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One of the things that gets lost in all the excitement of the college football play-off and the run up to the Super Bowl is the beginning of the conference schedule in college basketball. Let’s be honest, even for many hard-core sports fans, NCAA hoop doesn’t make the radar until “March Madness.” But this is the time of year for the dedicated hoop fan where anything is still possible; the heart of the conference schedule can still mean promise for those teams still entertaining dreams of the “Big Dance.”
But sometimes, those dreams run afoul of reality. There’s a lot of times when that happens it’s the coaches fault. That’s why we decided to take a look at the worst dream-crushing coaches in the 64-team bracket era.
20) Jay John, Oregon State
Oregon State has never been an easy basketball job, largely because there hasn’t been a consistent winner in Corvallis in close to 30 years. In what will prove to be a theme on this list, some early winning didn’t lead to the hope such success brings. John led the Beavers to its their post-season appearance in 15 years with a 2005 trip to the NIT. But four years later he captained most of a 6-25 season in which the Beavers didn’t win a single conference game, even after he was fired.
19) Darrin Horn, South Carolina
In his first season, Horn honked the Cocks to its first winning record in the SEC in 11 years, but it was downhill from there. Both South Carolina’s overall and conference record declined in each of Horn’s final three seasons, bottoming out at 10-21 overall and 2-14 in his last campaign in Columbia.
18 ) Larry Shyatt, Clemson
Clemson basketball was successful under Rick Barnes. Clemson basketball returned to prominence under Oliver Purnell. In between was the Larry Shyatt era. This was a period marked by only two overall winning seasons with the Tigers never finishing better than 5-11 in the ACC. Clemson fans called that performance “Shyatt-y.”
17) Ricky Stokes, Virginia Tech
That Big East record does not include Stokes’ first season when the Hokies were a member of the Atlantic-10. The problem is that was his only winning season in Blacksburg. Joining a big-time basketball conference like the Big East didn’t help.
16) Todd Lickliter, Iowa
Brad Stevens isn’t the first guy to bail on Butler for a bigger job. The difference is it worked out far better for Stevens in Boston than it did for Todd Lickliter in Iowa City. Like Stevens, Lickliter parlayed “Big Dance” success in Indianapolis to a job on a bigger basketball stage, but instead of getting the Celtics to an Eastern Conference final, Lickliter’s Butler trade-up ended with taking Iowa to eighth place or lower in all of his B1G Ten seasons.
15) Brian Mahoney, St. John’s
It’s never easy being the guy who takes over for the “legend.” When St. John’s promoted assistant coach Brian Mahoney in the wake of the program’s most successful coach Lou Carnessecca’s retriement, the expectation was he would continue the winning ways. Instead, Mahoney became the first in a long line of coaches who couldn’t bring St. John’s back to its glory days. Under Mahoney , St. John’s reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season, but reached the NIT in only one of the three seasons thereafter.
14) Billy Gillispie, Kentucky
The only thing worse than replacing a “legend” is taking over for a a guy who couldn’t satisfy a fan base with unrealistic expectations. Kentucky decided that what Tubby Smith accomplished in Lexington simply wasn’t good enough. I can’t imagine what more Wildcat could want, considering Smith led Kentucky to one national championship in 1998, a perfect 16–0 regular season conference record in 2003, five SEC regular season championships (1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005), and five SEC Tournament titles (1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004). Smith led the Wildcats to six Sweet Sixteen appearances (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005), and four Elite Eight appearances (1998, 1999, 2003, 2005). He reached 100 wins quicker than any other Wildcat coach except Hall of Famer Adolph Rupp, and current Wildcat coach John Calipari. In 2003, Smith was named AP College Coach of the Year. He was also named SEC Coach of the Year in 1998, 2003, and 2005.
Given all that, how long do you think Billy Gillispie’s run in Kentucky lasted after a first-round loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament, followed by a limp out of the NIT? After two seasons, it was all over.
13) Matt Doherty, North Carolina
Another great way to come into a coaching job with unrealistic expectation is to be a guy who was a star player for the legendary coach at a time when the school is languishing in mediocrity. Enter Matt Doherty at North Carolina. Doherty played for Dean Smith’s Tar Heels and was a teammate of Michael Jordan’s.
Doherty inherited a lackluster team from the long-time Smith assistant Bill Guthridge who retired. As many times is the case, early promise didn’t bring subsequent success. Doherty’s Tar Heels notched a 26-7 record (13-3 in the ACC) in his first season, but they went 27-36 overall and 10-22 in conference the following two seasons. During his short-lived tenure, Doherty clashed with Guthridge and Smith by replacing longtime assistant coaches and running off players with his abrasive style.
12) Jerry Wainwright, DePaul
In the beginning at DePaul, there was Ray Meyer. Ray Meyer begat Joey Meyer. And shortly thereafter, DePaul basketball slipped into obscurity. Wainwright was supposed to be the guy to bring the Blue Demons back to prominence in the Big East, but DePaul had long since fallen behind in recruiting the Chicago area. Being an Illinois native, the idea behind hiring Wainwright was he could fix the in-state recruiting woes. That didn’t happen, and he got shit-canned midway through the 2009-10 season during a stretch in which DePaul went 1-35 in Big East play.
11) Fred Hill, Rutgers
Like Jerry Wainwright and DePaul, Rutgers hoped Hill’s “native-son” status would help revive a bad Big East program. Other than the signing of McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario (who later transferred to Florida), Hill never met the recruiting expectations, which is why he never won more than five conference games in any of his four losing seasons at
New Jersey State Rutgers.
10) Jeff Bzdelik, Colorado
Bzdelik took Air Force to the NCAA Tournament in 2006, which got him the job up the road at Colorado. Nobody really knows why he couldn’t win in Boulder because his successor Tad Boyle led the Buffaloes to back-to-back post-season appearances.
9) Eddie Payne, Oregon State
Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why two Oregon State coaches are on this list; it’s been three decades since Beaver basketball mattered. But to be even more honest, avoiding the cellar of the Pac-10/12 in that era hasn’t been that hard. But you can’t do it when your best season was 7-11 in conference play, and it didn’t help that the Beavers went 3-15 or worse in conference in three of his five seasons.
8 ) Sidney Lowe, North Carolina State
Here’s another example of pinning your coaching hopes om a star player from days gone by. The Wolfpack fan base had grown weary of Herb Sendek even though he had reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his last five seasons in Raleigh. Hopes were high the former NC State player and longtime NBA assistant would get the Wolfpack to take the “next step.” Lowe did a great job in terms of recruiting talent, but getting that talent to perform on the court was another matter entirely. That was exemplified by the fact the Wolfpack never won more than six ACC games in a season and finished ninth or lower each year under Lowe. That point was driven home by the fact Lowe’s successor Mark Gottfried took a team comprised of Lowe’s players to a Sweet 16 appearance in his first season.
7) Melvin Watkins, Texas A&M
Aggie basketball in the 90’s was almost as much of a train-wreck as was Oregon State. Having said that, Watkins earned special distinction by capping his tenure in College Station with a winless Big 12 season and a 7-21 overall record in 2004. Under Watkins, the Aggies won 10 or fewer games three times in his six seasons.
6) Paul Graham, Washington State
Here’s another guy who proved to be the meat in a “suck sandwich.” Even though Washington State isn’t exactly synonymous with college basketball success, the Cougars were a solid program under Kelvin Sampson. Later on, they made the NIT under Kevin Eastman.
Then came Graham whose record really is the classic example of race ipso loquitor.
After Graham, Dick Bennett and son Tony Bennett built Washington State back into into an NCAA Tournament team.
5) Bob Staak, Wake Forest
This is yet another case of firing a coach who wasn’t successful enough, only to watch the program go in the wrong direction. Staak’s predecessor Paul Tacy had reached the postseason in five consecutive years (three pre-expansion NCAAs and two NITs). That wasn’t good enough for Wake Forest, who replaced Tacy with the former Xavier coach. Staak went 8-21 overall and didn’t collect a single conference victory in his first season. Under Staak, the Demon Deacons never won more than three conference games in any of his four seasons. Staak ultimately resigned amid an NCAA inquiry into recruiting violations.
4) Bob Wade, Maryland
To be fair, Wade inherited a mess at Maryland. He was plucked from the high school ranks to restore the credibility of Maryland basketball in the wake of the cocaine-overdose death of All-American Len Bias and an academic scandal at the end of coach Lefty Driesell’s tenure. In other words, he didn’t even have to win; he just had to not be a crook.
The not winning part wasn’t a problem; of his three seasons in College Park, there were two in which the Terps went 0-16 and 1-14 in the ACC. But more importantly, he failed at not being a crook. After that third season, Wade resigned amid his own allegations of NCAA violations.
3) Jeff Bzdelik (again), Wake Forest
Once upon a time, I created a list of the worst coaches/managers who got more than one job. If that list included the college ranks, Bzdelik would be on it. For a guy who as mentioned took Air Force to the Big Dance, and had a successful run as an NBA assistant coach, Bzdelik belly-flopped twice a big schools.
2) Dave Bliss, Baylor
Bliss isn’t the worst coach on this list, but he is clearly the biggest scumbag. Bliss took three teams to the NCAA Tournament (Oklahoma, SMU, and New Mexico), but his downfall at Baylor remains as college athletics’ biggest disgrace.
When one of his players was facing murder charges in 2003, the investigation brought all sorts of shenanigans to the surface. Eventually, Carlton Dotson plead guilty to the murder of teammate Patrick Dennehy, but it was discovered during the investigation that Bliss had been paying at least part of Dennehy’s tuition and that of another player. But a pair of major NCAA violations wasn’t quite enough for Bliss, he felt the need to escalate this to the level of federal offenses.
As part of an effort to cover-up the tuition payments, Bliss asked an assistant coach and several players to lie to investigators, and to say that Dennehy had been dealing drugs. That’s obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and perjury just for starters. Not to mention the level of assholery it takes to play “cover your ass” to this level while the body of one of his players was rotting in a gravel pit.
For what its worth, on the court, Baylor basketball was less than blissful under Bliss; the Bears had a single winning season and never finished better than 6-10 in the Big 12.
1) Bill Foster, Northwestern
Northwestern was the last member of a major conference to reach the NCAA Tournament, and that didn’t happen until last year. One of the reason it took the Wildcats so long to get invited to the Big Dance was the fact they tolerated a lot of losing. Bill Foster embodies that as through a litany of coaching futility, he was the worst. The Wildcats finished in last place in six of his seven seasons, went 2-16 in the B1G Ten five times and without a single win once.
It is also worth noting that he held onto his job longer than anybody else on this list.
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Love seeing Gillispie on this list.
But it got me thinking of bourbon.
Which got me thinking.
Why isn’t Bob Huggins on this list?
How many other guys on this list made a Final four?
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