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Column: Are most college basketball powers just cults of personality?

Yes, with few exceptions. 

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Ohio State vs Villanova Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What are the most coveted jobs in all of sports? There’s a laundry list of historic FBS programs, a subset of well-managed NFL teams and some NBA franchises (think the Lakers, Celtics, etc).

However, despite there being 358 men’s basketball teams in Division I, the subset thereof that could qualify as being a coveted position for a head coach is surprisingly low. Would Villanova’s head coaching role, for instance, be highly touted if Jay Wright wasn’t filling it? Or Gonzaga sans Mark Few?

Admittedly, there are some roles that will always be highly valued that have very little to do with the program’s history and much more to do with athletic department funding and general stability. Funding, facilities and university brand play a role across programs in a given athletic department, and men’s hoops is no exception. Many of Ohio State’s athletic programs could fall in this category.

For the average program, though, success seems to be predicated more at the coaching level than at the program level.

The exceptions thereof, naturally, become dynasties, and a place in the top tier of the sport. When it comes to this program history, though, what makes a dynasty, and what makes that dynasty lead to a coveted head coaching job? By definition, there must be a succession for a dynasty to exist. Looking at the hottest coaching shift of this season as an example, it’s not enough that Coach K built Duke into a national power over an extended timeframe, since Duke basketball without Coach K has never won a national title.

College hoops is a different game than football in that coaches, like Mike Krzyzewski, stick around seemingly forever. Now seems like a good time to remind everyone that Jim Boeheim has been coaching Syracuse since 1976. As a result, the establishment of a technical dynasty becomes nearly impossible.

There are four obvious exceptions to this rule:

  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • North Carolina
  • UCLA

What differentiates these programs from the remainder of the 350+ in men’s college hoops is that success moves from coach to coach, and hasn’t been isolated to a single coach’s tenure.

At Kansas, three different head coaches have won the NCAA Tournament. Every KU coach in the NCAA Tournament era made at least one Final Four. In all, the Jayhawks have a program win percentage close to 73%. There’s also the tiny detail that the Jayhawks’ first coach, Dr. James Naismith, is widely considered the inventor of the game of basketball.

Then there’s Kentucky, which is approaching a 76% win percentage all-time — the best in Division I. Kentucky leads all schools in NCAA Tournament appearances, having made the Big Dance 59 times in program history. Even more remarkable, of those appearances, the Wildcats have made the Sweet Sixteen 45 times and they’ve won eight championships. In all, five different Kentucky coaches have won national titles, though, interestingly, just one (Adolph Rupp) has won multiple championships in Lexington.

North Carolina, meanwhile, has a nearly 74% winning percentage all-time. The lineage of coaches like Dean Smith and Roy Williams led the Tar Heels to six NCAA Tournament titles and five runner-up appearances. Further, the Tar Heels have more Final Four appearances than anyone with 20 in their history.

Finally there’s UCLA which, arguably, is fading out of the prominence it once enjoyed. While John Wooden is the greatest men’s basketball coach of all time, the Bruins won a single NCAA Tournament without him at the helm. Moreover, UCLA has fallen to sixth all-time in program win percentage at 69%. Of course, UCLA has made seven Final Fours since Wooden retired, which is a resume bullet most other programs would salivate over.

It’s possible that we’re witnessing history with the transition of Duke to a new era. Prestige takes on a different name when it’s associated with a dynasty. No one would ever say Duke basketball has been a flash in the pan, but it remains to be seen if the legacy Coach K started in his multi-decade career with the Blue Devils will continue under new leadership.

One of the reasons this stratification is interesting is because of how much parity there is in college basketball. While the elites have won roughly 100% of College Football Playoffs, they win a smaller percentage of basketball championships. In other words, in a given year, the winner of the College Football Playoff is almost guaranteed to be one of, say, six teams, whereas in college basketball, it could be anyone. Moreover, there are other measures of program success that do not end in national titles (Final Fours, Sweet Sixteens, NCAA Tournament appearances).

Let’s look at one such measure of success that just happens to favor Ohio State and its bid at dynasty status: When it comes to Final Four appearances, just five programs — all of them mentioned above — have more bids than Ohio State. In fact, the Buckeyes, along with Michigan State, have 10 apiece, which places them ahead of teams like Indiana (often considered the cream of the Big Ten crop), Michigan, Syracuse and Villanova.

Moreover, as per the above, the Buckeyes managed to match their success across multiple coaching tenures with Harold Olsen, Fred Taylor, Jim O’Brien and Thad Matta all making Final Four appearances, though O’Brien’s was vacated. With the exception of O’Brien, in fact, the coaches all made multiple appearances. Further, the latter three coaches held down the fort in Columbus from 1958-2017 — not bad in the way of longevity for head coaches.

It would be unreasonable to sit here and call Ohio State an elite program a la Kansas or Kentucky, but when it comes to stratifying the 358 teams in men’s Division I hoops, it’s helpful to recognize that the Buckeyes are much closer to a top-10 squad than anything else — and that the head coaching role might be elite for reasons other than the Buckeyes’ giant athletic department budget.

How could the Buckeyes solidify this status? Ohio State just needs to start winning championships. Easier said than done.