For coaches, winning a national championship in college basketball has an unspoken almost-requisite: pay your damn dues.
And I'm not just referring to the treaded-trodden trails of worming one's way up from video coordinator to basketball operations guy to third assistant, then second assistant, then top assistant/associate head coach. For some, that journey can take two or more decades before even getting a head coaching gig.
But once you get that head job, achieving the grand prize -- winning a national title -- almost always demands a lengthy rite of passage. You want to win it all? It's almost certainly going to take at least a decade-plus at the helm before tasting the unmatched nectar of winning the NCAA Tournament. I recently discovered this to be the case while researching a different feature. I took a look around at the best coaches in college basketball who hadn't yet won a national championship. Then I assessed which coaches were.
I initially opened up the candidate pool to everyone in college basketball. But as I looked back at 25 years worth of national title-winning coaches, I noticed something: almost all of these guys were running programs for at least 10 years before they won the NCAA Tournament. So I tweaked the criteria with a nod to precedence.
And it turns out, it's not just a modern era thing. Part of the selling of John Wooden's legacy of supremacy at UCLA was how -- before the Bruins went on the most dominant championship run in the history of major college sports, winning 10 titles in 12 seasons -- Wooden needed 18 years on the job before he even got his first.
Wooden's passage was a portent for the next six decades (and likely more) to come in college basketball. Let us look back and see just how common the waiting is. Dating back nearly 60 years to Wooden's first title, here are the 32 title-winning coaches in men's Division I basketball and:
- how many seasons as a head coach it took them before winning a national title
- the NCAA Tournament seed their team had the year they captured their first championship
- how many Final Fours they previously made before winning it all
- how many Elite Eight trips they previously made before winning it all
|Coach||Years as coach|
|Jim Calhoun||27||UConn (1999)||1||0||3|
|Jim Boeheim||27||Syracuse (2003)||3||2||3|
|Gary Williams||24||Maryland (2002)||1||1||1|
|Lute Olson||24||Arizona (1997)||4||2||2|
|Jay Wright||22||Villanova (2016)||2||1||2|
|Jerry Tarkanian||22||UNLV (1990)||1||2||3|
|Norm Sloan||22||NC State (1974)||N/A||0||0|
|Dean Smith||21||North Carolina (1982)||1||5||5|
|John Calipari||20||Kentucky (2012)||1||3||7|
|John Wooden||18||UCLA (1964)||N/A||1||1|
|Roy Williams||17||North Carolina (2005)||1||4||5|
|Mike Krzyzewski||16||Duke (1991)||2||4||4|
|Jim Harrick||16||UCLA (1995)||1||0||1|
|Bill Self||15||Kansas (2008)||1||0||4|
|Rick Pitino||14||Kentucky (1996)||1||2||3|
|Nolan Richardson||14||Arkansas (1994)||1||1||2|
|Rollie Massimino||14||Villanova (1985)||8||0||3|
|Tony Bennett||13||Virginia (2019)||1||0||1|
|Al McGuire||13||Marquette (1977)||N/A||1||2|
|Billy Donovan||12||Florida (2006)||3||1||1|
|John Thompson||12||Georgetown (1984)||1||1||2|
|Jim Valvano||12||NC State (1983)||6||0||0|
|Joe B. Hall||12||Kentucky (1978)||2||1||3|
|Bob Knight||11||Indiana (1976)||N/A||1||2|
|Denny Crum||9||Louisville (1980)||2||2||2|
|Jud Heathcote||8||Michigan State (1979)||2||0||1|
|Tubby Smith||7||Kentucky (1998)||2||0||0|
|Larry Brown||7||Kansas (1988)||6||2||2|
|Tom Izzo||5||Michigan State (2000)||1||1||1|
|Don Haskins||5||Texas Western (1966)||N/A||0||0|
|Kevin Ollie||2||UConn (2014)||7||0||0|
|Steve Fisher (interim)||N/A||Michigan (1989)||3||N/A||N/A|
Average number of years before winning the first title: 14.9.
So not only is it a long trek to the top, Elite Eights are almost always a foreshadow to an eventual championship, which makes sense.
If you think the few guys who didn't need at least 11 seasons with the whistle are random foils to this hypothesis, you'd be wrong. Let's take a scan at exceptions to the rule. Every coach except one is a Hall of Famer, and almost all of them were coaching at traditional or modern blue bloods when they won. Some took nearly a decade anyway.
- Don Haskins, Texas Western (1966): Naismith Hall of Fame coach. Haskins led the the Miners to one of the most significant championship victories in sports history. Their 28-1 season went a long way to dissolving segregation in college basketball and eventually led to Hall of Fame inductions of not just Haskins (who won 719 games), but the entire 1965-66 team.
- Jud Heathcote, Michigan State (1979): College Hall of Fame coach. Happened to be coaching the best player in college basketball and someone who would go on to arguably be one of the five best players in NBA history: Magic Johnson. He got there in eight years.
- Denny Crum, Louisville (1980): Naismith Hall of Fame coach at a top-10 historical program. And someone who learned for eight years under Wooden at UCLA. Happened to be coaching one of the five best players in college basketball, Darrell Griffith, who went on to be the No. 2 pick in that year's draft. He needed nine seasons.
- Larry Brown, Kansas (1988): Naismith Hall of Fame coach at a top-10 historical program. Happened to be coaching the best player in college basketball that season, Danny Manning, who went on to be the No. 1 pick in that year's NBA Draft. Took him seven seasons.
- Tubby Smith, Kentucky (1998): Coach at a top-10 historical program. Smith inherited a championship-capable roster after Rick Pitino left in 1997 to coach the Boston Celtics. Kentucky made back-to-back championship games the previous two seasons. It started three seniors and two juniors. Smith got there in seven seasons.
- Tom Izzo, Michigan State (2000): Naismith Hall of Fame coach at a top-10 historical program. Izzo was also in the program as as an assistant from 1983-1995. He had two 2000 first-round picks, Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves, a 2001 top-five pick in Jason Richardson and another 2001 NBA pick in Andre Hutson. Like Haskins, Izzo hit the jackpot in his fifth season.
- Kevin Ollie, Connecticut (2014): The outlier of all outliers. Ollie won the national championship in his second season on the job -- doing so as a No. 7 seed -- with a top-five player in UConn history, Shabazz Napier. He inherited his roster from a Naismith Hall of Fame coach, Jim Calhoun. UConn is not a historical top-10 program, but in the context of its 2014 win, it was a modern blue blood. The Huskies still have the most championships (four) of any men's program since 1999.
This pattern is also why I don't find it at all surprising thatfor next season are coached by men who have at least 10 years of head coaching experience, and in fact all but three of them are at least 20 years in:
- Gonzaga (Mark Few, 21)
- Baylor (Scott Drew, 18)
- Villanova (Jay Wright, 26)
- Virginia (Tony Bennett, 14)
- Iowa (Fran McCaffery, 24)
- Kansas (Bill Self, 27)
- Duke (Mike Krzyzewski, 40)
- Creighton (Greg McDermott, 20)
- Houston (Kelvin Sampson, 27)
- Wisconsin (Greg Gard, 5)
- Michigan State (Izzo, 25)
- Tennessee (Rick Barnes, 33)
- West Virginia (Bob Huggins, 35)
- Kentucky (John Calipari, 28)
- North Carolina (Roy Williams, 32)
The only exception is Gard, who nevertheless was the top assistant at UW dating back to 2008 and has been on the Badgers bench since 2001. In that way, he's very much a more modern version of Izzo.
So be it at the start of a season or right before the beginning of an NCAA Tournament, keep all of this in mind. If you're picking a coach to win a national championship who hasn't done it before and isn't at least 10 years into running a D-I program, he better be coaching a top-10 basketball institution and it'd really help if he had at least two surefire NBA players on the roster. Aren't a lot of those combinations you'll see out there. If all goes as hoped and planned, there will be a 2021 NCAA Tournament. Next April, you should expect to see one of the names above cutting down the final net. When it happens, in the grand scheme, it won't be much of a surprise.