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Basketball

Best never to reach championship stage as head coaches


The nets are cut, the Final Four is finalized and an accolade has been added to the legacies of the qualifying coaches. The key word is added, as Lon Kruger, Jay Wright, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams all have been here before.

Postseason milestones are a popular way to appraise college coaches. The Final Four is a merit badge for those who guide their teams through four elimination games. Though regular-season accolades carry greater weight in football, the new playoff system (and even the BCS National Championship Game before it), creates a helpful coaching partition.

But it’s not everything. There have been great college coaches who never played for a national championship. Some coached at smaller schools where national-title runs, especially in football, are virtually impossible. Others enjoyed some postseason glory but stumbled just shy of the championship stage.

Today, they will be recognized. With help from my ESPN colleagues, I’ve identified the best college basketball and college football coaches who never guided their teams into a direct position for the national title.

Criteria for eligibility: For college basketball coaches, it’s having never reached the Final Four of the NCAA tournament (started in 1939). For

college football coaches, it’s never reaching the College Football Playoff (2014-15 seasons) or the BCS title game (1998-2013 seasons).

Coaches were evaluated on what else they did, including conference championships, top-10 finishes, major bowl appearances for football and deep NCAA tournament runs in basketball.

Let’s get started.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Sean Miller, Arizona: The Wildcats’ first-round tournament exit ensures Miller retains the unwanted label of best coach never to make the Final Four. Miller has won three regular-season titles each in the Atlantic 10 and Pac-12. He has reached nine NCAA tournaments, four Sweet 16s and four Elite Eights. So close. So painful.

Tony Bennett, Virginia: Bennett seemed certain to erase his name from this list midway through Sunday’s game. Instead, he remains here after Virginia, a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years, lost in the Elite Eight. Bennett has reached two Sweet 16s at Virginia and one at Washington State. Bennett has two ACC titles at Virginia and claimed national coaching awards in 2007 and 2015.

Mark Few, Gonzaga: The Zags remain the gold standard for mid-majors, and Few is the biggest reason why. He has guided Gonzaga to 15 conference titles, including 11 straight from 2001-11, and 13 West Coast Conference tournament championships. Few has reached the NCAA tournament in each of his 17 seasons as coach, reaching the Sweet 16 six times but the Elite Eight only once (2015).

Mike Brey, Notre Dame: Brey has done wonders at Notre Dame, winning Big East Coach of the Year three times and national coach of the year in 2011. He won two America East titles at Delaware and the ACC tournament championship in 2015. Brey’s NCAA tournament fortunes recently have turned, as he has guided the Irish to consecutive Elite Eight appearances to go along with a Sweet 16 in 2003.

Jamie Dixon, TCU: Dixon seemed certain to make a Final Four early in his Pitt tenure, as he reached three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight in his first six seasons. He never again reached the tournament’s second weekend, but he still claimed two regular-season Big East titles, a Big East tournament championship and national coaching awards in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Bill Snyder, Kansas State: There are remarkable turnarounds, and there is what Snyder has done at Kansas State. He took over the worst program in FBS history and guided it to two Big 12 titles, four division titles and six top-10 finishes, including four straight from 1997 and 2000. The four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year and two-time national coach of the year guided Kansas State to three Fiesta Bowls and one Cotton Bowl.

Gary Patterson, TCU: Patterson is the reason TCU returned to a major conference — and why it has quickly become a championship contender. He led the Horned Frogs to championships in three leagues (Big 12, Mountain West and Conference USA) and twice claimed national coach of the year honors (2009, 2014). TCU went 13-0 in 2010 but didn’t qualify for the BCS title game because of its league affiliation. The 2014 Frogs looked national-title worthy but ended up two spots outside the inaugural playoff.

Mark Richt, Miami: Richt’s recent firing at Georgia underscored what he didn’t do in Athens, but let’s not forget what he did do. He went 145-51 with the Bulldogs, winning two league championships and six SEC East division titles. The two-time SEC Coach of the Year recorded seven top-10 finishes and two top-3 finishes (2002, 2007). Richt won seven of his first nine bowls, including two Sugar Bowls.

Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen put himself on the national radar with brilliant play calls in Boise State’s win against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He led Boise State to two top-five finishes and two BCS bowl wins in his first four seasons and recorded four top-10 finishes at the school. A two-time national coach of the year recipient, Petersen had Boise State positioned for a possible BCS title game appearance in 2010 before Nevada ended the Broncos’ 24-game win streak.

David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has less experience than any coach on this list, but his immediate impact at Stanford is remarkable. He has guided the Cardinal to three Pac-12 titles, four Pac-12 North division titles and two Rose Bowl championships in his first five seasons. The three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year has three top-seven finishes, including last season’s No. 3, and has finished outside the top 11 just once (2014).



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