Shortly after the invention of basketball in 1891, the college version of the game became integral to American sports. At its highest levels, college basketball has produced transformative and innovative men’s and women’s coaches. Here are eight who significantly impacted the game.
1. Tex Winter, Five colleges (1951-1983)
ACHIEVEMENT/INNOVATION: Triangle offense | Hall of Fame induction: 2011
Though Winter was best known for his accomplishments as an NBA assistant, he spent 30 years as a college head coach, with stints at Marquette (1951-53), Kansas State (1953-68), Washington (1968-71), Northwestern (1973-1978) and Cal State Long Beach (1979-1983). During his time with Kansas State, Winter won eight Big Eight titles and made two Final Four appearances.
The Triangle offense, developed by Winter in the 1950s, emphasized team play and efficient movement over individual play. In the NBA, Coach Phil Jackson famously implemented the offense with the Chicago Bulls (and later, Los Angeles) as a way to keep defenses from focusing on Michael Jordan and to keep Jordan’s teammates involved during the early parts of a game.
Although the rigid principles of the offense often frustrated Jordan (and later, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles), it helped the Bulls win six NBA titles in the 1990s and the Lakers win three in the 2000s.
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2. John Wooden, UCLA (1948-1975)
ACHIEVEMENT/INNOVATION: Pyramid of Success | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: Player (1960) | Coach: 1973
Wooden, known as “The Wizard of Westwood,” was the most accomplished men’s college basketball coach of all time. He led UCLA to a record 10 championships—seven in a row from 1967-73.
Despite his immense success, Wooden was not a results-based coach, rarely using the word “win” around his players and, instead, emphasizing the process of continued improvement. He created his own definition of success, which appeared on his Pyramid to Success: “[It] is peace of mind which is a direct result in self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
The Pyramid—25 characteristics and traits he believed offered a roadmap to sustained achievement—was a teaching tool Wooden refined for decades. Sports and business leaders have used the Pyramid since its creation.
3. Dean Smith, North Carolina (1961-1997)
ACHIEVEMENT/INNOVATION: Analytical approach | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 1983
Smith, the head coach at North Carolina for 36 years, was one of the game’s more forward thinkers and statistical minds. He used advanced analytics as far back as the 1960s, when his team managers tracked points per possession.
“All signs point to him being the father of basketball analytics,” said Daryl Morey, a longtime NBA executive, told the New York Times in 2015. In the modern game, advanced analytics are so ingrained that NBA teams have departments dedicated to it.
Smith, who led North Carolina to 11 Final Four appearances and NCAA championships in 1982 and 1993, was also known for his player-first, holistic approach to building a program. He fought for desegregation, treated players and managers equally, and graduated more than 96 percent of his players.
4. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke (1980-Present)
ACHIEVEMENT/INNOVATION: Recruiting adaptability | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 2001
In more than four decades at Duke, Krzyzewski has won more than 1,100 games, taken his program to 12 Final Fours and won five national titles. His ability to embrace change stands out, especially in recruiting.
In 1983, he jumpstarted Duke’s revival by signing Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and Johnny Dawkins, who became a two-time All-American. That trio played in a national championship game and opened the door for more recruiting success.
In 1991, Coach K won his first national title with a roster that included stars Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. The team repeated as champion the following season. In 2001 and 2010, Duke won titles with rosters replete with future NBA players who stayed in college multiple years.
Then, in the 2010s, the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule (which prohibits prospects from entering the NBA draft until they’re one year removed from high school) significantly impacted the college game. In 2015, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils won the national title with one-and-done stars Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor.
5. John Calipari, Kentucky (2009-Present)
ACHIEVEMENT/INNOVATION: Embraced “one-and-done” rule | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 2015
In 2009, Calipari—who had Final Four runs with Massachusetts (1996) and Memphis (2008)—revived a floundering program at Kentucky with aggressive recruiting. He coached standout, “one-and-done” freshman before sending them on their way to the NBA the next season.
“My comment to many of these kids was, ‘If you want to do what’s right for you and your family, you put your name in the draft. If you want to do what’s right for me and my family, why don’t you stay a couple more years?’,” he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “It’s not my rule. It was an NBA rule … Here’s what it comes back to—how do we do right by these kids?”
Since he took over at Kentucky, 43 of his players have been drafted by the NBA, 31 as freshman. In 2010, John Wall (No. 1 overall) and DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5) were among five Kentucky freshmen drafted in the first round by NBA teams.
6. John Thompson, Georgetown (1972-1999)
ACHIEVEMENT: Father figure and role model | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 1999
Thompson, who in 1984 became the first Black coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball title, was much more than a great coach. He was a leader, father figure and champion for African American players in an era when many in the NCAA and elsewhere in society treated them unfairly.
In 1989, after the NCAA implemented Proposition 42, a measure banning academically ineligible freshmen from receiving scholarships, Thompson walked off the court in protest during a game. Proposition 42 disproportionately affected minority students.
When many were ready to quit on star guard Allen Iverson after his role in a bowling alley brawl before his senior year in high school, Thompson stood by his recruit. (Iverson’s sentence was overturned.) At his Basketball Hall of Fame induction, Iverson thanked Thompson for “saving his life.”
7. Geno Auriemma, Connecticut (1985-Present)
ACHIEVEMENT: Sustained supremacy | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 2006
Like Wooden, Auriemma has reigned over the sport, winning a record 11 women’s national titles, including four in a row from 2012-16. During this run of dominance, the winningest women’s coach in Division I history had six undefeated seasons and six one-loss seasons.
Auriemma’s dynasty has been the product of great coaching and superior recruiting. From 2014-17, the Huskies won an NCAA-record 111 consecutive games, 108 by 10 or more points. In the 2013 national title game, the Huskies defeated Louisville, 93-60—the largest victory margin in championship game history.
Since 1995, Connecticut has had the Associated Press Player of the Year 12 times: Rebecca Lobo (1995), Jennifer Rizzotti (1996), Kara Wolters (1997), Sue Bird (2002), Diana Taurasi (2003), Maya Moore (2009 and 2011), Tina Charles (2010), Stewart (2014, 2015 and 2016) and Paige Bueckers (2021).
8. Pat Summitt, Tennessee (1974-2012)
ACHIEVEMENT: Advancement of women’s game | Basketball Hall of Fame induction: 2000
Summit, who won 1,098 games and eight national titles at Tennessee, brought a legendary intensity and passion to the game. Early in her career, when the sport received far less support than the men’s program, she washed uniforms and drove the team van to away games.
In 1976, Summitt testified in court on behalf of Victoria Cape, a high school player who sued the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association over its archaic rules aimed at limiting contact in games. At the time, unlike boys basketball, Tennessee allowed three players from each team to be on one side of the court.
“Her legacy… is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat’s intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, play harder, and live with courage on and off the court,” President Obama said following Summitt’s death in 2016.
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