Thoughts On The Sporting News’ Top 50 Coaches List…

Posted by jstevrtc on July 31st, 2009

By now you’ve probably seen the list published earlier this week by The Sporting News naming their Fifty Greatest Coaches of All Time, across all sports.  And most likely you’ve at least seen that the legendary John Wooden tops that list, a selection about which this blogger has not heard one single detractor, not even one with a bad argument.  What’s interesting to me is the names from the college basketball world that follow Wooden on that list.  Here they are; I added two coaches at the end who did not make the TSN list (though one would think they might) just for the discussion:

TSN all-time coaches

The first thing that strikes me is where John Wooden ranks on the all-time Division 1 wins list.  21st??!?  It’s always been obvious that in these lofty heights number of wins has never been a great indicator of coaching ability, since teams just didn’t play as many games until the 80s when that number really took off.  That would seem to make winning percentage a more important statistic.  But not on this list, it appears.  If that statistic mattered here, you wouldn’t expect Dean Smith to be quite as high, and you’d expect Adolph Rupp to be higher; you would certainly expect Roy Williams to at least make the list.  Final fours?  Nope.  Dean Smith would be appropriately stationed, but Mike Krzyzewski would be higher along with Rupp, and again you’d think Williams would get on.   And so on.  No single major statistic appears to have guided the thinking, here.

The question is, does this reduce the validity or credibility of the list?  According to TSN, their panel consisted of “seven World Series-winning managers, four Super Bowl champion coaches, and the winningest coaches in the NBA, NHL, and college basketball.”  I’m not saying they necessarily got anything wrong — who better to ask about coaches than players and other coaches?  It is at least obvious that there’s only one thing the panel considered, at least in terms of how the best coaches in college basketball fell on the list — reputation.

No contest.   (credit:

No contest. (credit:

The selection of Wooden at the top cannot be argued because he’s got the reputation, the aura, and too much of the overall look of the statistics on his side.  After that it’s a crapshoot depending on what you think is the most important determiner of coaching greatness.  To the TSN panel, it’s something akin to curb appeal that influenced them.  Would Bob Knight not have been higher than 16th on an all-time coaches list were it not for his acerbic nature?  Would Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith have been closer together were it not for Rupp’s reputation (whether you think he deserves it or not) as a bigot, and/or Smith having an image bordering on — dare I say it — holy?  Is Roy Williams still being punished for his inability to win the big one while at Kansas?  And what of Pat Summitt?  She’s the only one who could even challenge Wooden in terms of college basketball coaches; her numbers are barely conceivable, and then you throw in her 1oo% graduation rate (yes, that’s right, every Tennessee player on her watch who has completed their eligibility there has also graduated).  Should she be higher than 11th on the whole thing?  And if you want to talk about the effect of reputation on this list, there probably isn’t a better example than the appearance of the late great Pete Newell.  Only 357 games coached, a single title, only two Final Fours, and the lowest winning percentage on the coaches on the above list.  But he goes and forms the Big Man Camp — and eventually what he would call the Tall Women’s Basketball Camp (I guess “Big Woman’s Camp” wasn’t an appealing name for such a place) — and finds a way to coach players in a way that didn’t directly show up as wins and losses, and here he is, on the overall list ahead of people like Joe Torre, Tom Osborne, Toe Blake, and Chuck Daly.  In addition, if you ask any coach, they’ll tell you that, before he died, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a better coach and man than Mr. Newell.  Does he belong on the list?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing — the list generates great discussion (especially in the summer lull), so come on…let’s hear from the Duke fans who think Coach K got screwed, let’s hear from the UNC fans who think Smith-Williams should be 1-2.  Let’s hear from the UK fans who think Rupp is too great to be even considered on such a list.  Knowing the passion of college hoop fans and the readers of this site, it should be good.

jstevrtc (547 Posts)

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5 responses to “Thoughts On The Sporting News’ Top 50 Coaches List…”

  1. Jason says:

    I like the list. It seems to me that, in terms of college basketball coaches, the coaches were ranked by not only a strong winning percentage and championships but also innovation and lasting impact on the game. I don’t think Knight would have been ranked any different if he had a calmer personality. The man has 900 wins, an undefeated championship season at Indiana, and he helped popularize and further develop the motion offense, which was originally developed by Henry Iba, another man on this list.

    The omission of Pat Summit, however, does seem to be particularly egregious.

  2. Joel Gardner says:

    Wooden’s lower number of wins reflects the shorter seasons in the pre-March Madness era. UCLA’s powerhouses played no more than 26 regular-season games, and usually only two rounds in March. Moreover, in the modern day, he would have qualifies for many more postseasons, because only one team went to the tournament from any conference.

    If he needs any more justification, Wooden also changed the college game. Instead of grind-it-out 64-62 games, UCLA played games in the 90s and 100s. No one played the full-court zone press before the ’64 championship, and few teams played forty minutes of fast break.

  3. jstevrtc says:

    Joel: I’m glad I made that quick mention of that in the piece. I’d say you and I are in agreement that a lot of people don’t realize that teams from earlier days didn’t play as many games, didn’t have conference tourneys, etc. While it’s a stat that should be respected, the fact that Wooden is such an obvious choice for #1 but isn’t in the top 20 in all-time wins certainly dilutes “number of all-time wins” as a reliable measure of coaching excellence if you’re taking in the entire scope of college basketball’s history.

    Jason: To be honest, I was actually wondering if Knight would be ranked even HIGHER were it not for his truculent nature, not lower. And Summitt is indeed 11th on the Top 50 list and 3rd among college basketball coaches, so she wasn’t omitted. We have her on the list above.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, guys. Keep ’em coming folks!

    John Stevens (who, like Rush The Court, is now on Facebook)

  4. Greg says:

    First time on this site and I found this story off a google search looking for something else, similiar; but it was intriguing enough to make me hit this site. I’m glad I did for a couple of reasons. Not both reasons remotely close to each other. Here is my take on this story/article/open discussion?

    The breakdown and arguements made against and for; make for good-to-great debate and an all out war, I would think; but in the spirit of feeling that ‘you’ (fan, alum, etc) would HAVE to defend your university or college; or pro team? Because, like every other list which our country is consumed by; it seems; I felt based on the cross section of former coaches and players; mostly….this would be objective; or as objective as most list by the fans or sportswriters; which there always seems to be a stencCh against a rival program, team, other team’s coach;etc. But hey, that’s me; I’m not speaking for anyone else but myself here.

    Now…..I just want to challenge your take on Pete Newell and your references to his “only” angle? He only coached 300+ games; only coached ONE title and ONLY went to 2 Final Fours and the inference made that his acclaim came from the Big Man Camp; Tall Women’s Camp; etc. is absolutely absurd and irresponsible; actually. Pete Newell coached only 14 years and was forced to retire ON doctors orders. He is the ONLY coach who holds a winning record against the #1 All Time Greatest Coach” on this list 8-7 and he beat Wooden the last 8 times they played against each other, Pete Newell was the head coach of the 1960 Olympic God Medal Basketball Team and he ONLY coach, from the West Coach, when Wooden was coaching at UCLA to bring home the prestigious NIT Championship Trophy; when the NCAA was a little step child to the NIT. (Kentucky LOST in that year’s NIT in the frst round and the NCAA allowed to compete in their tournament; just to compete against the NIT; but everyone knew the NIT was the sh*t in those days and through the early 50’s.

    The math reads: 1 NIT Title in 1949; 1 NCAA Title in 1959 and 1 Olympic Gold Medal in 1960; in the span of 14 years he collected ALL 3 crown jewels and retired at 43 years old; due to health reasons; yet several years later, is found to be relative TO and FOR the game and on the urging of Kermit Washington’s college coach, Kermit sheepishly asks this gray haired GM who drafted him in the 1st round, 2 years earlier, to HELP him stay in the league? Thus…….the Big Man Camp began and all of a sudden Pete Newell is more known for this camp and NOT the fact he beat Wooden 8 straight times; which is undeniable and won a Gold Medal and the first of ONLY 3 coaches to have EVER of accomplished this feat? Dean Smith and Bob Knight and both accomplished this when they were OLDER and longer on the job, than Pete Newell

  5. JStevRTC says:


    Welcome to the site — good to have you, and I hope you’ll come back and most of all I hope you find it an enjoyable and informative stop. Your comment is much appreciated. Feel free to contribute to the discussion any time you’re here and don’t hold back.

    In terms of its content, let me say a couple of things. In terms of Mr. Newell’s numbers, they are what they are. True, his “bench-coaching” career was cut short because his physician(s) told him he had too much “stress.” I don’t know if this was from a pre-existing condition that he had, or if it was brought on and then exacerbated by coaching, or what — I won’t speculate; I simply don’t have that information. While it is indeed a shame that he had a bench career shorter by comparison to his compatriots on the list, his numbers are impressive — as you mention, the Olympic title, the one NCAA championship, so on. But, when evaluating a group of coaches based on the numbers, you have to evaluate what you have, not what could-have-been. We can’t speculate on what kind of numbers Mr. Newell would have gone on to produce.

    What we are left with, then, are his other accomplishments and the reputation he built up among coaches with/against whom he coached, and in the coaching world in general. That’s the “reputation” part I mentioned in the piece. Maybe it’s NOT such a shame that Mr. Newell’s bench coaching career was cut short; as a result of Kermit Washington asking for individual help, as you note, boom, the Big Man’s/Tall Women’s camps are born, and Newell is given another way to be a COACH, something he was obviously born to do. In the article, all I mean to say is that, because Newell’s total numbers are in shorter supply than many of the other CBB folks on the list (and there’s no doubting the man’s coaching skill), his reputation as a coach through the Big/Tall camps and a little speculation as to what “might have been” has played a bigger part in landing him on the list than the actual numbers, nice as they are. And to be honest, it’s probably the right move. I’d say he belongs.

    So in short, it looks like we’re agreeing more than we’re disagreeing, though I’d add that if we’re going to do the “what might have been” thing with Newell’s numbers, we need to do it for every coach on there to be fair. Thanks for the comment, keep it coming, and I’m glad you found the site.

    John Stevens (who, like Rush The Court, is now on Facebook)

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