The Coaches Will Have Big Impact in Final Four Success
Only four coaches have the chance to win a national title in college basketball this year. As always, it is a very interesting collection of talented and accomplished guys. But it isn't the blue-chip group that we have seen in past years. Last year three of the four coaches were highly-accomplished guys who had been to the Final Four before, with two already having titles. Now only one guy has made it this far before. But the stories are compelling despite the lack of Final Four experience. Here's a look at the four guys leading the charge to a national title:
Bruce Pearl, Auburn: After serving as an assistant at Stanford and then Iowa - where he would have played in Minneapolis several times - he got his first head coaching job at Southern Indiana in 1992. In nine seasons there he won almost 84 percent of his games there and claimed a Division II national title and a runner-up finish. That impressive run earned him a bump to Division I at Milwaukee. There, he first came onto the national radar when he took the team to the Sweet 16 in his fourth season. It was a fun run at just the right time, and he parlayed it into the Tennessee job.
Pearl took over from Buzz Peterson, who had gone 14-17 in his fourth and final year. Pearl leapt out of the gate, winning a tournament game in his first year then going to the Sweet 16 the next two. They had a bit of a down year the next year but then went to the Elite Eight - Pearl's best tournament run until now. In what wound up being his last season the next year, Tennessee lost in the first round. Six tournament appearances and eight wins in six years is a pretty good run. But it all crashed to an end in a scandal that seems tame in hindsight. He invited recruit Aaron Craft to a cookout at his home then lied about it and encouraged others to do the same. He found a way to make a small issue into a career-crippling one.
He was out of coaching for three years before returning at Auburn. The first three years were a struggle and a slow climb, but they won a tournament game last year before this run.
Tony Bennett, Virginia: Bennett was a point guard at Green Bay and then with the Charlotte Hornets before ending his career in New Zealand and Australia. He then began coaching in New Zealand. He returned to the U.S. to work under his father Dick, who he had played under at Green Bay. The elder Bennett was at Wisconsin but retired just three games into the 2000-01 season. Tony Bennett served under an interim coach the rest of that season and then under Bo Ryan for two years. Ryan left the Milwaukee job open for Pearl when he came to Wisconsin.
When Dick came out of retirement to take over at Washington State in 2003, Tony moved to work under him again. Bennett was an assistant the first year, the associate coach the next two years, and then took over when Dick again retired. He went to the second round in his first season, and the Sweet 16 in the second year, before falling into the NIT. Washington State was notoriously cheap, though, and limited Bennett's travel for recruiting, so after three years Bennett leapt at the Virginia opportunity.
Bennett took over a team that had gone 10-18, and it took a while to clean up the mess. He made the tournament in his third season. He won his first two tournament games at the school in his fifth year, won another the next year, then made the Elite Eight in 2016. There was another tournament win the next year before he notoriously became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 last year. But running to the Final Four the next year - at least - is a darned good way to wash that bitter taste out of his mouth.
Chris Beard, Texas Tech: Beard is the youngest of these coaches and the least likely perhaps, but there is no doubt that he is an excellent coach. His trip here has been one with no shortage of twists and turns. Beard didn't play but was a student manager for his four years at Texas. Then he was a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian before becoming an assistant at North Texas. He then had two strong one-year stints at community colleges, and that got the attention of Bobby Knight. For a decade he served as an assistant for Knight and then his son Pat, leaving when Pat was fired in 2011. Things got weird again for Beard, as he spent a year coaching the South Carolina Warriors in the ABA, then spent a year at McMurry University and two years at Angelo State. He was very successful in each stop, and finally got back in the mainstream, taking over at Little Rock in 2015. Beard took over a team that was 13-18 the prior year and led them to a 30-5 record and a first-round upset of No. 5 Purdue in the tournament. You don't stick around in a place like Little Rock after a year like that. Beard first took the UNLV job but then jumped to Texas Tech when Tubby Smith went to Memphis. After his decade there, this was obviously his dream job.
The Red Raiders were 19-13 in Smith's last year and 18-14 in Beard's first. But last year they won 27 games and ran to the Elite Eight, and now this. Chances are very good that Beard won't be going on another trip through the obscure coaching backwaters in any hurry.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State: In a group of guys who are making their Final Four debuts, Izzo certainly stands out as the elder statesman.
After playing at Northern Michigan, Izzo spent a year coaching in high school before returning to Northern Michigan as an assistant for four years. He then went to Michigan State in 1983 as an assistant under Jud Heathcote. And aside from a brief two-month stint as an assistant at Tulsa which ended when a Michigan State assistant got a head coaching job in 1986, Izzo has been there ever since. He took over the head coaching job when Heathcote retired in 1995.
The best Izzo did under Heathcote was two Sweet 16 trips. And in his first two years as head coach he had to settle for NIT berths. But then the team really turned a corner. They made the Sweet 16 in 1998. Then the Final Four the next year. They won the national title in 2000, and then made the Final Four for the third straight year in 2001 - which happened in Minneapolis like this year. Since then there hasn't been another title, but there have been four more trips to the Final Four, including one loss in the title game in 2009. They have also made the Elite Eight two more times and the Sweet 16 on three occasions. And, perhaps most impressively, Izzo hasn't missed the tournament for 21 years since those two NIT trips to start his tenure. Izzo, infinitely more than the others here, knows all about what it takes to win this weekend.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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