Top 10 college basketball coaches of all time
Some of the greatest college basketball programs in history wouldn’t have had the success that they did without a signature head coach. We rank the 10 greatest college basketball coaches ever.
College basketball has produced some of the greatest coaching stories in the history of spots. Only recently the great ‘Coach K’ retired after spending over 40 seasons incharge at Duke University, while Jim Boeheim is still coaching, and just recently surpassed 1,000 career wins.
From the great John Wooden to generational talents such as Phog Allen and the coaching tree that he created, this list is packed with basketball coaches who changed the future of the game.
Famous College Basketball Coaches
You don’t get much more famous than Coach K in recent college basketball memory. The legendary Duke coach became a college basketball celebrity, everybody knew who he was. The Blue Devils were such a dominant force during his 40+ year career that every college basketball fan has an opinion on him one way or another.
Many of the other great coaches on this list are famous for different reasons, including play styles and concepts they implemented into the game. Some of those concepts have become common place in the modern day game of basketball, including the fast break offense created by Adolph Rupp in Kentucky, or Dean Smith’s passing offense in North Carolina.
Ranking the 10 greatest College Basketball Coaches of all time
- Henry ‘Hank’ Iba (1929-1970)
Career Record: 755-340
Teams: Northwest Missouri State, Colorado, Oklahoma A&M/State
Awards: 2x NCAA Tournament Championship, 4x NCAA Regional - Final Four appearances, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Henry Iba had spells at Northwest Missouri and Colorado before taking the job at Oklahoma A&M, which became Oklahoma State in 1957. He had a tough approach to
coaching with a keen eye for the details and therefore set high demanding expectations of his players as a coach. Iba became one of the early legends of NCAA basketball coaching after leading Oklahoma State to back-to-back national titles in 1945 and 1946. The legendary head coach was named college basketball coach of the year in both of those seasons, and in 1959, the United States Basketball Writers Association established the Henry Iba award, which recognized college basketball's greatest coach. The award is still active today, with Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd winning it most recently in 2022.
Iba coached the Cowboys from 1938 to 1970, before becoming the schools athletic director. He also coached the USA Men’s basketball team at the Olympics three consecutive times, winning Gold in 1964 in Tokyo and again in 1968 in Mexico City.
- Phog Allen (1905-1956)
Career Record: 746-254
Teams: Baker, Kansas, Haskell, Warrenburg
Awards: 1x NCAA Tournament Championship (3x total credited National Championships), College Basketball Hall of Fame
Phog Allen had a 50-year coaching career in which he spent the majority in charge of the Kansas Jayhawks. He had played under all-time great coach James Naismith, and took over from him as the teams coach in 1907.
Allen spent three years at Kansas during his first stint in charge, and returned in 1919, where he would coach until 1956, and won 746 games during his coaching career. Allen led the Jayhawks to a national title in 1952.
It was Phog who recruited the great Wilt Chamberlain to Kansas, and he isn’t just known for developing great players. The legendary Jayhawks coach has developedmultiple top college basketball coaches, including Hall of Fame coaches Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith.
The arena at Kansas University is named after Phog Allen, who is one of the longest tenured college basketball coaches in history.
- Lute Olson (1905-1956)
Career Record: 781-280
Teams: Long Beach CC, Long Beach State, Iowa, Arizona
Awards: 1x NCAA Tournament Championship, 5x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 4x Pac-10 Tournament Championship, 1x NABC Coach of the Year, 1x Big Ten Coach of the Year, 7x Pac-10 Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Former Arizona coach Lute Olson is widely regarded as one of the most successful college basketball coaches in the history of the game. He got his first college coaching job at Long Beach City College in California after spending almost 15 years coaching high school teams.
Olson would go on to coach at Iowa, becoming the schools all time wins leader during a nine season stretch in charge of the team, and helping them to win a Big Ten Conference title in the 1978-79 season. The Hawkeyes made the NCAA Tournament final four in 1980 after a thrilling comeback win against Georgetown in the East Regional Final.
Needing a change, Olson moved on to Arizona in 1983, and inherited a team that had only won four games the previous season. In just his second year in charge, the Wildcats had their first winning season in six years and headed for the NCAA tournament, which would be the first of 23 consecutive appearances under Olson’s coaching.
It was at Arizona that Olson truly dominated, winning the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award on seven occasions, and leading the team to the 1997 NCAA Championship. Olson’s team took down three of the #1 seed teams during the tournament, including a win over Kentucky in the final. It was Arizona’s first NCAA final appearance, and their first National Championship.
- Jim Calhoun (1972-2021)
Career Record: 917-397
Teams: Northeastern, Connecticut, Saint Joseph
Awards: 3x NCAA Tournament Championship, 4x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 7x Big East Tournament Championship, 1x AP Coach of the Year, 4x Big East Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Jim Calhoun is one of college basketballs most successful program builders. He took over at Northeastern in Boston in 1972, and led the school from division two to division one basketball within seven seasons. The Northeastern Huskies became an NCAA tournament regular under Calhoun, who left the program as the most successful coach in school history in 1986.
The talented coach moved on to the UConn Huskies, who were by no means the powerhouse franchise they became prior to his arrival. Under Calhoun’s coaching, the Huskies became a college basketball sensation, winning three National Championship in 1999, 2004 and 2011. They were a constant contender in the Big East, and have produced a wealth of brilliant NBA talent during Jim Calhoun’s time in charge.
After taking a break in 2012 for health reasons, Calhoun returned in 2018 to coach at Saint Joseph in Division III, where he would spend four seasons. Calhoun is a top three all-time coach on the all-time wins leaderboard, who retired with a 50-19 record during NCAA tournaments, and 917-397 overall.
- Jim Boeheim (1976-Present)
Career Record: 1,014-440
Awards: 1x NCAA Tournament Championship, 5x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 5x Big East Tournament Championship, 1x Naismith College Coach of the Year, 1x AP Coach of the Year, 1x NABC Coach of the Year, 1x Henry Iba Award, 4x Big East Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Jim Boeheim played basketball at Syracuse from 1963-1966, and returned in 1969 as an assistant head coach with the program. Boeheim has been there ever since, having been promoted from an assistant coach to head coach in 1976. He is currently the longest serving head coach in college basketball, as well as being one of the oldest college basketball coaches in the country.
Known for introducing the 2-3 zone defense, Boeheim is one of the most tactical and talented basketball coaches the college game has ever seen. He has often been able to achieve more with lesser recruiting classes, and has proven a frustrating coach to face for many of his peers. Despite toying with the idea of retiring, Boeheim hasn’t done so yet, making him one of best current college basketball coaches.
Boeheim is now just the second coach to win over 1,000 games, second only to the legendary Coach K, and has brought the Syracuse Orange a wealth of success. They won the National Championship in 2003, and have appeared in three national title games. The stalwart of a coach has brought 10 Big East titles to Syracuse, and cemented himself as one of the very best coaches in college basketball.
- Dean Smith (1961-1997)
Career Record: 879-254
Teams: North Carolina
Awards: 2x NCAA Tournament Championship, 11x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 13x ACC Tournament Championship, 1x Naismith College Coach of the Year, 8x ACC Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Long term UNC coach Dean Smith spent his entire head coaching career with the Tar Heels between 1961 and 1997, coaching over 1000 games for the program. Smith had been an assistant at Kansas and Air Force before joining North Carolina’s coaching staff in 1958, where he was promoted to head coach in ‘61, becoming one of the youngest head coaches in the country. The 30 year old coach led an 8-9 season in his first year in charge, which would turn out to be the only losing season he ever managed during his coaching career.
The Tar Heels began to truly dominate in the sixties, making it to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament three years in a row, and the National Championship game in 1968. It was in that game that Smith and the Tar Heels lost to the great John Wooden and the UCLA dynasty of that era.
Smith would win his first of two national titles with the Tar Heels in the 1981-82 season, with a North Carolina team that starred Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. The Tar Heels were 32-2 by the very end of that season, and had generated the best season in North Carolina’s history.
Dean Smith played a major role in the development of the game of basketball, with a keen eye for offense that centered around passing and assists to create open looks. He was a pioneer of the game in many ways, including being a frontrunning supporter for racial equality. Smith recruited Charlie Scott in 1967, who would become the first African-American scholarship player for the Tar Heels.
The North Carolina legend has one of the most impressive resumes of any coach, and is without a doubt one of the best college basketball coaches of all time.
- Adolph Rupp (1930-1972)
Career Record: 876-190
Awards: 4x NCAA Tournament Championship, 6x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 13x SEC Tournament Championship, 5x National Coach of the Year, 7x SEC Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Rupp held a 0.822 record at Kentucky, the second greatest percentage of all the great coaches, winning 876 games to just 190 losses. He was a strategic mastermind, and one of the early pioneers of the game of basketball. It was Adolph Rupp who introduced the idea of the fast break offense, and his basketball genius led to multiple decades of dominance for Kentucky.
The Wildcats won three national titles in four years between 1948 and 1951, plus a fourth in 1958, while being crowned the SEC Champions of the regular season no less than 27 times. Rupp’s success makes him one of the very greatest college basketball coaches of all time.
Kentucky basketball is now played in the Rupp Arena, appropriately named after their legendary head coach, who was forced into retirement at the age of 70 under mandatory rules of retirement for University of Kentucky employees.
- Bobby Knight (1965-2008)
Career Record: 902-371
Teams: Army, Indiana, Texas Tech
Awards: 3x NCAA Tournament Championship, 5x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 2x Henry Iba Award, 1x Naismith College Coach of the Year, 3x AP Coach of the Year, 8x Big Ten Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
Bobby Knight is perhaps the most entertaining coach in college basketball history. He is well known for his episodes in arguing with officials and bringing the fireworks to the coaching game, but he earned the right to be extroverted in his opinions because of his sensational success as a coach.
Knight won three National Championships in a 12 year span while coaching at Indiana, a school that had seen some success before his arrival, but never made it that far. The elaborate coach turned the Hoosiers into one of college basketballs most impressive teams, coaching the likes of Mike Woodson and Isiah Thomas as a part of some of the all-time great Hoosiers teams during his tenure in charge.
The Hoosiers won 11 Big Ten regular season titles during Knight’s time in charge, and after several years in charge of Texas Tech, he retired with 902 wins, and he was the coach with the most NCAA basketball wins at the time.
- Mike Krzyzewski (1930-1972)
Career Record: 1,202-368
Awards: 5x NCAA Tournament Championship, 13x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 15x ACC Tournament Championship, 3x Naismith College Coach of the Year, 2x NABC Coach of the Year, 1x UPI Coach of the Year, 5x ACC Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
The Duke Blue Devils became one of the most successful college basketball programs in the history of the sport under Mike Krzyzewski, who we all know as ‘Coach K’. The now former Blue Devils coach spent over four decades in charge at Duke, who might have been a successful program prior to his arrival, but not at the heights he took them to. Coach K led Duke to five National Championships, including winning two in a row in the 1991 and 1992 seasons, and featured in the Final Four 13 times during his career, which is almost one in three seasons of his coaching career. Coach K led the Blue Devils to 1,202 wins, making him the winningest college basketball coach of all time. He is one of only two coaches to win over 1,000 games along with Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, and his dominant success caused so many college basketball fans to envy the Duke Blue Devils. If you’re a Duke fan, he’s your hero. If you support anybody else in the ACC or the rest of college basketball for that matter, you might not love him so much.
Duke’s legendary coach won just about every award for coach of the year in NCAA basketball, including multiple Naismith awards and five ACC Coach of the Year awards. In 2020-2021, Coach K was reportedly paid a record figure of around $12.5 million for the season, making him the highest paid college basketball coach of all time.
When Coach K retired, Duke made a huge spectacle of his final home game, and fans flocked to show their support for one of the greatest to ever do it. Tickets to that game were selling for over $5,000, and the all-time great coach gave an emotional speech at the end of the game to say his farewells, standing on center court with his family.
- John Wooden (1946-1975)
Career Record: 664-162 Teams: Indiana State, UCLA
Awards: 10x NCAA Tournament Championship, 12x NCAA Regional - Final Four, 15x Pac-12 Tournament Championship, 5x AP College Coach of the Year, 7x Henry Iba Award, 5x NABC Coach of the Year, College Basketball Hall of Fame
When you think of the greatest dynasties in college basketball history, you think of UCLA. The dominant sixties, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, the sensational National Championship run, and all of that was led by the great John Wooden. Nicknamed ‘the Wizard of Westwood’, Wooden helped the UCLA Bruins to win 10 National Championships in 12 seasons. We have never seen anything like it anywhere else in college basketball, and will likely never see anything like it ever again. UCLA boasted four undefeated seasons during that stretch, and won seven consecutive National Championships.
When Wooden took over, UCLA was by no means a powerhouse program. They were struggling to find their footing, but Wooden had immediate success, and turned the program around almost instantly. They went from 12-13 the year prior to his arrival, to a 22-7 record and the PCC (Pacific Coast Conference) title in his first year in charge.
The all-time great coach implemented a new system to counterbalance the systems other teams were running, and he backed himself and the system he’d created to change the game. The results were one of the greatest sports dynasties we’ve ever seen, and the emergence of the greatest college basketball athlete we’ve ever seen in Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
There is often some sort of debate that could be made for why somebody else could be number one on a list of all-time greats, but when it comes to the question of who is the greatest college basketball coach of all time? The answer is John Wooden.
Parameters for Ranking
When it came to ranking these all-time college basketball head coaches, all elements of their professional coaching career were taken into account. Individual awards as well as the success of their teams play a large part in deciding on placing each coach, as well as their contribution to the development of the game and the coaches around them.
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