In part one of this column, we ranked the bottom eight Big East coaches. Of course with such a loaded field, there were probably some names on that list that raised an eyebrow or two. In part two, the proposition gets even dicier as Final Four coaches, Hall of Famers, and other accomplished bench mentors vie for the top spot on a deep and talented list.
8)Jay Wright, Villanova – If this were a best dressed list, Wright would blow away the rest of his Big East brethren in the biggest rout since Secretariat's 31-furlong victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Dressed to the nines night in and night out, the only thing more impressive than Wright's wardrobe might be his coaching ability as he has successfully rebuilt the Wildcats into perennial contenders in the Big East after the program slipped near the end of the Steve Lappas era.
Using a unique, perimeter-oriented lineup that often includes up to four guards on the court at one time, Wright has plugged in some of the nation's best guards year in and year out to churn out consistent results. His ability to recruit fine talent on a consistent basis means that there is absolutely no reason Wright can't continue to move up on this list the longer he stays in the City of Brotherly Love.
7)Mike Brey, Notre Dame – The master of the mock turtleneck has made winters in South Bend more than just a passing fancy between the end of football season and beginning of spring practice. After a successful stint at Delaware, Brey moved on to the Big East to take the job at Notre Dame, where all he has done is consistently turn the Irish into a conference contender and NCAA Tournament staple.
Much like West Virginia, the Fighting Irish are consistently underrated at the beginning of the season only to surpass the expectations of others by year's end. Much of that credit goes to Brey, who likewise does not get the credit he deserves year in and year out. Once the Irish get into the tournament, though, things seem to slow down. Perhaps it's just a run of bad luck for ND, which also has notorious postseason struggles on the gridiron?
6)Tom Crean, Marquette – Maybe no coach in the conference takes to the sideline for 40 minutes with more energy than Crean, what with his constant pacing which at times looks like it might turn into a full sprint up and down the MU bench. The Golden Eagles have made the adjustment to Big East play quite well, though March success has been hard to come by for Crean and company.
Despite his young age, Crean is already very accomplished as a head coach, including an appearance in the 2003 Final Four thanks in no small part to the play of some guy named Dwayne Wade. For whatever reason, Crean's name is often mentioned when it comes to perceived "bigger" job openings, leading some to believe that the talented bench mentor might someday move on from Milwaukee. Until he does, though, the Golden Eagles will continue to put a talented lineup on the court, and Crean's energetic sideline demeanor will remain a constant in the nation's best conference.
5)John Thompson III, Georgetown – Who says you can't run the Princeton offense in the Big East and have success? After the forgettable Craig Esherick era in the nation's capital, Georgetown returned a Thompson to the sidelines, plucking the son of the legendary Hoya head coach from the Ivy League. Thompson has rewarded the Georgetown administration's faith in him by turning back the clock to the glory days of Hoyas hoops with a dominant big man and outstanding complementary parts. Heck, he even has a Patrick Ewing on his team, just for good measure.
The scary part for the rest of the conference? As good as the Hoyas have been on the court (claiming the conference's regular season and conference championships last year before a run to the Final Four), the future looks even brighter in D.C. Thompson continues to bring some of the nation's finest recruits to Georgetown, and even with Roy Hibbert moving on next season, the Hoyas will likely continue to be conference and national contenders for years to come. Maybe the biggest question is whether or not the younger Thompson will adorn his finger with a ring similar to that which his father often wears to this day?
4)Bob Huggins, West Virginia – Even though it happened five years later than many thought it would, Morgantown has now become Huggstown. The former WVU guard returned to his alma mater last spring to replace the departed John Beilein, and started his Mountaineer coaching career with another 20-win season, marking the 22nd time in his 26 years as a head coach that Huggs has crossed the 20-win plateau. With over 600 wins, multiple coach of the year awards and a Final Four appearance on his resume, Huggins could likely walk away from the game right now and find a spot in Springfield.
Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, he's just getting started in Morgantown. Working on a short schedule for the Class of 2008, Huggins still managed to put together one of the nation's Top 25 recruiting classes. Give him a year or two to keep the ball rolling on the court combined with continued recruiting success, and Huggins could be able to accomplish the ultimate goal that neither he nor the Mountaineers have ever achieved. While Huggs isn't quite as young as Crean or Wright, one could conclude that he still has several seasons left patrolling the sidelines. Thus, more 20-win seasons and hopefully postseason success are sure to follow what Huggins has done in year one.?
3) Jim Boeheim, Syracuse - One national championship, two more championship appearances and never a whisper about leaving the only school he's ever known. The knocks on Boeheim by his haters are that he doesn't schedule tough teams, whines too much, etc. Bottom line, though, is that he wins. Boeheim is the Dean of Big East coaches, and is the lone remaining coach from the conference's inception in 1978. More often than not, you'll find his Orange in the postseason come March, with 2003's run to the national title behind Carmelo Anthony and crew being the height of his coaching career. Too, remember that Boeheim's then-Orangemen were within a whisker of knocking off the Indiana Hoosiers in 1987 were it not for the last-second heroics of IU's Keith Smart.
Since his playing days in Central New York, Boeheim has lost quite a few hairs, seen his fair share of technical fouls, and gone through more bad sport coats than your local Goodwill store. Once again, though, the W's have remained constant, not to mention landed Boeheim's name in Springfield with basketball immortality. If all of Boeheim's young stars return to school next season to join with a healthy Eric Devendorf and another crop of talented recruits, might the Orange again be in the hunt for a conference championship and deep NCAA run? Stay tuned.
2) Rick Pitino, Louisville - He has taken three programs to the Final Four, and had he not taken the money and run to the NBA twice, he'd likely have more than the single national title which appears on his resume. He's put players in the pros everywhere he's been, and continues to recruit the cream of the crop every year as evidenced by annual Top Ten recruiting classes in the River City.
Unlike Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, though, his winning has come at places where others have had similar success (although what he did at UK after Sutton left a mess was remarkable). That's not meant to be a knock on Pitino's coaching ability, simply a fair assessment of the facts. One could argue that coaching at a place where success is expected has made Pitino's accomplishments even more impressive given the pressure to win year in and year out in places like Rupp Arena and Freedom Hall. He probably still has at least 8-10 years on the sideline, so by the time his career is done he may find himself at the top of this list…as long as he keeps the Col. Sanders-esque white suit in the closet between now and the time he hangs up the whistle.
1) Jim Calhoun, Connecticut – Now in his 22nd season as head coach at Connecticut, Calhoun has had unparalleled and sustained success in the Nutmeg State. For starters, Calhoun won national titles in 1999 and 2004, with the '99 squad upsetting a heavily-favored squad of Duke Blue Devils in the national finals. He's also won four Big East Tournament crowns, and six league regular season titles. Second, Calhoun's program has produced litany of star players at both the collegiate and pro levels as 13 former Huskies are currently on NBA rosters, far and away the most from any one school. And while the often outspoken Calhoun might be getting a big long in the tooth, the man still gets the job done season after season (last year's rare mediocre campaign aside).
His career is probably winding down sooner rather than later, but his accomplishments in Storrs have already seen him enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, ironically located in the town of Springfield, Mass. where Calhoun spent his college days. The most impressive thing Calhoun has done is built a program literally from the bottom up at UConn. Just look at their history before his arrival, and look at what he's done since taking over the now-proud program in 1986 after an impressive run at Northeastern. Add it all up, and it's hard to put anyone else but Calhoun at the top of this list.
Ask me again in ten years, however, and the accomplishments of Crean, Huggins, Pitino or even Jay Wright might be enough to top Calhoun's.