At The Comeback, we love sports and pop culture all year ’round, including December, so we don’t understand why so many best-of-the-year lists are announced before the year is actually over. This week, the last of 2015, we want to share with you some of our bests.
From the best male and female athletes, to the best new TV shows and movies, to the best coaches, the best superheroes, the most memorable moments and storylines, to who had the best year of anyone on the planet, we’re running down the best list of best lists of anyone in 2015.
Sometimes a team wins in spite of its coach, and other times a team wins almost exclusively because of its coach. Usually there is a successful balance between talent and tutelage, and surely these 15 names are part of a much larger group of fantastic coaches in amateur and professional sports in 2015 that used their talent in the right ways to achieve varying and notable levels of success. Now, who did we miss, and who was criminally under or over-ranked?
15. Courtney Banghart, Princeton women’s basketball
While Kentucky was getting all the undefeated headlines on the men’s side, Banghart’s Tigers steamrolled their way through the regular season, finishing 30-0. They set all sorts of Ivy League records in the process, including highest ranking to finish a season — No. 13.
14. Terry Collins, New York Mets
On July 4, you could’ve argued that Collins wouldn’t be on the Mets’ bench by the end of the month. His team was 41-41, couldn’t hit and was 4.5 games back in the division. But Collins kept the pieces together and pushed the right buttons, which sent the team to the World Series after key trade-deadline acquisitions.
13. Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich
Bayern lost in the semifinals of the Champions League last spring to Barcelona, but that did little to stem the tide Guardiola is riding in international circles, especially after leading Bayern to a wall-to-wall Bundesliga crown in 2015, winning by 10 points, with his side already atop the league table this season by eight points in just 17 matches. Pep has announced he’ll be leaving Bayern at the end of the season, and has been linked to every major job opening on the planet.
12. Nick Saban, Alabama football
Another winner who lost, Saban fell in the semifinals of college football’s first-ever playoff, but once again proved his might. He sent seven more players to the NFL via the draft (making it 24 since 2013) and bounced back this year, winning another SEC title and seeing a second player (RB Derrick Henry) win a Heisman Trophy en route to a place in the playoffs again. Alabama’s result on December 31 could impact his placement on this list, for sure.
11. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
A year after being a laughingstock because of a 7-8-1 record that won him the NFC South for the second straight year, Rivera’s Panthers have been dominant this season. Carolina is 14-1 and was chasing history almost the entire season, beating up opponents and gunning for its first Super Bowl title.
10. Geno Auriemma, Connecticut women’s basketball
Death, taxes and the UConn Huskies women’s team raising another banner — that’s pretty much what women’s hoops has come to. Auriemma won his 10th national championship this spring, the most ever in the women’s game and tying John Wooden for most in Division 1 history. Forward Breanna Stewart became the sixth player to win the Naismith Women’s Player of the Year award (and the third Husky to win it twice). Auriemma now has not missed a Final Four since 2007 and for the second time in his career, won three straight titles.
9. Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals
It had been three decades since Kansas City had seen its baseball franchise celebrate a World Series title, but that drought came to an end in November when Yost led the Royals to the championship. This had been a club that had been so bad for so long — nine straight losing seasons from 2004-2012. But that began to change, as ownership gave Yost patience and let him work with a talented core of young players that blossomed into the nucleus for this title team.
8. Luis Enrique, FC Barcelona
Talk about starting your career with a high expectations. After managing Barca’s B-team, A.S. Roma and Celta, Enrique returned to his former club as the head man in the spring of 2014. His first season couldn’t have been more impressive. Barcelona won the treble in 2015 — capturing the Copa del Rey, La Liga title and most importantly, the Champions League for the fifth time in club history. Barcelona added the Fifa Club World Cup in December, and sit atop the La Liga table as the calendar turns to 2016 yet again.
7. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke men’s basketball
No one will argue that Krzyzewski’s 2014-15 Duke team were underdogs. Hardly. But the Blue Devils did fly under the radar a bit, with Kentucky’s run at perfection dominating the sport all season long. In the end though, when the Wildcats stumbled, K had the opening necessary to capture his fourth national championship. Coach K started 2015 with a milestone as well, becoming the first D1 coach to record 1,000 wins. Oh, and for good measure saw Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow become the 19th and 20th Blue Devils to turn into NBA Lottery picks.
6. Urban Meyer, Ohio State football
If Ohio State had made it into the College Football Playoff for a second straight year, Meyer probably finds himself inside our top five. Still, not a bad calendar year for one of the sport’s premier coaches. Last year’s national title was the eighth for the school (and first since 2002), but the third for Meyer in less than 10 years. At only 51, at powerhouse program and talent flowing in from everywhere, it’s not hard to imagine Meyer not only eclipsing Bear Bryant’s mark of five national titles, but possibly approaching double-digits.
5. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Where should we start with Kerr? That he became the first rookie head coach since Pat Riley in 1982 to win a NBA championship? That wherever he goes, winning follows? (Five NBA titles as a player with the Bulls and Spurs.) That he’s one of the sharpest, smartest, most-player-friendly coaches in the sport? That he’s learned from the best? The accolades could seemingly go on and on for Kerr.
It’s easy to say that Kerr was deliberate in choosing where he’d begin his NBA coaching career coming out from behind the mic at CBS/Turner in the summer of 2014. He could’ve gone almost anywhere, yet chose the Warriors — a playoff team for two years prior to his arrival — instead of cutting his teeth with a harder job (ahem, the Knicks). But it shows Kerr’s smarts to not only eschew the Big Apple for the City by the Bay, but to align himself with a roster that was hungry for coaching.
The Warriors were sort of a functional mess under Mark Jackson, but upon Kerr’s arrival have become the most well-oiled machine in the sport. Having a Steph Curry helps, but Kerr managed to get the surrounding pieces (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes) — all of whom could be first- or second-options on other teams — to buy in and make the Warriors the most exciting show in the NBA. (How his absence on the bench during the Warriors epic run to start the 2015-16 season impacts his ranking on this list is something, admittedly, we struggled with as well. Perhaps Luke Walton and Kerr’s entire staff belongs on this list as well.
4. John Calipari, Kentucky men’s basketball
We know what you’re thinking: But Duke won the national championship? How can Coach K be behind Coach Cal? It’s quite simple, really: the unbeaten streak. Finishing a college basketball regular-season on the men’s side is no easy task. Five teams since 1976 have finished the regular-season without a loss, before finally taking a ‘L’ in the NCAA tournament. No team since that Indiana team in 1976 has gone all the way. Kentucky came up short, but still was the college basketball story in 2015.
Calipari often gets pegged as an ace recruiter (he is), and a guy who is at the powerhouse basketball program, so everyone comes to him (they do). But Cal is a superb puppetmaster when it comes to harnessing the one-and-done players that arrive on campus. He had three talented centers on his roster — Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles — last season. All three were major contributors and ended up NBA Lottery picks.
Even though Cal’s star would’ve shot through the stratosphere with a 40-0 national championship season, falling short barely made a dent in his armor. Last year’s 38-1 team was led by the No. 2 recruiting class in the country — Cal opened this season with the No. 1 class and currently has the No. 1 class for 2016.
3. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
You can look at this two ways: First, Belichick cemented his legacy in pro football by leading a good (but flawed) Patriots team to the Super Bowl for the sixth time, and capturing his fourth title. Second, you could look at all of the ridiculous distractions surrounding his team over the last calendar year (Aaron Hernandez, Deflategate and ensuing Tom Brady fallout) and realize how good of a coach you have to be to manage a team through all of that — while continuing to once again roll over opponents this season, deciding to kick in overtime against the Jets notwithstanding.
Either way, Belichick once again flexed his coaching muscle in 2015. Winning another Super Bowl title (even if Pete Carroll did gift-wrap that final play for him) put him on a level where few coaches have reached in the sport. Only Steeler legend Chuck Noll has won as many as Belichick. A fifth title would give him the most in the sport and put him in the same breath as Phil Jackson (11 NBA titles), Scotty Bowman (9 Stanley Cups), and Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy (7 World Series titles) in North American major professional sports.
But the genius in Belichick has once again been on display in the face of controversy. For a second time, his methods have been outed and he’s been tagged with the “cheater” label. Whether it’s deflating footballs or filming opponent’s plays or stealing playbooks from team hotels, Belichick continues to absorb the blows and not let it get in the way of his machine.
2. Bob Baffert, Trainer of American Pharoah
The 62-year-old trainer is a certifiable legend in his sport. Entering this summer’s Triple Crown run, his horses had finished in the money at the Kentucky Derby eight times; the Preakness Stakes seven times; and the Belmont Stakes four times. Three times, he had brought a horse to New York, having won the first two legs of horse racing’s toughest task — only to come up short. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) were the ghosts that he couldn’t outrun.
Until American Pharoah came along. For the first time in nearly 40 years, horse racing had its Triple Crown winner and it was fittingly Baffert who was the man pulling the strings. He expertly managed the horse’s workload leading up to the Belmont, said all the right things and was cool as a cucumber the day of the race.
If you think all of that doesn’t matter to a horse — a wild animal that is going to do whatever it wants once the gun goes off — think again. It projected down to jockey Victor Espinoza, who was even-keeled throughout the whole day. Even the bombastic Zayat family was easy-going leading up to the Belmont. All of that stemmed from the cool hand of Baffert, who saw perhaps the best (and possibly final) opportunity to win the Triple Crown in front of him.
1. Jill Ellis, United States Women’s National soccer team
Once the women’s World Cup began in Canada this summer, the pressure for the United States to win the cup was increasingly prevalent. The Americans had not won the World Cup since that famous 1999 victory — 16 years without a cup for one of the power countries in the world was simply too long a drought. And finishing second to Japan, falling in penalties, four years earlier made it worse. So the coach to alleviate that all was … Jill Ellis?
The manner in which Ellis got the job caught the ire of many soccer pundits in the United States. Critics wanted an alpha dog like Tony DiCicco. The USWNT’s last World Cup coach — Pia Sundhage — said that the job was like walking a tight rope because of the egos of the team’s star players, including those reported to have lobbied for Ellis to get the job in the first place. Turns out, the mild-mannered, but fiercely loyal, Ellis was the perfect person for the gig. She proved to possess the technical chops to command respect of the past-their-prime stars and slide them into contributor roles. She was open and honest, earning allies throughout the process heading into Canada. She earned the players trust, but wasn’t a pushover, getting this squad to buy into the team concept once again.
The results? Well, they certainly speak for themselves. In winning US Soccer’s first World Cup since ’99, Ellis orchestrated a masterful defensive effort, as the United States allowed just three goals in the tournament. Meanwhile, the best came as the bracket dwindled — as the Cup stretched on, the Americans seemingly got better and better, with Ellis finding the right combinations when starters were suspended or ineffective, staying with the right lineups as the knockout round progressed. The final act was the most impressive, as the U.S. romped the team that bested them four years earlier, Japan, 5-2. With the world watching, Ellis showed that she was the right choice all along.