College basketball coaching trees: Who has the biggest impact on the game?
In 2017, Brad Stevens is one of the best basketball coaches on the planet. Seventeen years ago, he was working summer basketball camps for peanuts.
Back then, Stevens wanted nothing more than to be a head coach. What he needed was an opportunity. In 2000, Thad Matta presented him with one, hiring him as a coordinator of basketball operations at Butler.
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The ultimate prize, in college coaching, is to unearth the hidden gem. Stevens found one in 2008 with Gordon Hayward, a 6-foot-7,180-pound tennis player when he committed to Butler. Stevens shaped Hayward into one of the best players in the nation. It was Hayward's last-second near-miss that almost led Butler to a stunning upset in the 2010 national title game.
A decade earlier, Matta found a star, too. It was Stevens, a marketing associate looking to change professions. Matta's decision to hire Stevens has had a profound effect on both college and professional basketball over the past decade.
Matta isn't the only one who's watching a protégé change the game. Among active college coaches, three stand out for making a substantial impact on the game, not only with their work on the sideline, but by influencing future generations of coaches.
These are the three.
The Matta Tree
It's easy to get caught up in the grind. Early wakeups, grueling practices, meetings, recruiting trips, endless amounts of film. Stress comes with the coaching territory -- so much so, in some cases, that the burden outweighs the joy.
Not with Ohio State's Thad Matta.
"I’ve never seen a head coach enjoy a win in the locker room as much as Thad," Dayton head coach Archie Miller says. "Because coaching can get so crazy and you just want to get to the next game, you can just push a win to the side and get back to preparing. But coming out of that locker room just made me think, 'Man, that guy sure knows how to enjoy a win.'"
Matta is a worker. He loves his craft. It’s impossible to accomplish what he’s accomplished -- 435 wins, five Big Ten regular season titles, two Atlantic 10 regular season crowns and two Final Four berths -- without unrelenting drive. But that constant pushing can take a physical toll. Matta has suffered from serious back problems for years.
"What I’ve been through the last eight years has been very challenging,” Matta told NCAA.com in 2015. “There are things I can’t do as a husband, there are things I can’t do as a father. But they [his children have never left my side. They’ve got to take my shoes and socks off after games because I can’t bend over. They’re always right there to help me, through the good and bad."
The pain makes his on-court achievements all the more special.
In 2003-04, St. Joseph’s was led by future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. The Hawks were 27-0. Matta's Xavier team stood between them and win No. 28.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller, Matta’s top assistant at the time, remembers that season vividly. The Musketeers, a No. 3 seed in the 2003 NCAA tournament, got off to a disappointing 10-9 start. For an up-and-coming program in a world run by bluebloods, it was a disaster in the making.
But ask anyone about Matta and another theme persists: positivity. Xavier won 16 of its next 17 games and handed St. Joseph’s its first lost of the season. It went on to win four A-10 tournament games in four nights -- including a pseudo road clash against archrival Dayton in the conference championship -- to reach the Big Dance.
Matta, true to form, wasn't about to downplay the achievement.
“We had probably the biggest party I can remember as an adult after the game,” Sean Miller says. Miller, who refers to Matta as his best friend in the business, remains tight with his former boss. “That party sort of represented our entire coaching season.”
Matta's enthusiasm has a way of trickling down to every person in a program.
“He unites people,” Sean Miller says. “He gets tremendous buy-in, because you want him to do well. Everyone that contributes towards the success of the program -- the players, the managers, the staff, families of the staff, everyone that’s associated with the university -- he’s very, very sincere and genuine in treating them right.”
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Matta’s understudies share similar traits. Their mannerisms are different. Sean and Archie Miller, for example, don’t look like they were raised in the same coaching family as Brad Stevens. But that optimism, learned from Matta, binds them.
Stevens landed the Butler head coaching job when he was 30 years old and silenced his doubters quickly. Now a rising star in the NBA as coach of the Boston Celtics, he ended his Butler career with a .772 winning percentage, winning 166 games in six seasons.
Stevens was 23, with no coaching experience, when he took a drive with Matta one day.
“He told me two things,” Stevens remembers. “'You just need to do your job well, and you need to think like a head coach every day.'”
That mindset is evident in other Matta assistants. Archie Miller is one of the game’s brightest young coaches, leading Dayton to the NCAA tournament each of the past three years. Sean Miller has reached four Elite Eights and won 75 percent of his games as a head coach.
All of that comes as a result of Matta's coaching philosophy and his unbridled joy in victory.
“My favorite thing about Thad,” Archie Miller says, "is that every single win with him feels like a million dollars."
When you’ve won as much as Matta and these guys have, that's a lot of millions.
The Krzyzewski Tree
Mike Krzyzewski has won five national championships at Duke. He’s made 12 Final Fours. He’s won more than 1,000 games during his career, including 90 NCAA tournament wins.
Coach K is an all-time great who boasts one of the most extensive coaching trees in basketball. When you’ve worked at the same place since 1980, that doesn’t come as a shock.
What might come as a surprise: Apparently, he has a great sense of humor.
Yes. That Coach K.
“I remember when we first started doing the USA team,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins remembers. “And the NBA guys couldn’t believe how funny he was. Because you see the Coach K in games -- the competitive look, the fire and the passion and all those things -- and all of the sudden he’s cracking all of these jokes.”
UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirms it.
“That never shows up on camera,” Dawkins says laughing. “But he’s got an amazing sense of humor.”
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“Every decade or so, there’s a change in the way this game is played,” Dawkins says. “And it’s amazing how seamlessly he’s been able to adjust. Whether it’s the 3-point line, or the shot clock coming down, or the way the game is being reffed, or more emphasis on pick-and-rolls, his ability to adapt sets him apart.”
Ever watch a Duke game and think, ‘Wow, it’s like (Player X) and Coach K are sharing a brain?’ Krzyzewski consciously recruits brainy hard-workers among his burgeoning number of NBA prospects.
K’s tree is different from others in one big way. Most of his guys played and worked under him. It’s a different world, like transitioning from actor to director under the same producer.
“I learned more about what makes him great when I worked with him as an assistant coach than I did as a player,” Collins says. “You don’t get a chance as a player to see the preparation, and what goes in to making him the coach that he is.”
Most of K's pupils chose Duke before it was really Duke. In their minds, they went to play for a good basketball program that had a superb academic track record. They didn’t know it would lead to all of this – a seat on a legend’s coaching bench, which would help them earn their own head jobs.
Tommy Amaker averaged 8.5 points per game during his Duke career. Collins starred as a senior, but averaged 9.1 points a game in his Durham tenure. Steve Wojciechowski scored even less. Quin Snyder was in a similar mold. They’re now the head coaches for Harvard, Northwestern, Marquette and the NBA's Utah Jazz. If they had picked another school, who knows where they’d be today?
“Everything I am right now, everything I’ve accomplished is a direct result of that one decision,” Collins says.
On Krzyzewski's tree, Mike Brey probably has accomplished the most. Brey worked under Coach K between 1987 and 1995, and he’s turned Notre Dame into a perennial contender since taking over in 2000. Many never expected to see the day when the Fighting Irish basketball program was winning more often than the football program. It’s to the point now where it would be foolish to discount Notre Dame, regardless of personnel.
Outside of Brey and Snyder, who may lead the Jazz to the playoffs this season, no "stars" have emerged from Coach K’s tree. But participation points matter, and many of his coaching students are just getting their feet wet. What’s amazing about Krzyzewski’s tree is that it’s still growing. Case in point: A man 40 years his junior -- Krzyzewski is 69 -- is learning the ropes on the Duke bench right now.
Seven years ago, Jon Scheyer won a national championship at Duke as the team’s starting point guard. Now, he works for Krzyzewski as an assistant coach.
Scheyer got the job when he was 26 years old. He knows that’s abnormal.
“Coaching is a very competitive business,” Scheyer says. “And I don’t think it would have been as smooth of a transition from playing to coaching had I not attended Duke.”
Scheyer is regarded as one of the more thoughtful young minds in college basketball. The best advice he ever received from his current boss?
“He told me, ‘Don’t try to be me,’" Scheyer recalls.
Coach K’s influence runs rampant throughout college basketball. His teams win, but rarely do they look the same. In 2010, Duke had Brian Zoubek and two Plumlees in its frontcourt and won the national championship. In 2015, Duke used 6-foot-7 wing Justise Winslow at power forward and cut down the nets.
That ability to change, to get the most from what you have, has helped shape the coaches under him, too.
“He always encouraged me to be the best version of myself,” Scheyer says. “As a player, I did what Coach asked me to do. As an assistant, we’re encouraged to voice our own opinions, follow our instincts, find our own strengths. I’m very fortunate.”
The Pitino Tree
Rick Pitino has been through the coaching wringer. He’s led two marquee NBA franchises -- the New York Knicks and the Celtics -- and two college basketball powerhouses that lie in the same state -- Kentucky and, these days, Louisville.
He wins. A lot. So it's no coincidence that his protégés do, too.
The star of Pitino’s coaching tree is two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. But when Pitino was hired at Providence in 1985 and Donovan was a guard at the end of the bench, you had to squint to see his future.
“I’ll never forget this conversation,” Donovan told the New York Post. “Coach Pitino told me, ‘I can’t promise you playing time. The only thing I can promise you is if you do what I ask you to do, work at the level I ask, this will be the greatest experience of your life.’
“It forced me to look at myself and take personal responsibility and accountability. I don’t know in my first two years -- being 18, 19 years old -- if I had the maturity level for personal accountability. So I really worked.”
The rest of the story is a fairy tale. Providence made the Final Four in 1987, and a few years later Donovan joined Pitino’s Kentucky staff as an assistant. After a brief head coaching stint at Marshall, Donovan accepted the Florida job, winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 behind Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Now, he’s the head coach of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.
“[Pitino] has helped many people along the way,” Santa Clara head coach and longtime Pitino assistant Herb Sendek says. “And many people he’s helped along the way, he’s done so privately.”
Reggie Theus didn’t seem like a guy who would need anyone’s help. He is a two-time NBA All-Star who scored 19,015 points in his career. But when he looked to transition into coaching, he was greeted by blank stares. Except for Pitino.
Theus, now the head coach at Cal State Northridge, was just looking for an opportunity back in 2003. Pitino granted him one.
“It was a gamble for him,” Theus says. “Former NBA players have the stigma of wanting everything to happen right away, not willing to do the grunt work. One of the reasons why Coach hired me is one of the reasons why he was reluctant. And that’s because I had lived -- I had lived a real life.”
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A common story when you ask people about Pitino: Players feel the need to impress him, to show him their best. Many believe that Louisville's players, as talented as they may be, almost always overachieve.
That extends to the coaching staff.
“I was on the treadmill one time,” Theus remembers. “And I wasn’t going after it or anything, just getting a sweat in. And Coach is a big workout guy, and he walks into the cardio room. And I found myself bumping up my number on the treadmill. Because I didn’t want him to see me running at a slow pace. And that’s just the type of effect that he has.”
Pitino’s former assistants are thriving all over the country. Donovan is coaching an NBA MVP candidate in Russell Westbrook. Mick Cronin has Cincinnati ranked in the top 15. Kevin Willard has Seton Hall going in the right direction. Pitino’s son, Richard, guided Minnesota to a 15-2 start before a recent tumble. Kevin Keatts has pushed UNC Wilmington to a 20-3 record.
None of these guys is a clone of his former boss. But they all share his mindset: When toughness and love meet, it’s a beautiful thing.
“It was my last game at Louisville, and we were getting ready to take off on the plane,” Theus recalls. “And Coach Pitino clenches his fist, and he goes, ‘You have to learn how to rule your program with an iron fist.’
"'But you also have to learn how to hug. Always remember to hug, Reggie.’"
Basketball is forever evolving. Thirty years from now, the game won't look the same. Watch a contest from the 1980s now, and it’s almost a different sport.
The best coaches embrace that mindset. They learned such a way of thinking from their mentors, and pass it down to their understudies. There are influential coaching trees aside from Matta, Krzyzewski and Pitino – heck, Pitino himself is a member of Jim Boeheim’s tree. Bill Self’s is growing, and it almost comes as a surprise if a coach didn’t work for Larry Brown at some point.
By and large, these minds are responsible for how the sport will look decades from now. We don’t know who the coaching stars of the future will be -- yet.
But chances are, they’ll be influenced by a man who’s cutting down the nets in Glendale this April. The one in the suit.