Bob McKillop

10 underappreciated college basketball coaches

No one wants to be underappreciated.

We want our efforts and our skills to receive due recognition.

In some cases, we might be appreciated by others, which certainly soothes the soul. Yet, een if it’s obvious that our achievements and acumen are admired, the outside world might never fully know just how much we overcame to reach a lofty place in a given field of endeavor.

In other cases, the course of time might reveal how little our work has been recognized. The unfolding of each new year only reaffirms how much our achievements remain in the shadows, especially when measured against our contemporaries in the same profession.

It’s obvious that Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, and several other readily identifiable men are superstars in the coaching profession — both as a reflection of their bodies of work, but also as a manifestation of the entrenched places they occupy in the college basketball public’s imagination.

Some coaches are simply underappreciated in the sense of being ignored or diminished, but others fall into that basket of coaches which are appreciated, but work at programs where it’s just not as easy to become a publicity magnet.

Whether these coaches are unfairly criticized for their shortcomings, or deserve to be seen as superstar-level practitioners at lower-profile programs (perhaps a mixture of both in some cases), here are 10 supremely underappreciated college basketball coaches, in no particular order:


The more we appreciate Stephen Curry and how much he is redefining professional basketball, the more we should be able to realize how great a college coach he had. McKillop sharpened the mind and instincts of a player who knew what he needed to do — and how he needed to do it — in order to revolutionize the way NBA ball is played.

The fact that McKillop has coached at Davidson since the late 1980s is why he’s not one of the four or five most lauded coaches in the country. If he coached at a top-tier program instead of a small college, there’s very little doubt that he’d own multiple Final Four appearances and a resume on par with the acknowledged superstars in the coaching business.


No, he’s not a superstar coach. Drew is much more in line with the coach whose feats simply aren’t appreciated. Kevin Trahan of The Comeback eloquently made this case a few weeks ago.



The failure to follow three Final Fours with more sustained achievements at UCLA certainly put a dent in Howland’s overall resume. Yet, the severity of that failure is profoundly overassessed. The three straight trips to college basketball’s promised land were not given enough weight.

How many other coaches can ever say that they made three straight Final Fours? Considering how well Howland put Jamie Dixon in a position to succeed at Pittsburgh, and how effectively he built Northern Arizona — the springboard to bigger things in his career — Howland has succeeded at every coaching stop. The last few years of his UCLA tenure were ugly, but they shouldn’t be allowed to warp our perspective of Howland’s immense achievements.



Want to know more about the coaches of two teams which will be high seeds on Selection Sunday? These two men were written about here at The Student Section.


Quietly (because no NCAA tournament appearance is part of the package), Virginia Tech has moved to 9-8 in the ACC. The remake of the Hokies is beginning to take shape. The Buzz is growing for one of the more pleasant surprises in this college hoops campaign.

It seems very hard to deny that Virginia Tech will regularly make NCAA tournaments before too long. If you can win on a consistent basis in Blacksburg — and football isn’t the sport — you’re extremely good at what you do. If you lead Marquette to an Elite Eight and three straight Sweet 16s, you’re in a very high weight class.

Buzz Williams is doing A-plus work at a football school. People in the profession admire him, but the public doesn’t revere the name simply because of circumstances.



What Bennett has done to keep Saint Mary’s competitive with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference might be the most underappreciated story of the past decade in Pacific time zone college basketball. Gonzaga has been the publicity-magnet program in the WCC and among the mid-major leagues West of the Great Central Plains. Bennett’s whole career has seemingly been the epitome of a quiet success, never getting the full measure of appreciation it deserves. One wonders if — or when — UNLV, Kansas State, or another program in search of a spark might reach out to Bennett and ask him to take them to the next level.

It wouldn’t be a bad choice.


The Sooners might not make the Final Four. They might get knocked out well before that stage of the Big Dance. Yet, where was OU hoops four years ago? Kruger simply fixes programs. He enters, programs win. Period. They might not become imposing superpowers or regular Final Four-level forces, but Kruger leaves programs better than when he found them.

Of particular note is UNLV. The Rebels were maddening under Kruger. They couldn’t win their home-court conference tournament as often as they would have liked. They lost a number of games they could have and should have won. Yet, UNLV made NCAA tournaments in four of Kruger’s last five seasons on the job, winning at least one NCAA tournament game in three of those four Big Dance appearances.

The Runnin’ Rebels and their fans would kill for that track record right now.

His lack of heavyweight results — Kruger’s resume is more consistent with an upper middleweight — sticks in the minds of fans. Yet, if your program needs help, Lon Kruger is the man to ask.



Ellis is one of a relatively small number of coaches who have guided four schools to the NCAA tournament. (Kruger, it should be noted, is the only one to do so with five schools.) Yet, that’s not centrally why he’s on this list.

Ellis is here because he’s guided two historically impoverished Southern basketball programs — Clemson and Auburn — to the Sweet 16. Clemson hasn’t made the Elite Eight since 1980 or the Sweet 16 since 1997. The Tigers have never made the Final Four. Ellis owns as many NCAA tournament wins (3) as any other Clemson coach. Had Tate George and Connecticut not broken his heart in the 1990 East Regional semifinals, Ellis would have brought Clemson back to the Elite Eight and would have had a chance to make a first Final Four.

Auburn has never reached the Final Four, either. The Tigers have made the Sweet 16 five times in their entire history, and Ellis is responsible for two of those five trips. He’s the only coach to lead Auburn to a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. He and Sonny Smith are easily the two best coaches Auburn’s ever had.

Not enough fans across the nation realize all this.


With all the injuries Michigan has absorbed over the past few seasons, Beilein’s ability to make the Wolverines as competitive as they’ve been is — if not remarkable — richly impressive. He might not be the best recruiter of quality big men, but if he can get an injury-free season, he’ll put Michigan in position to make a run at the Final Four.

What Beilein did before coming to Ann Arbor — guiding West Virginia within a whisker of the Final Four, and leading Richmond to a 14-over-3 upset in the 1998 NCAA Tournament against South Carolina — only reaffirm how great he’s been at his job for a very long time.


Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.