Our look at the most accomplished under-40 college football and basketball coaches
What would recent Final Fours be without Butler and VCU? And how boring would college football be without coaches like Lane Kiffin and Pat Fitzgerald.
There’s an intriguing youth movement afoot in college sports where Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart, both under the age of 40, have reached the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament and subsequently turn down big-time jobs to continue building their mid-major programs.
In football, Kiffin, at age 37 and on his third head coaching job, has gone from being an annoyance to his rival coaches (and at one time, his owner) to being the coach of Athlon Sports’ preseason No. 1 team. If USC delivers on the preseason ranking, Kiffin will be among the youngest in either sport to win a national title, though the youngest remains Clemson’s Danny Ford, who won the national title weeks after his 34th birthday.
In addition to Stevens, Smart and Kiffin, here are our picks for the top college football and men’s basketball coaches under 40.
Note: For the sake of clarity and consistency, we are listing all ages as of Sept. 1, 2012.
1. Brad Stevens
Team: Butler basketball
Before the 2009-10 season, Stevens could have been mistaken for an assistant or team manager. After back-to-back national championship games with Butler, he’s on the short list of top coaches in the game. In 2010, the 33-year-old Stevens became the second-youngest coach to reach the Final Four since 1972. Indiana’s Bob Knight was 32 when he reached his first Final Four in 1973. A year later, he became the only coach since 1972 to reach the Final Four twice before his 35th birthday. Beyond the NCAA Tournament success, Stevens holds records for most wins in his first five (139), first four (117) and first three (89) seasons.
2. Shaka Smart
Team: VCU basketball
Smart was something of an unknown when VCU hired the former Florida and Clemson assistant less than a week before his 33rd birthday. VCU had a good track record of hiring young coaches in Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant, but the Rams outdid themselves with Smart. Where Stevens is calm and deliberate, Smart is frenetic, but the results are similar. Smart led VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. With a limited returning cast last season, VCU still managed to win 29 games and upset fifth-seeded Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. Only a two-point loss to fourth-seeded Indiana prevented VCU from reaching the Sweet 16.
3. Pat Fitzgerald
Team: Northwestern football
The two-time Bednarik and Nagurski Award winner was named Northwestern’s coach under the most unfortunate of circumstances when he took over for Randy Walker, who died suddenly in June 2006. For two seasons, Fitzgerald was the youngest coach in the FBS, competing against the likes of Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr. A noted recruiter as a secondary and linebacker coach, Fitzgerald has been able to get the most out of Northwestern’s modest resources, tradition and recruiting base. He’s 40-36 in six seasons, but he’s the first coach in Northwestern history to lead the Wildcats to four bowl games, all in the last four seasons.
4. Lane Kiffin
Team: USC football
For most of Kiffin’s head coaching career, his brash demeanor and the controversy that followed took precedent over his results. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Kiffin. He went 5-15 with the Oakland Raiders and 7-6 with Tennessee, with only a handful of players remaining in Knoxville from his troubled, but highly ranked 2009 signing class. At USC, he has guided the Trojans out of probation. The Trojans are still recruiting front-line talent, just in smaller quantities. After going 10-2 last season, USC is Athlon’s preseason No. 1 team with a shot to unseat the SEC as the king of college football.
5. Kevin Willard
Team: Seton Hall basketball
Willard hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament yet, but his chance is coming. The son of former Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky coach Ralph Willard and a former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville and in the NBA, Kevin Willard hasn’t had many easy jobs in his five seasons as a coach. At Iona, he took over a team that went 2-28 in 2006-07. Iona improved from 1-17 in the MAAC that season to 8-10 the following year under Willard and then improved to 12-6 in 2009-10 before Willard landed at Seton Hall. In his second season at Seton Hall in 2011-12, the Pirates went 21-13, their best record since 2003-04.
6. Steve Prohm
Team: Murray State basketball
Murray State had its share of standout moments under Prohm’s predecessors Billy Kennedy and Mick Cronin, but Prohm took the Racers to new heights in his first season as head coach. Murray State went 31-2 last season, losing only once during the regular season. A longtime assistant under Kennedy, Prohm paid his dues as an assistant at Murray, Southeastern Louisiana, Tulane and Centenary before getting his shot at a head coaching job. With point guard Isaiah Canaan returning, Prohm will have a chance to build on his gaudy debut season.
7. Steve Sarkisian
Team: Washington football
Like Kiffin, Sarkisian was an offensive assistant under Pete Carroll at USC. And like Kiffin, Sarkisian took over a Pac-12 program facing adversity. Washington, however, was trying to break out of a malaise that included an 0-12 season in 2008 and 1-10 season in 2004. With standout quarterbacks Jake Locker and Keith Price, Sarkisian returned Washington to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2002. Over a defensive coaching staff overhaul, Washington will look to return to Pac-12 title contention.
8. Willie Taggart
Team: Western Kentucky football
The Hilltoppers would be hard-pressed to find a better fit to lead their program into the FBS. The former Western Kentucky All-America quarterback served as co-offensive coordinator under Jack Harbaugh until 2002, when the Hilltoppers won the Division I-AA championship. He joined Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, where he coached Heisman runner up Toby Gerhart. After going 2-10 in Taggart’s debut season, Western Kentucky went 7-1 in the Sun Belt in his second season in Bowling Green.
9. Josh Pastner
Team: Memphis basketball
Following John Calipari at Memphis is no easy task. Pastner has had mixed results so far, but he hasn’t lacked for talent. The former Arizona walk-on displayed his zeal for recruiting first with the Wildcats as a full-time assistant under Lute Olson at age 26. Pastner has had nationally ranked recruiting classes at Memphis, but not a lot of experience on his roster. That’s starting to change as Memphis went 26-9 overall and 13-3 in Conference USA last season. Pastner is one of only two coaches in Memphis history to reach the NCAA Tournament in two of his first three seasons.
10. Fred Hoiberg
Team: Iowa State basketball
“The Mayor” was a puzzling hire for Iowa State when he arrived in 2010. Although he was popular as a player in Ames, Hoiberg spent more time in NBA front offices than on the bench. The Cyclones went 16-16 in his first season, but they were one of the surprise teams of 2011-12. Led by NBA first-round draft pick Royce White, Iowa State went 16-6 in the BIg 12 and defeated defending national champion Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament.