10 coaches who could really play, too

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
3:34
PM ET
Pardon my saying, but it is the opinion of this blog that you should immediately go read Jason King's distinctly fun collection of pixels ready for your retinas on something called ESPN.com today. Jason looks at college coaches who, despite all their successes leading incredibly talented players, were in fact not very talented players themselves. Some hardly played in high school; some didn't even get that far. Yet they have succeeded in the sport all the same.

This is a uniquely fun concept because most of us -- and by "most of us" I mean "pretty much every dude you played intramural basketball with in college"* -- like to think we can coach. Coaching does not require innate physical gifts we can never possess. It does not require leaping ability or soft touch. It does not require years of youthful physical tweaks to your jumper's mechanics; it is not reliant on your parents' willingness to pay for expensive basketball camps.

It requires knowledge and feel, management skills and a poker face, X's and O's studies and a deft personal touch, the kind of relatable and universal traits you can learn and pass along, the kinds of things that can sell books about corporate management.

(*Remember those guys? My favorites were the guys who coached their frat-house B-squads. They gave their teams five sideline out-of-bounds plays, three junk zones and an emphasis on motion offense ... none of which their hungover players could ever remember. I recall one opponent showing up in a tie, and he was NOT being ironic. Hey, mini-Izzo, it's intramurals. Step away from the clipboard.)

As adults, we can't imagine ourselves as players. But we can, and do, imagine ourselves as coaches. Knowing some of the most successful coaches in the business weren't necessarily great players only strengthens this merry illusion.

That said, it's not like having "being good at basketball" on a résumé ever hurt a young coach's chances of getting in the game, especially early in his career when contacts, guile and experience are all a young coach really has to offer. Naturally, there are plenty of high-level college hoops coaches who were excellent players in their heydays. In fact, according to College Hoopedia, there are 62 active Division I head coaches who were named to at least one all-conference selection as players in a Division I league.

As a complement to Jason's story, then, here's a list of some of the best former players-turned-coaches in college hoops today. In no particular order:

[+] EnlargeSteve Alford
AP Photo\Fred JewellSteve Alford was the first Indiana player to be named team MVP four seasons in a row.
Steve Alford (coach: New Mexico; player: Indiana): One of my favorite parts of last year's ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "Winning Time" came when director Dan Klores found old footage from the 1987 NBA draft, when the Indiana Pacers passed on Steve Alford to draft future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller instead. The reaction from Indiana residents at the time was, shall we say, less than pleased.

But can you blame them? Not only was Alford a native son of New Castle, Ind., a representative of the state's "Hoosiers"-inflected basketball culture, but he also happened to be a massively successful college player. Alford was the first Indiana player to be named team MVP four seasons in a row, was named to three All-Big Ten teams, became the school's all-time leading scorer (before Calbert Cheaney later broke the record) and, in 1987, won the school its fifth national title, shooting 7-of-10 from 3 and scoring 23 points in IU's last-second win against Syracuse. Also, the ladies really loved his hair.

Danny Manning (coach: Tulsa; player: Kansas): The newly appointed head coach at Tulsa will always have a long way to go to live up to his playing days, when he became one of the greatest players in the storied program's history. The list of honors is almost stunning. Manning left KU as its all-time leading scorer and rebounder. He was named to two All-America teams. In 1988, he won the Wooden and Naismith player of the year awards, was the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, was named the Big Eight Player of the Decade, and led underdog Kansas to the 1988 national title with 31 points, 18 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 blocks in the national title game against Oklahoma. Knee injuries cut what could have been a stellar pro career short, and it will be interesting to see how Manning translates his once otherworldy college abilities into improvement for the Golden Hurricane.

Johnny Dawkins (coach: Stanford; player: Duke): Mike Krzyzewski's coaching tree has its fair share of branches, but none so decorated in terms of players as Dawkins. The D.C.-area native was Coach K's first true star player in the mid-1980s, when, in his senior season in 1985-86, Dawkins led the Blue Devils to a 37-3 record and a national runner-up finish. He won the Naismith Player of the Year award that season, and finished his career as Duke's all-time leading scorer, a mark that stood until J.J. Redick came along 20 years later.

Billy Donovan (coach: Florida; player: Providence): When Donovan met former coach Rick Pitino in the West Region final of this year's NCAA tournament, it marked a reunion a quarter-century in the making. Pitino took over as a young coach at Providence in 1985, when Donovan was an out-of-shape reserve who wanted to transfer but couldn't find a taker. After shedding some weight and adapting to Pitino's 3-point-heavy up-tempo system, Donovan went on to average 15.1 points as a junior and 20.6 as a senior, when he earned All-Big East honors and led the Friars to the Final Four. And so the legend of "Billy The Kid" was born.

Corliss Williamson (coach: Central Arkansas; player: Arkansas): The marquee player of Nolan Richardson's early-to-mid-90s run at Arkansas, Williamson was a dominant college power forward. He averaged 19.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game (on 58 percent shooting, no less) in three seasons at the school, where he was named to three All-SEC teams and two All-America teams, while leading the Razorbacks to a national title in 1994 and a runner-up finish in 1995. Also, his nickname was Big Nasty, which is an awesome nickname, and a cursory SI Vault search reveals this awesome quote -- a portent of the '90s NBA to come: "Juwan [Howard] is the best player I've gone against this season, but the best I've ever gone against is Shaquille O'Neal [in an AAU summer tournament]," Williamson told SI's William F. Reed in 1994. "All I remember is getting dunked on hard."

Larry Brown (coach: SMU; player: North Carolina): The majority of Larry Brown's thousands of basketball wins have come as a coach at both levels of the game, but before he embarked on his lifelong coaching journey (latest stop: Southern Methodist), Brown was a star in the early 1960s at North Carolina. He led the team in scoring in 1961, was named All-ACC, was a gold medalist on the U.S. Olympic team in 1964 (and a gold medalist on the U.S. Maccabiah Games team in 1961) and went on to play five seasons in the ABA. It's difficult to compare players from the '70s, '80s and '90s to 5-foot-9 guards from the early '60s, but Brown might be the best Jewish basketball player of all time, and it's just as difficult to leave him off this list.

Bryce Drew (coach: Valparaiso; player: Valparaiso): No historical introductions needed here. If you've ever seen more than a few minutes of the NCAA tournament, you've seen Bryce Drew's legendary shot, simply known as "The Shot," because it needs no further clarification. But Drew was far from a one-trick college hoops pony. He also led Valpo to three straight Mid-Continent regular-season and conference tournament titles. When he returned to take over his father Homer Drew's program last season, he arrived as the school's all-time leader in points, assists and 3-point field goals. The dude could always cook.

Fred Hoiberg (coach: Iowa State; player: Iowa State): Speaking of players who could cook, many remember the most popular player in the history of Iowa State -- who just so happens to now be its head coach -- as a deadly shooter. He was, particularly as a long-range specialist in his 10-year NBA career, but Hoiberg was a more well-rounded player during his days in Ames than many recall. (For example: As a sophomore, the 6-foot-4 guard led the team in rebounds.) As a senior, Hoiberg scored 19.9 points per game on the way to All-America and first-team all-Big Eight honors. In the 1993 Ames mayoral race, Hoiberg received "multiple" write-in votes. He's been the unofficial mayor ever since.

Travis Ford (coach: Oklahoma State; player: Missouri, Kentucky): Fun fact: Missouri fans still know Travis Ford as "Travis the Traitor," thanks to his defection from a talented Tigers team to Kentucky after his 1990 freshman season, when he won All-Big Eight Freshman of the Year honors. Ford went on to star at Kentucky, where he was named All-SEC First Team and became the first player in team history to make more than 100 3-pointers in a single season (101), a record that stood for nearly 20 years.

Tony Bennett (coach: Virginia; player: Wisconsin-Green Bay): For all of the great shooters on the list -- for all of the great shooters in the history of the college game -- you might be surprised to learn which among them holds the NCAA's all-time record for career 3-point field goal percentage. Yep: That's Tony Bennett, who finished his career under his father, Dick Bennett, at Green Bay with a 49.7 percent 3-point mark (the highest among any player with at least 200 attempts and 2.0 3s made per game).

Honorable mentions: Pitt's Jamie Dixon (TCU), Bradley's Geno Ford (Ohio), Ole Miss' Andy Kennedy (UAB), Oklahoma's Lon Kruger (Kansas State), Utah's Larry Krystowiak (Montana), Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin (Purdue), Arizona's Sean Miller (Pitt), San Francisco's Rex Walters (Kansas), Richmond's Chris Mooney (Princeton), Oregon State's Craig Robinson (Princeton)

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