The Final Four often brings at least one young head coach to the big stage for the first time. Some recent examples include Brad Stevens, who brought Butler to a surprising appearance in the title game in 2010 at the age of 33.
Shaka Smart, also 33, led Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) to the Final Four in 2011. In 2000, Billy Donovan, then only 34, took the Florida Gators to the championship game.
This year, all four coaches are seasoned veterans. Three of them have been at their current schools for more than a decade. The exception is Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, who is completing his fifth year at Oklahoma.
They’re bright young coaches who have early success learned the ropes while an assistant somewhere. Smart, for instance, spent the 2009 season in Gainesville learning under Donovan before accepting the VCU position. Donovan was an assistant at Kentucky under Rick Pitino from 1989-94.
Who gave this year’s coaches a chance to learn the game wearing a tie instead of a jersey? Who taught them how to prepare game plans and how to adjust to the ups and downs of the game?
Roy Williams of North Carolina had the opportunity to learn from the master. From 1978-88 he sat on the Tar Heel bench with the legendary Dean Smith.
“He was a mentor to so many people; he was my mentor,” Williams said after Smith’s death in 2015. “He gave me a chance, but more importantly, he shared with me his knowledge, which is the greatest gift you can give someone.”
During his 10 years under Smith, North Carolina won 275 games, including the NCAA Championship in 1982. Williams spent 15 successful seasons at Kansas before taking over in Chapel Hill following the 2003 season. He has won two championships.
Williams will square off against Syracuse and Coach Jim Boeheim in Saturday’s second game. Throughout his career, Boeheim has been nowhere else but Syracuse.
He played for Coach Roy Danforth in the mid-’60s and then joined his coaching staff in 1969. In 1975, the Orange won their regional and made it to the school’s first-ever Final Four.
Saturday will mark Boeheim’s sixth trip to the national semi-finals. His one championship came in 2003 when Syracuse defeated the Kansas Jayhawks coached by Williams.
Villanova’s Jay Wright learned under one the game’s most colorful coaches. He joined the staff of Rollie Massimino at Villanova in 1987 and remained until 1992, when he joined his mentor in the latter’s new role as Head Coach at Nevada-Las Vegas.
The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament during three of Wright’s five years, including the Elite 8 in 1988. Wright learned basketball from Massimino, but the teacher could learn from the student when it comes to wardrobe. Wright is regarded as among the best-dressed coaches in the profession.
Kruger played for Kansas State Coach Jack Hartman in the early 1970s, where he was the Big 8 Player of the Year in 1973. In 1977 he returned to his alma mater as Hartman’s assistant, where he would remain until 1982.
During that span, the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament three times, highlighted by a trip to the Elite 8 in 1981. He succeeded Hartman upon the latter’s retirement in 1986.
In Kruger’s four years in Manhattan, his teams made the NCAA Tournament every year, including the Elite 8 in 1988. He took the Florida Gators to their first Final Four in 1994.
Wright’s Villanova team will face Kruger’s Oklahoma squad in Saturday’s first game.
Some of the assistant coaches working for these coaching legends now may bring their own team to the Final Four in future years. If so, they will likely credit their success to what they learned under the tutelage of these four great coaches.
Boeheim is the second-most-winning coach in history with 989 wins. Williams is ninth with 782, while Kruger has 590 and Wright has 474.