The best coaches in college basketball history

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

December 15th, 2020

College basketball players come and go, but the most successful college coaches patrol sidelines for decades and leave legacies that last forever. The programs these coaches build and maintain are among the most well-known in the country, and they're ones that have had great success when it comes time to crown a national champion.

We've compiled our list of the top 10 coaches in college basketball history. Some are still active, in many cases leading the programs they helped build to prominence. Let's take a look!

10. John Thompson

Teams coached: Georgetown
Record: 596-239
NCAA championships: 1 (1984)

The mastermind of "Hoya Paranoia" was one of the most instrumental figures in the rise of the Big East. His Georgetown teams were physical to a fault, and they rode that playing style to five seasons of 29 wins or more in the 1980's. Georgetown's class of 1985, which included center Patrick Ewing, competed in three national championship games and won the 1984 title.

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Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts during the State Farm Champions Classic. (John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

9. John Calipari

Teams coached: UMass, Memphis, Kentucky
Record: 734-219 (active)
NCAA championships: 1 (2012)

Easily the most polarizing entry on this list, Calipari has multiple 30-win seasons with all three schools he's coached. However, the above record accounts for an entire season vacated while at Memphis and a vacated NCAA Tournament run by UMass. Whatever your opinion of Calipari may be, one cannot deny he's been as instrumental as any coach in preparing "one-and-done" players for success in the NBA. His most notable players at Kentucky include Anthony Davis, John Wall, and DeMarcus Cousins.

8. Jim Boeheim

Teams coached: Syracuse
Record: 968-399 (active)
NCAA championships: 1 (2003)

Like Thompson, Boeheim was a vital part of the Big East's rise to prominence in the 1980's. His 2-3 zone is one of the most well-known defensive schemes in college basketball, and he finally earned a national championship with the Carmelo Anthony-led squad in 2003. Perhaps his best coaching job, though, came in 2016, when he took the 10th-seeded Orange all the way to the Final Four.

7. Jim Calhoun

Teams coached: Northeastern, UConn, Saint Joseph
Record: 915-395 (active)
NCAA championships: 3 (1999, 2004, 2011)

Calhoun is one of just two coaches (along with Mike Krzyzewski, who we'll get to in a bit) to win NCAA titles in three different decades. His win in the 2011 tournament at age 68 made him the oldest coach ever to cut down the nets. His impact, however, was still felt two years after his retirement, when the 2014 Huskies went all the way with Kevin Ollie, a former Calhoun recruit, player, and assistant coach, at the helm.

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North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

6. Roy Williams

Teams coached: Kansas, North Carolina
Record: 889-255 (active)
NCAA championships: 3 (2005, 2009, 2017)

A disciple of Dean Smith, Williams's first collegiate head coaching job came at Kansas, and after a 19-12 start in 1988-89, his Jayhawks teams never won fewer than 23 games in a season. He returned to Chapel Hill following back-to-back Final Four runs in 2002 and 2003, and Williams-led Tar Heels teams have since won 30 or more games in seven seasons. Additionally, the program could have won a fourth national title in 2016 if not for a miraculous buzzer-beater by Villanova's Kris Jenkins.

5. Adolph Rupp

Teams coached: Kentucky
Record: 876-190
NCAA championships: 4 (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958)

One of college basketball's most prominent figures in the mid-20th century, Rupp helmed the Kentucky program for more than 40 years, and the school's home arena is named in his honor. Nicknamed "the Baron of the Blue Grass,” Rupp's Wildcats won 13 conference tournaments and advanced to six Final Fours, but he's also well-known for the game he didn't win. He was the losing coach in the 1966 national championship game when Texas Western started five Black players against Rupp's all-white squad.

4. Bob Knight

Teams coached: Army, Indiana, Texas Tech
Record: 902-371
NCAA championships: 3 (1976, 1981, 1987)

One of the most complex figures in all of college athletics, Knight's ability to get the most out of his student-athletes goes without question. He won games, he produced world-class players like Isiah Thomas, and nearly 98 percent of his players completed their four-year degrees. He also threw a chair, made derogatory comments on national television, and let his temper get the best of him on multiple high-profile occasions. That behavior ultimately got him fired from Indiana in September of 2000.

3. Dean Smith

Teams coached: North Carolina
Record: 879-254
NCAA championships: 2 (1982, 1993)

Dean Smith took over a scandal-ridden North Carolina team in 1961, went 8-9 in his first season, and never finished with a losing record again. He effectively utilized the four corners offense late in games, which may have played a role in the NCAA installing a shot clock in 1985. Smith also led Team USA to a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games, and was a hugely influential figure in North Carolina up until his death in 2015.

2. Mike Krzyzewski

Teams coached: Army, Duke
Record: 1,157-350
NCAA championships: 5 (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015)

The man known far and wide as "Coach K" has spent 40 years as the Duke bench boss, and had some calling for his firing after back-to-back 17-loss seasons in the early-1980's. However, recruiting players like Johnny Dawkins, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and JJ Redick allowed him to succeed not just at the college level, but on a worldwide stage. Krzyzewski coached Team USA to three straight Olympic gold medals in 2008, 2012, and 2016, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 by his mentor, Bob Knight.

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A statue of former Purdue Boilermaker player John Wooden is seen outside of Mackey Arena. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire)

1. John Wooden

Teams coached: Indiana State, UCLA
Record: 664-162
NCAA championships: 10 (1964, 1965, 1967-1973, 1975)

"The Wizard of Westwood" set a standard for coaching excellence that may never be equaled. In his 12-season run where the Bruins earned 10 NCAA titles, he lost a total of just 22 games, and eight of those defeats came during the "rebuilding" 1965-66 season, where the Bruins only went 18-8. He coached a number of basketball legends, including Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, and Gail Goodrich.