Legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden guided his Bruins to 10 national championships, including a run of seven straight between 1967 and 1973. What many may not realize is how long it took for Wooden to win his first NCAA Tournament.
After two successful seasons at Indiana State, Wooden took over as head coach at UCLA in 1948. It was in 1964 that Wooden finally captured a national title, 18 years after he began his career as a college basketball head coach.
As we look ahead to the 2020-21 season, betting college basketball futures deserves another look at the leaders of the top programs. It is not very often a young coach takes a team all the way through March Madness to a national championship.
If we start with Wooden’s first championship in 1964 – the Bruins beat Duke 98-83 to finish 30-0 – there have been 32 different coaches that have guided teams to championships. The longest it took for a coach to win a national championship is 27 years.
Legends Jim Calhoun (UConn, 1999) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse, 2003) did not win their first NCAA title until they had almost three decades of coaching logged. Gary Williams (Maryland, 2002) and Lute Olson (Arizona, 1997) each took 24 years to reach the ultimate goal.
One Shining Moment | 1999 March Madness
At the other end of the spectrum are the outliers. Steve Fisher was the interim head coach at Michigan when the Wolverines won the 1989 national championship. Kevin Ollie inherited a Calhoun-built team at UConn in 2014 and pulled a major upset to win the title as a No. 7 seed. It was just Ollie’s second season on the job.
The average number of years it has taken these 32 coaches to win their first national championship is 14.9. Teams that have guys who have been head coaches for at least 15 years are more likely to be successful during March Madness.
Elite 8s & Final 4s
In almost every single case, a national championship by one of these 32 coaches has been preceded by a trip to the Elite Eight and/or the Final Four. Only Ollie, Don Haskins, Tubby Smith, Jim Valvano, and Norm Sloan failed to take a team to an Elite Eight or a Final Four prior to winning their first title.
Smith inherited Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team that had been the national runner-up the year prior. Smith went on to take three of his Kentucky teams to the Elite Eight, but that was after his national title team in 1997-98.
Sloan coached for 22 years before taking his 1973-74 team, led by the great David Thompson, to a national final win. Sloan and his N.C. State team beat Marquette, coached by the late Al McGuire who would win his first national championship a few years later in 1977. It took McGuire 13 seasons to get there.
It took Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith 21 years, five Elite Eights, five Final Four appearances, and one Michael Jordan before he won his first March Madness in 1982.
Baylor’s Scott Drew has been at the helm of his program for 18 years. He has taken his Bears teams to two Elite Eights, but hasn’t gotten past the Sweet Sixteen since 2012.
Those looking for longshot bets can take a look at Creighton (+1100) and Iowa (+1000). Creighton’s Doug McDermott has 20 years under his belt and Iowa’s McCaffery has served 24. The problem with both is that neither has taken a team to an Elite Eight.
Taking into account how long it takes for coaches to win their first NCAA title and how guiding a team to at least an Elite Eight serves as a precursor, the longshot bet Coach Rick likes is on Tennessee (+2000).
Rick Barnes has been a head coach for 33 years. He reached the Sweet Sixteen two seasons ago with the Volunteers and took Texas to three Elite Eights and one Final Four. Barnes has a monster recruiting class coming in with a pair of five-star guards in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson and four-star forward Corey Walker.
Barnes will also receive a huge boost is Yves Pons decides to return to school after testing the NBA draft. Pons averaged 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Rick, a Generation X-er, who now lives just north of the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan. A former high school, college, and professional football player, Rick now spends his time as a high school coach and as a personal quarterback trainer. An all-state high school quarterback, he went on to become an Academic All-American at Division II Indiana University of PA. He later coached at his alma mater helping lead the program to the 1990 NCAA Division II national championship game. Rick has also served as a high school head coach and as an assistant in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan.
His passion for sports writing started when he was the sports editor for his high school newspaper and continued when he worked as a sportswriter for the Jamestown (New York) Post-Journal in the early 1990s. A true sports fanatic, Rick enjoys all things Pittsburgh: Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. The Immaculate Reception, the 1979 We Are Family Pirates, and the ’91-’92 Penguins are among his favorites. After working as an educator and athletic director for several years, he again took up sports writing and has contributed to several websites and publications, including Coach & Player magazine, X & O Labs, American Football Monthly, and many others.
When not consumed with coaching, watching, thinking about, or writing about football and other seasonal sports, he finds himself working out like he was still in college and reading everything from military history to Brad Thor novels. Rick has also been chasing rock god stardom as a drummer who has played with bands that have opened for the likes of Fuel, Days of the New, and Alien Ant Farm. He continues to play with his church worship group. Most importantly, Rick is married to the love of his life, Lisa, and has two beautiful daughters.