome. The Big East has bestowed top coach honors three times. He's on his way to his 30th 20-win season. It's no shock that he's the all-time winningest coach in conference history. The man already has a bust in Springfield and the ultimate reward, his home court named after him (Doug still holds out hope that Brey will reach this level of accomplishment. You can help!) Scores of NBA-caliber players harnessed their skills under Boeheim's direction - Pearl Washington, Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, John Wallace, Lawrence Moten, Etan Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, the "overrated" Gerry McNamara and the illustrious Danny Schayes. His trademark 2-3 matchup zone distinguished Syracuse teams for years. Now, it's growing a little stale. How can a man with this resume fall to 5th? Because this is a snapshot with his recent body of work weighing more heavily on the ranking. In the five seasons since winning the title, 'Cuse made one Sweet 16, two first round exits, and two NIT's. The man has accomplished plenty, but his time is drawing nigh. If Mike Brey comes out of the Carrier Dome with a victory on Jan. 17th, you can bet I'll be swapping their places.

4. John Thompson III, Georgetown
Vitals: 54-23 (Big East, 4 years); 168-78 (Overall, 8 years); 7-5 NCAAs
The successor to his father's powerhouse program, JT3 has quickly asserted himself as a top-notch coach who preaches disciplined defense and the motion offense perfected at Princeton. SI wrote an excellent article on the man finding his way from underneath his father's large shadow. Learning from the Yoda master, Pete Carril, from 1995-2000, Thompson led Princeton to 3 Ivy League titles and two NCAA trips in his four seasons. It's a testament to his coaching prowess that Georgetown has excelled with the same system while Bill Carmody struggles with very little success at Northwestern. Granted, the Hoyas enjoy a higher profile as a basketball school, but Thompson has proven to be a capable teacher of the deliberate style. He wasted no time making a splash in 2004, righting the ship from Craig Esherick's torpedo job. The Hoyas made the Sweet 16 in his second season, giving eventual champs Florida their hardest battle. He followed that up with a BET championship and a run to the Final Four in 2007. The Hoyas dominated the Big East last year, adding a regular season banner before being upset by the tournament's Cinderella, Davidson. Now that JT3 has tasted the sweet nectar of the biggest stage, you can bet he'll have his teams hell bent on returning to that level. He added a major piece for such a run with dominant freshman big man Greg Monroe. JT3 will only get better as his Georgetown roots grow. Get accustomed to the Hoyas churning out quality teams like an Amish butter maid.

3. Jim Calhoun, Connecticut
Vitals: 254-141 (Big East, 21 years); 750-328 (Overall, 35 years); 39-16 NCAAs
Credit belongs to one man for putting Connecticut basketball on the map - James "Montgomery" Calhoun. Starting with his first college job at Northeastern in 1972, he laid the groundwork for his first successful program. 14 seasons later, with 5 NCAA tournament appearances and one NBA All-Star under his belt, he left in 1986 for the opportunity to ply his trade in the best conference. It was a rude awakening, going 9-19, only his fourth losing season in 35 years. It would be the last losing season at UConn. The following year, the Huskies won the NIT. By 1990, UConn had risen to the top of the Big East and advanced to the Elite Eight. Already, Calhoun had transformed an unheard of program in Storrs, CT, and he was just getting started. Since his arrival, Connecticut has won two titles, reached seven Elite Eights, raised a combined 12 Big East regular season and tournament banners, and opened the gates of talent flowing to the NBA. For as much hype as North Carolina and Duke receive, no other school has as many alums currently in the NBA as Calhoun's Connecticut. The list of Calhoun bred professionals reads like an All-Star roster: Reggie Lewis, Cliff Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Caron Butler, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Rudy Gay. That's not even half of the players who made the league. For all of the talent that has passed through the door, UConn has underachieved in recent years, not living up to the lofty expectations that come with a dominant program. Since winning the 2004 championship, UConn has lost in the 2nd round, Elite 8 (when they were everyone's proverbial favorite), missed the postseason for the first time since Calhoun's first year in Storrs, and lost in last year's 1st round to San Diego. Calhoun, like Boeheim, is an institution on campus. He's also been elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame. But the end is near for this legend, especially in light of his ongoing cancer treatment. Will the Huskies send him away in style or buckle under the hype again?

2. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh
Vitals: 66-31 (Big East, 5 years); 131-41 (Overall, 5 years); 6-5 NCAAs
Consider me a Jamie Dixon apologist. I love his style and the way his teams play. I love his fiery disposition, yet he rarely blows a gasket. I love how he does more with the talent on his roster than any other coach in the league, save one. Dixon jumped around assistant coach spots from 1991-1999 before joining Howland's original staff at Pitt, having already shared a bench with Howland at Northern Arizona. In four short years, Howland and Dixon changed the culture of basketball at Pittsburgh, a program with 1 winning season over the 6 previous years. After a transition year, the fruits of their labor were in place as Pitt made the finals of the BET two successive years before winning in 2003, Howland's final year. The fate of the program lay in the hands of a guy who had never been a head coach before. To say he's exceeded expectations is an understatement. Dixon's 105 victories in his first four seasons is the second highest win total ever for a coach to start his career. In five years at the helm, he has won 10 conference games every season, including one regular season and one tournament championship. Regular season consistency is a hallmark of the program, but Pitt truly thrives in the BET, amassing an 11-4 record and playing in the championship game 4 of his 5 years. The biggest feather missing from his cap is guiding the Panthers past the Sweet Sixteen. With their recent ascension to the #1 ranking, this year's team looks primed to accept that challenge.

1. Rick Pitino, Louisville
Vitals: 51-38 (Big East, 5 years); 521-191 (Overall, 22 years); 35-12 NCAAs
If there were a Mount Rushmore of Big East coaches, Pitino wouldn't be on it since his greatest success occurred in Lexington. Yet he's still guided two different Big East schools to the Final Four - the only coach ever to lead three different schools to the sport's promised land. (You may be wondering who my Mt. Rushmore of Big East coaches would be? Without dissecting the numbers, I'd go with Boeheim, Calhoun, Thompson, Sr. and Luigi Carnesecca - the George Washington type figurehead. Apologies to Rollie Masimino as the odd man out). Pitino is the quintessential college coach, having proved that his style isn't conducive to the NBA. His teams make life positively miserable for the opposition with full-court pressure defense. An up-tempo offense spreads the wealth to everyone on the court, epitomizing the adage that the sum is greater than its parts. Try and name 5 players from Pitino's teams with Providence, Kentucky and Louisville who had meaningful careers in the NBA. I'm stuck at Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer and Francisco Garcia. He's unlike Calhoun, who's been blessed with prodigious talent, in that he coaches up hen-picked players to run (and keep running) in his system. A master motivator, he consistently gets his teams to believe in their abilities and accomplish great things. He's only experienced one losing collegiate season out of 22, his 3rd year with Boston University. Providence, of all schools, reached the Final Four in his second year. He bolted to the Knicks and enjoyed success before the allure of restoring to prominence a once proud Kentucky program presented itself. Mind you, this was a program on probation for 2 years. Undaunted, Pitino ripped off 7 seasons of extraordinary success from 1991-1997, never losing more than 7 games. In the six seasons they were eligible for postseason play, the Wildcats reached two Elite Eights and three Final Fours, capturing the crown in 1996. The failed Celtics experiment brought Pitino back to the Big East in 2001, where the Cardinals have won 20+ games six times over seven seasons, including a trip to the 2005 Final Four. Squaring off against Rick Pitino is like playing dice with the devil. The chance to get burned is omnipresent. You know walking out of the locker room that he's the smartest person in the arena and you'll need a monumental effort to pull a victory out. How much longer Pitino will prowl the Louisville sidelines is anyone's guess with his propensity for chasing bigger challenges. But while he's still in the Big East, there isn't a better coach out there.


Mike said...

Great post.

Jeremy said...

Great list James. I think reasonable minds could debate 6-7-8, and probably even 1-4. I'm a huge Dixon fan as well. I really thought Pitt would suffer when Howland went west, but Dixon has kept that program chugging along, and perhaps even better.

Matt said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the list.

One thing though - I understand that UConn is overrated this year and probably has been for the past few years. But Calhoun has two championships on his resume. Dixon hasn't coached a team past the Sweet 16. If you were asking me who I would rather have as a coach today - no question it's Jamie Dixon. But if you're judging a coach's body of work, Calhoun probably deserves a little more respect.

Doug said...

Great stuff!! Jumping on the back of what Matt said, I think it's awfully hard to rank coaches in the Big East since you have to distinguish between "career achievements" and "best coaches today." The Big East is loaded with so many coaching legends, but how do you properly rank those guys?? You can't rank a guy like Mike Brey over Jim Boeheim in terms of career record, but would I take him over Boeheim right now?? Yea, without a doubt.

Some thoughts on these guys:

Huggs - It's hard to believe Huggins is only seventh, but that's about where I'd have him too. Huggins has a better NCAA resume than people realize (1 Final Four, 2 Elite Eights, 2-3 other Sweet 16 teams), and he has won everywhere he has been. But Huggs has enough weaknesses that I can't really put him above any of the other guys. Brey has as good record against Huggs as well.

Brey - Brey is a great coach who is a perfect fit at ND, and I think it's obvious that he is overachieving with this program. He has turned ND into a consistent tournament team, the toughest team to beat at home in the conference, and a really good regular season team in the Big East. We've had a winning record in the Big East in every year but one since Brey has been at ND.

Brey's biggest blemish is that he's done very little in the NCAA or Big East tournament. We've been to one Sweet 16 and have never really been a factor in the Big East tournament. Brey's resume is a little light on those types of achievements, but the fact that he is even getting ND back to the tournament is an achievement in itself.

Boeheim - Boeheim has the legacy without question, but I think he's lost a step as a head coach. He's been to the NIT back to back years, and would have been three straight years if McNamara hadn't bailed him out in the 2006 Big East tournament. I just think the Cuse have taken a major step back from being one of the premier programs in the league to just a pretty good program that is a regular bubble team.

JTIII - I actually think he could make a case to be higher on this list, but I can see why he's at #4. I love JTIII.

Calhoun - I'd probably put him at #2 just because he's Jim Calhoun. UConn has been the premier program in the Big East for the last 15 years or so. They are overrated this year, but it still doesn't take away the fact that Calhoun usually has a top 15 team every year, has won two National Titles in the last decade, and is a regular in the Sweet 16/Elite Eight. His record speaks for itself.

Dixon - WOW. Bold stuff to put Dixon at #2. I think he's a great coach who has done great things at Pitt, so I can't really argue with it. I do think his resume is a little thin compared to some of the other heavy hitters on this list.

I love how Pitt plays though. They are tough, they defend, they play great team basketball, and they don't have a lot of hot dogs or bad character types on the team. Pitt is a team first, and I think Dixon is reponsible for that type of atmosphere.

And Pitt absolutely OWNS the Big East tournament. They've been in the Big East title game seven teams in eight years. That is remarkable.

Pitino - I love Rick Pitino and would have put him at the top as well, but I don't think Pitino is quite the coach these days that he was at UK. I actually get the impression from Louisville fans that they are a little down on hm. When he came to U of L, people thought they were going to winning titles and going deep in the NCAAs every year. But they've been pretty up and down actually since he's been there. In seven years, he's been to 2 NITs, 1 Final Four, 1 Elite Eight, 2 NCAA 2nd round teams, and a 1 NCAA first round team. That's good stuff for the most part, but not "elite" or anything. Their team this year is 11-3, but they are incredibly inconsistent.

He's recruiting top 5 classes every year, but he's got a little bit of the Thad Matta syndrome. Half these guys are leaving or going to the NBA before they ever materialize at Louisville. It always seems like they are in rebuild mode for half the year. When you are "a year away" every year, you aren't going to be an elite team.

Don't get me wrong, Pitino is a fabulous coach, but part of being a coach is being a program manager. When your roster turns over every year and you have all these "me guys" on the roster, it's sort of hard to be a consistently great program.

Louisville fans have an inflated view of their program and think they are on par with schools like UNC and Duke, so it sounds a little foolish for them to be fussy about Pitino. Pitino has been a great coach for Louisville who has brought their prestige level back in a big way, but it's not like Louisville has been the premier program in the Big East in his tenure. I don't even think they'd be in the top 3.