For a conference cobbled together from remnants of the Big East and Conference USA plus one Atlantic 10 program, the American Athletic Conference naturally has a disparate collection of coaches.
In the Big East, Louisville’s Rick Pitino was in the mix with Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and overachievers like Jamie Dixon and Buzz Williams. In the American, he’s the clear No. 1 coach. His only peer in terms of career coaching achievement is SMU’s Larry Brown, who has coached one season in the college ranks since 1988.
Fran Dunphy and Mick Cronin are steadying influences who rebuilt programs but haven’t had deep runs into the postseason. Josh Pastner and Kevin Ollie are up-and-comers. Stan Heath and James Dickey had great seasons in the past, but results at their current stops have been mixed.
Like we said, the American Athletic Conference has a grab bag of coaching resumes.
*Athlon’s rankings of the coaches in each major conference begins continues with the American Athletic Conference. The rankings began yesterday with the ACC, and we will continue in the coming weeks with several conferences before we unveil our list of the top coaches in the country. *A few things to note as we are ranking coaches: We are attempting to look at the whole package of gameday acumen, recruiting, player development, and regular season and postseason success. We are also keeping in mind a coach’s career trajectory.
1. Rick Pitino, Louisville
Record at Louisville: 310-111 overall (.736), 137-67 Conference USA/Big East (.672)
NCAA Tournament: 48-16, seven Final Fours, two national championships
Pitino further added his name to the record book by becoming the first coach to win an NCAA title at two different schools. He’ll have a chance to add a third title to the mantle as the Cardinals enter 2013-14 as a top-three team. In the AAC, he has no peer has an Tournament coach. His 48 NCAA wins are 15 more than the other nine coaches in the league combined. His teams are generally among the best defensive squads in the country with their ability to force turnovers. Pitino also is an excellent in-game tactician. But the legendary coach also has softened his demeanor in recent years. Just ask Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
2. Fran Dunphy, Temple
Record at Temple: 158-75 overall (.678), 80-32 Atlantic 10 (.714)
NCAA Tournament: 3-15
A staple of Philadelphia’s Big 5, Dunphy is as consistent as they come. In the last 24 seasons at Penn and Temple, Dunphy has finished outside of the top three of the conference standings only twice. While he has a reputation as a good defensive coach, he’ll adjust: His 2010 team, for example, was a slow-it-down team that excelled in defensive efficiency. With Khalif Wyatt the last two seasons and with Dionte Christmas early in his tenure, his teams have pushed the tempo (relatively speaking) and have been stronger on the offensive end. With a young group in a new league, Dunphy will have to find a new formula for 2013-14.
3. Larry Brown, SMU
Record at SMU: 15-17 overall (.469), 5-11 Conference USA (.312)
NCAA Tournament: 19-6, three Final Fours, one national championship
Here’s a dilemma: Where should Larry Brown rank as SMU’s coach? His past credentials are impeccable with a national title at Kansas and a Final Four at UCLA (both were in the 1980s), plus an NBA championship and NBA coach of the year with two different franchises. Coaching in college and coaching in the NBA require different skill sets. Moreover, coaching in college in 1988 requires a different skill set than in 2013. Can Brown be as good a program CEO as Fran Dunphy, who we have listed ahead of him? We don't know right now. Brown's debut season at SMU was unimpressive, but the Mustangs were building for their new conference. Brown has brought in a slew of transfers and a major recruit in Keith Frazier. With better personnel against tougher competition in the American Athletic Conference, Brown will have a better gauge of what his third stint as a college coach will bring.
4. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Record at Cincinnati: 135-100 overall (.574), 57-67 Big East (.460)
NCAA Tournament: 3-5
Cronin doesn’t have look of an intimidating coach, but the Cincinnati native successfully whipped his alma mater back in shape. In the last three seasons, Cincinnati went 32-22 in the Big East, reached the NCAA Tournament each year and upset No. 3 seed Florida State to reach the Sweet 16 in 2012. The recruiting connections Cronin has built into New York and New Jersey will be tested as the American Athletic Conference is geographically separated from the area.
5. Josh Pastner, Memphis
Record (all at Memphis): 106-34 overall (.757), 52-12 Conference USA (.813)
NCAA Tournament: 1-3
Pastner had the unenviable task of following John Calipari at a pressure situation at Memphis. By his fourth season, Pastner turned in his best year at Memphis, winning 31 games, going undefeated in Conference USA and defeating Saint Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament. Pastner’s record against ranked teams and major conference competition isn’t great, but he’s about to get a few more chances to show his mettle against teams like Louisville, UConn, Temple and Cincinnati. With Pastner's recruiting prowess, Memphis should have the talent to go toe-to-toe with this programs on a regular basis.
6. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Record (all at Connecticut): 20-10 overall (.667), 10-8 Big East (.556)
Ollie is helped by taking over at Connecticut when expectations aren’t sky high. Few coaches who follow a legend like Jim Calhoun receive that kind of patience. The NCAA Tournament ban was an obstacle, but it meant no one around UConn was expecting Calhoun-like results. The Huskies held their own, though, defeating two Final Four-bound teams in Syracuse and Louisville. With a talented backcourt and the postseason ban lifted, Ollie will be expected to get the Huskies back into the Tourney.
7. Stan Heath, USF
Record at USF: 85-110 overall (.436), 34-74 Big East (.315)
NCAA Tournament: 5-4
USF never was a good fit for the old Big East basketball lineup. The Bulls don’t have the resources or recruiting presence to go toe-to-toe with Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut on a regular basis. Still, Heath was able to cobble together a squad that went 12-6 in the league without a double-digit scorer in 2012, and recruiting has improved. Otherwise, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. Heath is now more than a decade removed from taking Kent State to the Elite Eight.
8. Donnie Jones, UCF
Record at UCF: 63-34 overall (.649), 25-23 Conference USA (.452)
The former Marshall coach was dealt a setback early in his tenure at UCF when the Knights were hit with NCAA sanctions that cost the Knights' athletic director his job. UCF and its new AD saw enough out of Jones, though, to give him a contract extension. Jones has won 20 games in four consecutive seasons, going back to his final year with the Thundering Herd.
9. James Dickey, Houston
Record at Houston: 47-46 overall (.505), 18-30 Conference USA (.375)
NCAA Tournament: 2-2
Dickey was as surprise hire by Houston, but the ex-Texas Tech coach has started to pull the Cougars out of their funk. Houston has improved its win total each season under Dickey and defeated Texas last season in the CBI.
10. Eddie Jordan, Rutgers
Record: First season
After nine seasons as an NBA coach and four in the playoffs with the Washington Wizards, Jordan will try his hand at the college game. After Mike Rice was fired amid a player mistreatment controversy, Jordan’s demeanor will be watched as closely as wins and losses. After decades of irrelevance, Rutgers will hope the hire of a former player (he will end up finishing his degree) with pro experience will be the one that turns the program around.