Friday, October 24, 2003

Rating the ACC Coaches

Originally posted on "TerpTown" on the network and syndicated to Yahoo

Here ye, hear ye. Court is in session, and it’s time to rule on the head basketball coaches in the ACC, ranking them from bottom to top.

I first want to say that this is an outstanding group of coaches. There is no one in the conference that I look at and say, “He needs to go.” Every head coach in the ACC has achieved some level of success with a major program and taken at least one school to the NCAA tournament.

I dare say this is the highest quality of coaching the conference has seen since the mid ‘80’s. Back then, Dean Smith, Bobby Cremins, Lefty Driesell, Jim Valvano, Terry Holland, and a young Coach K roamed the ACC sidelines.

On with the rankings:
#9-Pete Gillen, Virginia—The fact that Gillen, one of the most entertaining personalities in the ACC, falls here emphasizes my point about the quality of coaching in the conference. Gillen built the Xavier program in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s, winning 20 games there seven times and mentoring future head coach Skip Prosser. He also led Providence on a surprising run to the Elite Eight in 1997.

Gillen took over a dormant Virginia program in 1998 and led them to a 20-win season and a return to the NCAA tournament in 2000-01. It has been a bumpy road for him in Charlottesville since then, however. Over the last two seasons, the Cavaliers have lost 28 games and missed the NCAA’s both years. He has had discipline problems with players, resulting in the departure of Jermaine Harper and Keith Jennifer last year. He has already lost Jason Clark (not Devin Smith as I erroneously reported in my last column) for the fall semester.

Gillen still has several years left on his contract, but is facing growing discontent of restless fans and alumni along with the need to gear the program up to fill a new 15,000 seat arena in 2006. He’s not on the hot seat yet, but it is starting to warm up.

#8-Oliver Purnell, Clemson—Purnell comes to Clemson after a successful 15-year head coaching career during which he has rebuilt three basketball programs. Most recently, he took Dayton from a 20-loss season to four straight years of 20 wins, an Atlantic 10 championship, and two NCAA appearances. Purnell has also enjoyed success as a coach with several USA national teams in international competition. He will be an assistant for Larry Brown at the 2004 Olympics.

Purnell is not in the Atlantic 10 anymore; he is playing with the big boys. I rate him this low only because he is not familiar with the ACC and has never been a head coach in one of the power conferences. He takes over a Clemson team that clearly has the least talent in the league, and it will take him some time to build his roster to a level where he can compete in the ACC. He was an outstanding hire for the Tigers, and you can be sure his teams will be organized, disciplined, and play very hard every night.

#7-Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech—Hewitt is a young, polished, sincere man who has brought life back into a stagnant Yellow Jacket program. He was the ACC Coach of the Year in 2001 after leading Tech into the NCAA tournament in his first season.

Hewitt has had strong recruiting success, landing blue chippers like Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack. Bosh and the less heralded Ed Nelson won the last two ACC Rookie of the Year awards, but unfortunately for Hewitt, neither will be on campus this year. Bosh is with the NBA Toronto Raptors, Nelson transferred to Connecticut. He is left with a small team that will play the up-tempo game he enjoyed success with at Siena College.

I rank Hewitt this low because, after three seasons, he has yet to post a winning record in ACC competition (8-8, 7-9, 7-9). The jury is still out on his long-term success in Atlanta, but a coach of his ability usually finds a way to win.

#6-Herb Sendek, NC State—I was one of the many that thought Sendek’s job was on the line two seasons ago, when the Wolfpack broke through with a 23-11 record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Sendek has reached the ACC tournament finals three times, the only active coach besides Coack K to do so.

Sendek and assistant coach Larry Hunter have successfully implemented their version of the “Princeton offense.” This is essentially a motion offense that does not feature a strong low-post presence and emphasizes good outside shooting. He has put together a team well suited for this style.

It appears to me that much of Sendek’s recent success has been built around two recruiting classes that, if Julius Hodge turns pro this summer, will be gone after the season. His roster does not appear deep enough to sustain those losses, and I can easily see a return to the NIT for the Pack in 2004-05. That would probably have the moving vans circling Sendek’s home again. For this year, however, he can still ride Hodge and the momentum of two straight NCAA appearances.

#5-Leonard Hamilton, Florida State—As I mentioned in my last column, I think Hamilton is doing an amazing job of rebuilding the Seminole basketball program. Last year, in his first season at Tallahassee, he did not see improvement in the won-loss column, but he did successfully implement his tough, defensive style and began developing a winning attitude. He is quickly bringing in talented players that give Florida State a shot at cracking the top four in the conference.

His early recruiting success here is no fluke. He proved he could lure quality players to a Miami program that did not have nearly as much going for it as Florida State. The sparkling new practice facility in Tallahassee, along with renovations at Leon County Civic Center, have been good selling points, but the best thing Hamilton can sell is himself. So far, he has found plenty of buyers.

#4-Skip Prosser, Wake Forest—Prosser is another coach that put life back into a stagnant program. The most important news for the Demon Deacons this summer was the fact that Prosser turned down a tempting offer from Pittsburgh and committed to Wake for the long-term.

Prosser has seamlessly blended players recruited by former coach Dave Odom and his new recruits, a task that has tripped up many fine coaches. As he continues to bring in strong recruiting classes geared more toward the faster pace he likes his teams to play, the foundation for success grows even stronger for the Deacons.

Prosser is an engaging, eloquent man who has energized the fan base in Winston-Salem. He should have Wake competing for the ACC championship well into the foreseeable future.

#3-Roy Williams, North Carolina—I know, I know; how can I have the man with the highest winning percentage among active coaches ranked third! My primary reason is the fact that he has been in Kansas for the past 15 years. I know he kept up with the Tar Heels, but that’s a lot different than coaching them and scouting their opponents. It will take ‘ol Roy some time to relearn the ACC. The fact that he spent time coaching the USA National Team this summer didn’t help.

Williams is an outstanding coach, one of the best in the nation. DUH! (Not DOH!) He still has to learn about and develop relationships with his players and learn about his conference opponents. For this ranking, at this time, that is a significant disadvantage, but one that he will quickly overcome and return “The Carolina Way” to Chapel Hill.

#2-Gary Williams, Maryland—Just as Roy’s status as a newcomer hurts him in this ranking, Gary’s 15 year tenure at Maryland is a huge advantage. With a National Championship banner and a new arena to hang it from, Williams has built a rock-solid base for the Terrapin basketball program. Ten straight NCAA appearances speak to its consistency, two Final Four’s in the last three years speak to its excellence.

Williams has grown by leaps and bounds as a coach during his time at Maryland. He has improved his recruiting and established a strong track record in developing players, two areas his critics pointed to as serious deficiencies a few years ago. By the time they wrap up their careers, both Williams’ will merit strong consideration for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

#1-Coach K—I could spend all day reciting his accomplishments, but the ones that jump out are: 3 national championships, 9 Final Fours, 8 ACC championships, a 60-16 record in the NCAA tournament, a 590-175 record in 23 seasons at Duke.He is already in the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. He continues to recruit blue-chippers, play difficult schedules, and he has never been tagged with an NCAA violation in the process. Coach K (I have a policy of not typing his last name, it keeps locking up my computer) is simply the most successful basketball coach in the nation.

Question for the Jury—Do you think I was wrong in my ranking of your favorite (or least favorite) coach? Let me know at

In my last question, I asked how fans felt about the changing geography of the ACC. Most of the responses I received viewed the conference as more mid-atlantic than southern and weren’t all that upset about the northward expansion to include Boston College.

CourtMaster Briefs
Earlier this week, Duke President Nan Keohane introduced “Professor K”, part of the university’s new Fuqua/Coach K Center of Leadership and Ethics. Now wait just a cotton pickin’ minute here. What’s next for K, Sainthood? Was he afraid he would get second billing to Mother Theresa when she was beatified this week?

Here are some issues I hope he discusses during his first ethics lecture:

o Receiving large sums of money from an athletic apparel manufacturer for outfitting his players in the company’s gear
o Using abusive profanity in addressing players and coaches
o Allowing his players to taunt opponents
o Intimidation of referees during games

Most coaches of major college basketball programs (including Coach K) do these things. Coach K, however, is the only one who is considered such a paragon of virtue that his name is attached to a Center of Ethics. Hearing him justify these practices, plus finally answering questions about issues colored in a shade of gray (Corey Maggette, Pete Gaudet, for example) would be one college lecture that would keep me awake. It is one no one is likely to ever hear.

Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at In my next column, I’ll identify my choices for each team’s Most Indispensable Player. Until then, court is adjourned.


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