Apr 5, 2023 | Blog

Legendary College Basketball Coaches and How They Changed the Game

In the United States today, college basketball is one of the most popular sports around. More than 18 million people tuned in to watch a college game between Kansas and North Carolina in 2022.
But basketball isn’t just about the men on the court. It’s also about the coaches who pull the strings from behind the scenes and help their players to develop. Throughout history, there have been some names that stood out from the crowd.
It’s time to go back and revisit the legends of the past, learning about the forefathers of college basketball that shaped the game today. Read on to find out more about some of these amazing college basketball coaches.

1. John Wooden: The Ultimate College Basketball Innovator

As UCLA’s men’s basketball coach between 1948 and 1975, Wooden had a long time to stamp his identity on the game. He took the challenge with both hands, leading his team to an unprecedented 10 NCAA titles. That includes seven consecutive titles from 1967 to 1973!

Before he excelled as a coach, Wooden had a quietly impressive playing career. He represented Purdue College, then played professionally in the NBL, an early professional league. He played for the Indianapolis Kautskys, Whiting Ciesar All-Americans, and Hammond Ciesar All-Americans, all the while getting his first taste of coaching for nearby high-school teams.

But it was in coaching where Wooden made his mark. He developed a unique philosophy that helped his players to be the best. Instead of focusing on results, he looked for continual improvement from his players. No matter how good things were going, he always believed that his team could improve further.

This may seem an unusual philosophy for a man who saw so much success and won so many trophies. It meant that when his teams did occasionally lose, he could see the positive side. And it meant his players never got too comfortable, even while winning game after game.

Wooden is also known for his many quotes relating to sports and life in general, such as “if you let your emotions take over, you’ll be outplayed”. These words of wisdom are still used by modern coaches who need something snappy to inspire or motivate their players.

2. Dean Smith: Trailblazer of North Carolina Basketball

Most folks can’t imagine doing a job for more than 10 or 15 years. But Dean Smith served as North Carolina men’s basketball coach for 36 years! During these years, Smith led his team to 2 NCAA titles and also reached the Final Four on 11 separate occasions.

Smith didn’t just win championships. Throughout his career, he worked with hugely different pools of players, meaning he needed to adapt to get the best from his team. He was an innovator, trialing new tactics that sometimes changed the rules of NCAA basketball!

One of Smith’s signature strategies was the four corners offense, allowing his team to run out the clock with a lead at the end of the game. This tactic was so effective, it led to the NCAA introducing a shot clock to speed up the game.
Smith was also a highly moral coach, encouraging his players to focus on academics as well as athletics. This led to a high rate of graduation among student-athletes at North Carolina. And Smith helped to desegregate college basketball by recruiting the school’s first black player, Charlie Scott.

During his time with the Tar Heels, Smith coached many future pros. But none were more famous than Michael Jordan. Following Smith’s death, Jordan cited Smith as one of the most influential people in his life and career.

At the time of his retirement, Smith held the record for most wins in NCAA history.

3. Jim Calhoun: The Master of Connecticut Basketball

New England is home to a wide range of strong college ball teams. From the Boston College Eagles to the Providence Friars, there is plenty of competition. But the UConn Huskies men’s basketball program stands out as the strongest.

This is mostly thanks to Jim Calhoun, a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who led the team to four NCAA national championships and seven Big East tournament championships.

After getting his start coaching in high schools and at North, Calhoun was appointed UConn Huskies men’s head coach in 1986. After a slow start, things soon started to improve. It was just two years before Calhoun’s huskies won their first championship, defeating Ohio State to win a National Invitation tournament.

1990 saw Calhoun named as coach of the year, thanks to the team winning their first Big East championship. And further success followed as the Huskies took their first NCAA championship in 1999. It took 13 years, but more national success followed in the years after.

Calhoun was often considered to be a tough coach. He went hard on his players, demanding high levels of application and work rate. And he applied these demands to himself as well, showing up for coaching duties even when facing cancer.
Many players who played under Calhoun later moved onto the professional ranks. 31 total are known to have played for NBA or other American professional teams. Many more went on to play in Europe, Asia, and other international leagues.

4. Mike Krzyzewski: Building a Successful Dynasty at Duke

Mike Krzyzewski, often known as Coach K, started his coaching career with the Indiana Hoosiers and the Army Cadets. But it was in 1980 when Krzyzewski took his most notable job as head coach at Duke.

The Chicago, IL native stayed in the job for 42 years. Over the decades, he brought immense success to the Duke men’s basketball program. The team took five NCAA national titles, 13 Final Fours, and multiple regular season championships.

Although recently retired, Coach K has left an enduring legacy at Duke. The school is considered a basketball powerhouse thanks to the coach’s hard work, and that reputation is sure to persist in the coming years. Although some former players have suggested that Coach K could someday make a return to the top job at Duke, Krzyzewski ruled out the possibility of “pulling a Tom Brady“.

Coach K was also a longstanding coach for the United States men’s national basketball team. He won a truckload of gold medals, including three Olympic golds, two FIBA World Championships, and one FIBA Americas Championship.

5. Larry Brown: Bringing Success to Different Programs

Many college ball coaches are strongly associated with a single program, like John Wooden at UCLA or Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. Larry Brown broke the mold, proving a success in college basketball at several different college basketball programs.

Throughout his almost 50-year long career, Brown coached UCLA, Kansas, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Memphis.

Brown also had great success at the professional level, applying many of the techniques he had developed in college ball to the pro game. As the only coach to ever win both an NCAA National Championship and an NBA title, Brown has a well-deserved spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

6. Pat Summitt: Women’s Basketball Pioneer

It’s not all about the men. Lots of women coaches have impressed throughout basketball’s history too. And no female college coaches have ever made such an impression as Pat Summitt.

A star player on her high school and college teams, Summitt represented Team USA at the first-ever women’s Olympic Basketball tournament in 1976, winning a silver medal.

The Tennessee native began coaching soon after women’s basketball was accepted as an NCAA sport. Resources and facilities were limited in the early days and Summitt recalled sleeping in opposing team gyms before away games and playing in dirty uniforms due to a lack of change options.

Throughout her 25-year career, Summitt led her team to great success, surpassing even John Wooden for NCAA trips to the Final Four. Her coaching style was considered very tough. Players subjected to harsh words and icy stares should they make mistakes.

Her successful coaching helped to develop women’s basketball as a popular sport, later leading to the formation of the WNBA. Summitt was a true pioneer in basketball. Although she was offered the chance to take over Tennessee’s men’s team on more than one occasion, she remained dedicated to the women Volunteers throughout her career.

Summitt wasn’t just a successful college coach. She also coached Team USA’s women to victory in the 1984 Olympics, becoming the first woman to win Olympic medals for playing and coaching basketball.

Additionally, she shared her coaching knowledge and philosophy in various writings. Summitt published three books in her life which helped other coaches build on her successful coaching techniques. Following her death, other books were written based on her strategies and philosophy.

7. John Calipari: King of Kentucky

As a coach with UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky, John Calipari stands out as another great traveling college coach. He led his UMass teams to multiple Final Four appearances, but his greatest college success came in 2012 when his Kentucky team won the NCAA Championship.

One of his signature strategies is the dribble drive or Memphis Attack. The technique spreads four players out on the court to cause difficulties for opposing defense players. Although he was not the originator of this potent offensive strategy, Calipari used the technique so well that many other coaches began using it too.

Unlike many coaches who preferred to keep their players around for as long as possible, Calipari embraced the NBA’s one-and-done rule. The rule allowed college ball players to join the NBA draft after only a single season in college. This attitude may have contributed to his success, encouraging talented players to enroll at Kentucky in the knowledge they could move on to the NBA without being pressured.

Recognized as one of the most intelligent and successful coaches in the college game, Calipari was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Outside of college ball, Calipari also coached the New Jersey Nets in the NBA and spent two years in charge of the Dominican Republic National Team.

8. John Thompson: The Granddaddy of Georgetown

Thompson might be best known as the first black coach to win an NCAA men’s title, but his legacy goes beyond that. After a short NBA career with the Boston Celtics, Thompson spent 27 seasons with Georgetown.

Thompson stood up for his players in the face of adversity. In 1989, the NCAA introduced a rule that banned certain freshmen from winning scholarships based on academic grounds. Knowing this new rule had a bigger impact on students from minority backgrounds, Thompson walked off the court during a game in protest.

Off the court, Thompson was known as a fatherly figure to his players. Unlike many college ball coaches, he emphasized compassion over toughness and tried to be a role model for his teams. He stood by players through adversity, notably supporting future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson when he faced criminal charges.

After his retirement, Thompson worked as a commentator and analyst for radio and TV. As a broadcaster, he was able to share more of his ideas and morals with sports fans everywhere.

Learn More About Famous College Basketball Coaches

This is just a small selection of the coaches who made their mark on college basketball. There are so many more stories of amazing basketball innovators to learn about. Even the biggest basketball buffs in the world don’t know them all.

At the Basketball Museum of Illinois, you can get a deeper understanding of how college basketball coaches changed the game. We use a range of artifacts and resources to tell these fascinating stories. Click here to learn more about our exhibits today.

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