College Sports

Hall of Fame basketball coaches raise competition level, standard in ACC

Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (top left), UNC’s Roy Williams, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (bottom left), and Louisville’s Rick Pitino didn’t get to be college basketball’s winningest active coaches by calmly watching the games take place.
Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (top left), UNC’s Roy Williams, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (bottom left), and Louisville’s Rick Pitino didn’t get to be college basketball’s winningest active coaches by calmly watching the games take place. AP, Robert Willett, Chuck Liddy, AP

It doesn’t happen this season but maybe it will the next, or the one after that. At some point, based simply on luck of the draw – or misfortune of the draw – an ACC head coach might have to prepare for a four-game stretch against the league’s four Hall of Fame coaches.

Danny Manning, the first-year coach at Wake Forest, will come the closest this season to walking the plank, or through the gauntlet, or however one might describe the task of preparing for consecutive games against Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Lousiville’s Rick Pitino.

Manning knew this kind of thing was coming when he signed on for the job.

“The ACC is the premier basketball league in the country,” he said last week at the ACC’s annual preseason media day. “Everybody knows that. That’s no secret.”

The schedule was, though, when Manning was hired. Then it came out, revealing what has to be among the most brutal five-game stretches any team faces this season.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 21, Manning will coach against all four of the league’s Hall of Famers. The Demon Deacons will play Louisville and Duke first and then, after a reprieve of sorts against Georgia Tech, are back-to-back games against Syracuse and North Carolina.

Just an ordinary two-week stretch in the ACC, which is home to the most decorated collection of coaches in college basketball history. John Swofford, the ACC Commissioner, spent no shortage of time talking about that last week during a state-of-the-league address that lasted more than 20 minutes.

He highlighted all the numbers and upcoming milestones – Krzyzewski needs 17 victories to become the first men’s college basketball coach to win 1,000 games; Boeheim needs two to reach 950. Pitino needs five victories to join Krzyzewski, Williams and Boeheim in the 700-win club.

Together, they rank No. 1 through No. 4 among active coaches in wins, but Swofford didn’t stop with the Hall of Famers.

“Collectively our 15 head coaches enter this season with 6,427 wins, nine national titles, 302 NCAA tournament victories, 80 Sweet 16 appearances, 30 trips to the Final Four, and 18 national title game appearances,” Swofford said, sounding boastful.

And oh, yes. He continued: “I also want to congratulate Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim for leading Team USA to the world championships this past summer.”

This is the first time in college basketball history that any one conference will be home to four Hall of Fame coaches.

Coaching acumen is hardly new in the ACC. It’s a league that has been built, since its inception, on the brilliance of its basketball minds. There were Everett Case and Frank McGuire in its earliest years. Dean Smith, for decades. Krzyzewski, starting in 1980.

The 1980s was college basketball’s golden age and perhaps no league boasted the coaching depth that the ACC did then: Smith, Kryzewski, N.C. State’s Jim Valvano, Maryland’s Lefty Driesell, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins.

Now a television analyst, Cremins sat in the audience last week at the ACC’s Operation Basketball and his presence there reminded Krzyzewski of what the league used to be like.

“We were in the league in the ’80s when it was the best, and there was a brotherhood in the league, and it was really genuine,” Krzyzewski said, referencing Cremins and Dave Odom, the former Wake Forest coach. “That spirit and that camaraderie and that excellence has only been enhanced as the league continues. We’re now at a time where it has a chance to really go back to the level, really being the best, because it was the best in the ’80s.

“It’s been one of the best since then, but there’s a chance to be the best.”

Three of the conference’s four Hall of Famers – Krzyzewski, Williams and Pitino – enter the season with teams ranked among the top 10 and the expectation, as always, of competing for a national championship. Syracuse, meanwhile, spent a large portion of last season ranked No. 1 and again enters the season ranked among the top 25.

Combined, the four coaches have dominated the sport over the years. Kryzewski, with 983 victories, has won more games than anybody. Boeheim, with 948 victories, is second. Williams, meanwhile, has won 79.2 percent of his games – the best winning percentage for an active coach with at least 20 years’ experience.

Krzyzewski could win his 1,000th game as soon as mid-January. By then, Louisville is likely to have long delivered Pitino the five victories he needs to cross the 700-win mark. When he does, the ACC will become the first league in college basketball history with four coaches with at least 700 victories.

The four Hall of Famers account for all 15 of the national championships that current ACC coaches have combined to win, but the league isn’t exactly top heavy. There’s depth.

Miami’s Jim Larranaga reached the Final Four in 2006 with George Mason and he guided Miami to the ACC tournament championship in 2013. Leonard Hamilton led Florida State to the ACC title the year before, in 2012, and Tony Bennett did the same at Virginia a season ago.

“It’s exciting from a player standpoint and from a coaching standpoint to have to match those wits with some of the best college basketball coaches,” Hamilton said last week. “... So it’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s tremendously challenging, but it’s tough.

“That’s why I say sometimes only the strong survive, but I think it’s motivating, and that’s why kids come to the ACC, to play in that type of environment.”

Hamilton, this season, received something of a scheduling break. Florida State and Miami are the only schools in the conference – outside of Duke, Louisville, UNC and Syracuse – that don’t play consecutive games at some point against the quartet of Hall of Famers.

Two schools – Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech – have four-game stretches in which they play three of the four Hall of Famers. For the Hokies, that stretch begins on Jan. 3 against Syracuse and continues 10 days later at Louisville and then at UNC.

So during that time, Virginia Tech will prepare for Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and then for Pitino’s press and then for the up-and-down, fast-paced style that Williams likes to employ. Just another couple of weeks in the ACC, which welcomed Syracuse last year and Louisville this past summer.

Pitino attended his first ACC media day last week and, at various points, crossed paths with Boeheim and Kryzewski and all the rest. He made a point to emphasize the rest, too.

“There’s no better than Mike and Roy and Jim Boeheim, and for some of you who don’t know (Virginia Tech coach) Buzz (Williams), I’ve coached against him at Marquette,” Pitino said. “He’s one (heck) of a young basketball coach. He’s terrific.

“I’m looking forward to coaching against Tony Bennett, who watching on television, is as good as it gets.”

He was talking about Bennett, the league’s reigning coach of the year, but Pitino could have been describing any number of his new rivals.