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Mike Lopresti | | November 10, 2023

A toast to the Champions Club: College basketball's finest coaching generation enters twilight years

Watch Coach K give his March Madness commencement speech

One by one, the champions of the past leave us. Bob Knight this month, Denny Crum in May, Joe B. Hall last year, John Thompson and Lute Olson in 2020, Dean Smith, Jud Heathcote, Jerry Tarkanian and Rollie Massimino within the past decade.

How to honor the passing of such legends? By toasting the most senior members of the very exclusive club; men who appreciate getting up every morning. The living national championship coaches. The old top-10. Or is it the top old-10? Either way . . . 

Jim Harrick, UCLA 1995

He’s 85 now and has endured his share of personal setbacks and heartache but life is still to be lived for Jim Harrick. “I’m on my way to USC-Bakersfield right now. I saw San Diego and Jackson State last night,” he said over the phone this week. The chance to follow former assistants and friends lure him to the gyms from his home just a few minutes up the road from the Rose Bowl. He also plays golf during the day and just returned from a cruise to Panama. There is also another reason he still follows the game. “Our granddaughter just signed with Utah as a top-100 player in the country. She rejuvenated my life in basketball.”

It did not end well for him at UCLA, or later Georgia because of some NCAA penalties. But he remains the answer to a question for your next trivia night: Who’s the only coach to win a national championship at UCLA not named John Wooden? He took the Bruins, Rhode Island and Georgia all to the NCAA tournament but UCLA's 1995 weekend in Seattle is most precious to him.

“There was probably eight or nine minutes to go (in the championship game win over Arkansas) and Ed O’Bannon gets an offensive rebound basket and five guys come to the foul line and hug each other. I’ve got a picture of that and to me there’s a culmination of everything you work for and coach for. Nobody knows about it but it’s one of those moments I’ll always cherish.“

“A few years ago on our 25th year anniversary we had a Zoom call with 18 guys on it. Guys were in Japan and Europe and Thailand and Seattle. It was one of the highlight evenings of my life. The bonding you have when you do something like that is very, very special.

“Everything’s not perfect, the road isn’t smooth, there are bumps in the road. But if you look at the journey over all the years. I’ve very content and happy with my life.”

But time has also taken its toll. He lost his first wife in 2009 and his son Jim Jr. to brain cancer in April. “That’s really hard to get over,” he said. “I was married to my wife 49 years and she got sick and passed away. But the Lord works in mysterious ways and He put a lady in my path that ironically had lost her husband to a glioblastoma brain tumor, the same thing that got my son. We’ll be married 12 years in January. I never had a complaint. A guy like me, short fat and ugly and get two spectacular women, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Larry Brown, Kansas 1988

He’s No. 2 in age on this list at 83, but Brown’s championship ring is the oldest of this bunch, his Jayhawks’ title coming 35 years ago. Bill Self, the man in the Kansas coaching chair now, was a young Oklahoma State assistant back then.

Sixteen years after the Kansas title, Brown was with the Detroit Pistons and pulled off something no other head coach has ever accomplished – winning both an NCAA and NBA championship. He will also be forever known for his vagabond ways, coaching 13 different NBA or college teams. As late as 2021-22, he was still active in X’ing and O’ing as an assistant for the Memphis Tigers. There’s one item often forgotten on the Brown resume. The general assumption has been that UCLA struggled for years post-Wooden. But in 1980, only five seasons after Wooden retired, Brown had the Bruins in the national championship, losing to Louisville.

Nolan Richardson, Arkansas 1994

Born three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the 81-year-old Richardson is renowned for the Razorbacks’ 40 Minutes of Hell, the foot-to-the-floor attacking style that hyped turnover totals, caused scoreboards to smoke and carried Arkansas to one national title and nearly another. He became the second Black national championship head coach, following John Thompson. Before that, he won the NIT title at Tulsa.

His time at Arkansas ended in a messy divorce in 2002 and he never coached in college again. But apparently some reconciliation was made; the Razorbacks now play on Nolan Richardson Court.

Jim Calhoun, Connecticut 1999, 2004, 2011

Four months younger than Richardson, Calhoun was part of the 1-2 coaching punch in Storrs who turned Connecticut into a basketball blueblood. He for the men, Geno Auriemma for the women. They won their first championships only four years apart and just kept on stacking them.

Calhoun retired in 2012 having survived prostate cancer and endured spinal stenosis, but he had a brief career postscript in 2018-21 as the first coach for Division III Saint Joseph. And he was a go-to motivational speaker last year for Dan Hurley as UConn plowed toward another title. When the Huskies were the last team standing in 2011, Calhoun was a month from turning 69, and that made him the oldest man to win a national championship. He still is.

Jim Boeheim, Syracuse 2003

His first win as Syracuse head coach was 19776-77 and his last was 47 years later. By then, his blood must have been orange. He retired last spring at the age of 78 with 1,015 wins — or 1,116 if you count those the NCAA vacated. Either number puts him No. 2 on the all-time Division I men's victory honor roll behind Mike Krzyzewski.

He’s a basketball lifer at Syracuse — the only coach on this list with a career attached to just one school — and has been on campus nearly without interruption since 1963. That’s a lot of western New York lake-effect snowstorms.

Gary Williams, Maryland, 2002

Boeheim beat Williams into the world by only five months, but while Boeheim is newly retired, Williams has been out for 12 years, moving into athletics administration at Maryland in 2011. He’s still there. When the Terps won in 2002, he became the first coach in 28 years to lead his alma mater to the championship.

It was also the ultimate act of atonement. The year before Maryland had blown a 22-point lead against Duke in the Final Four.

Steve Fisher, Michigan 1989

The spring of 1989 in Ann Arbor is well-known legend. Fisher was breaking down films and studying stat sheets and other things assistants do, until athletic director Bo Schembechler found out his head guy — Bill Frieder — was going to Arizona State after the season. Schembechler was not happy. He sacked Frieder on the eve of the NCAA tournament and put Fisher in the captain’s chair.

Three weeks later, the Wolverines were national champions and Fisher was a folk hero. Soon after came more Michigan March runs with the Fab Five, and later Fisher would light a fire under the San Diego State program before retiring in 2017. He’s 78 now, and a mission later in life has been as a spokesman for research into ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His son Mark has fought ALS since 2011.

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015

He won a national championship at 68 and coached Duke to the Final Four at the age of 75. Then he said he was finished, with 1,202 wins and five titles and 13 trips to the Final Four; numbers that put him in a league of his own, save for maybe John Wooden. Also, there were all those gold medals for Team USA.

Now he’s 76, the quintessential elder statesman of basketball. 

Roy Williams, North Carolina 2005, 2009, 2017

By March of 2021, Williams detected he had maybe lost a step and was too proud a man to let that go on. So he called it a career after three title championships at his alma mater. That was one more than his mentor, Dean Smith.

The man always loved golf almost as much as he did beating Duke. Now 73, he remains in pursuit of the downhill putts that roll in. There is also family. He had a cancer scare in 2012 when a tumor was removed from his kidney but it turned out benign. He said the biggest fear going through his mind while he waited for the test results was how his grandkids might not ever get to know him. Now they do. 

Tubby Smith, Kentucky 1998.

He's retired at 72, and it's hard to decide what the most eye-popping line is on Smith’s resume. Could be winning the 1998 title at Kentucky. That gives a coach, oh, maybe 30 minutes of applause and grace from Big Blue Nation, and then they want to know what’s next. Or it could be his name on the short list of only four men to take five different schools to the NCAA tournament.

Or maybe this: He was the sixth of 17 kids born to sharecroppers in Maryland and liked his time in the bath washtub so much he was consigned to live life as Tubby.

None of the 10 coaches on this list are still active, but No. 11 certainly is. Rick Pitino, at 71, has signed up for a new challenge at St. John’s and if he can get the Red Storm to the tournament, that will give him six different programs to earn a bid. Nobody has ever done that.

But as far as the 10 men ahead of him in the Living Champions Club, they all hope it stays that way for a while. Harrick, the oldest of them all, spoke for the group.

“I tell my wife, I’m walking up the 18th fairway and I can see the clubhouse. But I hope it’s a long par-5.”

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