Top 5 Winningest Coaches in NCAA Tournament History

Every March, millions of people around the country start to look for that diamond in the rough, the team that they think will be this year’s bracket buster. This results in the lost production of up to $200 million by some estimates and millions of headaches throughout the United States. For fans, it’s a time to take a little bit of a gamble by filling out a bracket in hopes of being perfect, and this year Warren Buffett along with Quicken Loans and Yahoo! will offer $1 billion to whomever fills out a perfect bracket.

The stakes have never been higher, and for coaches it’s no different. They spend all season piecing together their rosters to come up with an optimal lineup, only to have a half court buzzer beater come with seconds left on the clock and boot them out of the tournament. The multimillion-dollar salaries of the countries’ most popular coaches are at stake, with plenty of coaches being fired after leaving the tournament early.

For coaches of mid majors such as VCU and even small schools like Florida Gulf Coast, the NCAA tournament offers a stage unlike any other. For example, last season FGCU made a miraculous run to the Sweet 16, the first time a 15 seed had ever made it that far. As a result, applications for admission since last school year have increased over 60% and the athletic department has been reeling in cash for the university ever since.

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament offers a stage for coaches to separate themselves from the pack. For some, making the tournament is a huge deal, especially for those schools outside of the major conferences. For other coaches, simply making it past the first or second round still isn’t enough. Coaches such as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have even gone as far as acting somewhat indifferent to winning the conference tournament.

Ask any coach which they would rather have, and I’m sure they would say that making the Final Four would trump any regular season achievement. Here is a list of the most successful coaches in NCAA tournament history. These men have cemented themselves among the college basketball gods.

4 Roy Williams - Kansas/North Carolina

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Beginning in 1988, Williams created a dynasty and was the epitome of college basketball success while being the head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. Going 418-101 in his 15 seasons at the helm, he led the Jayhawks to nine regular season championships and saw the team rank in the top 10 of the AP polls for 194 weeks. While at Kansas, every one of Williams’ teams made the NCAA tournament except for his first season. He made it to four Final Fours and two national championships, although he lost both.

In 2003, Williams was finally offered the opportunity to coach at the University of North Carolina. Within two seasons, Williams won his first national championship (2005) and won his second in 2009. While coaching at UNC, Williams has made it to three more Final Fours, bumping his total number of appearances to seven, tied for third most in NCAA D1 history.

3 Dean Smith - North Carolina

As one of the longest tenures in college sports history, Dean Smith was the face of North Carolina basketball for 36 seasons, making it to 11 Final Four appearances and winning two national championships. Smith won the National Coach of the Year Award in four different seasons and was enshrined in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 2006. In addition to coaching at UNC, Smith was also selected to coach the US Men’s National team in 1976 and led the team to a gold medal.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest contribution to the game was the fact that he had a 96% graduation rate amongst his players, one of the highest of all time in any major college sport. If that isn’t enough, Smith also pushed for racial equality on campus and recruited the school’s first black scholarship player in Charlie Scott. Upon his retirement from basketball in 1997, he was the second most winning coach in NCAA history; today he is fourth on the list with 879 wins.

2 Adolf Rupp - Kentucky

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Fifth on the all-time wins list, Adolf Rupp was at the pinnacle of coaching as he led the Kansas Jayhawks onto the court from 1930-1972. Rupp won four national championships and made it to the Final Four in six different seasons. In addition to the Final Fours, Rupp’s Jayhawks won 27 SEC championships and finished number one in the polls at the end of six different seasons.

If that isn’t enough, Rupp coached 32 All-Americans, 44 NBA draft picks, and two National Players of the Year. His four Basketball Hall of Fame players are the most all-time and he won the National Coach of the Year Award on five occasions. His greatest contribution to the game was his coaching style, having created the fast break and set offense, which is so common in today’s game it seems odd that teams never used to run the court. He also innovated the 1-3-1 defense and local recruiting, having 80% of his players hail from the Bluegrass state throughout his tenure. Rupp was forced into retirement in 1972 because it was the University’s policy that all employees must retire once they reach the age of 70.

1 Mike Krzyzewski - Duke

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Since 1980, Coach K has been the face of Duke basketball and one of the most respective coaches in basketball. In 2011, Krzyzewksi became the winningest coach in NCAA history, breaking Bob Knight’s record of 903 wins. Coach K has led the Blue Devils to four national championships and 11 Final Fours. He is a two time National Coach of the Year Award winner and has coached the United States Men’s team since 2006, winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Coach K also won gold in 2012 at the London Olympics before stepping down in 2013, although it still has yet to be officially announced.

Coach K has had the opportunity to coach in the NBA at least five times, with teams such as the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trailblazers offering his their respective head coaching jobs. Given his long tenure at Duke, it's no surprise that Coach K has 10 different former players that have also coached at the college or NBA levels. With his fame and fortune, Coach K has also been very active in charitable work, being the chair or major donor for foundations such as the Duke Children’s Hospital, Children’s Miracle Network, and the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

1. John Wooden - UCLA

John Wooden was the head coach of the UCLA Men’s basketball team while the school had reached the pinnacle of its success. After a Hall of Fame career playing guard at Purdue University, Wooden became the head coach at UCLA in 1948. By the end of the 1949-1950 season, Wooden’s UCLA team had finished fourth in the NCAA and was on a path to success, a complete turnaround from before Wooden had arrived at the school. After several Final Four appearances, Wooden won his first national championship in 1964 after finishing the season 30-0.

The dominance continued for UCLA, as the program won 10 national championships and made it to the Final Four 12 different times. As the first coach to ever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as both a coach and a player, Wooden was known for being highly motivational, yet saying very little at the same time. Wooden was such an inspiration to the game that the NCAA renamed the Player of the Year Award after him. Various arenas and buildings are also named in his honor. In 2003, he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest civilian honor in the country.

There will probably never be another coach quite like John Wooden. His unique style and success during college basketball’s Golden Age culminated in one of the most historic coaching careers in sports history. He has been an inspiration to millions of coaches, athletes, and people all over the world. Wooden passed away on June 4, 2010 at the age of 99, just four months shy of his 100th birthday.

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