A taxonomy of tourney coaches: eight classes of experience and success

I tend to think about coaches in groups. You’ve probably read something from me about rookie coaches making their first trip to the dance. And in the last two years, I’ve discovered the surprising weakness of what I call “snakebit” coaches who have more than five tourneys under their belts but have yet to reach the Elite Eight.

Last year I developed a full taxonomy of coaching types using two variables: 1) how many years a coach had been to the dance, and 2) how successful they had been with their trips. I measured “success” as reaching the Elite Eight. That seems like a reasonable yardstick because to get there a coach would have to win at least one game in the second weekend of the dance, thereby demonstrating the value of his preparation. Besides, the Elite Eight represents the closest round to the top 10% of tourney performers.

Using tourney appearances and Elite Eight trips, I’ve come up with the following taxonomy of coaching types in the tourney:

  • Rookies – making their first trip to the tourney
  • Novices – 2-5 tourney trips with no Elite Eight runs
  • Prodigies – 2-5 tourney trips with at least one Elite Eight run
  • Snake-bit – more than five trips with no Elite Eight runs
  • Flashes – more than five trips with one Elite Eight run
  • Destined – 6-10 trips with more than one Elite Eight run
  • Veterans – more than 10 trips with 2-4 Elite Eight runs
  • Legends – more than 10 trips with more than four Elite Eight runs

I’m focusing this analysis on one through six seeds, the seeds most likely to advance in the dance. A standard PASE analysis on the eight classes of coaches turned up these results:


Not surprisingly, Legends performed the best and Rookies are really bad. But they aren’t the worst. Here’s a breakdown of each coaching class.

Rookies (First trip)
41 trips | 49-40, .551 | 2F4, 1CH (Fisher, Michigan 1989) | -.403 PASE

It’s somewhat of a surprise that Rookies haven’t performed the worst of the eight classes. But they are solid underachievers. Only two rookie coaches have reached the Final Four. One was Bill Guthridge, who took over a strong top-seeded North Carolina team in 1998. And the other was Steve Fisher, who got thrust into the Michigan coaching role when Bill Frieder jumped ship to Arizona State just before the tourney, prompting Bo Schembechler to famously snap, “A Michigan man will coach Michigan.” Fisher went on to lead the 1989 Wolverines to the championship. This year, there will be three relatively high-seeded Rookies: Kevin Ollie of UConn, Cuonzo Martin of Tennessee and Craig Neal of New Mexico

Novices (2-5 trips, 0 E8s)
164 trips | 283-163, .635 | 18F4, 1CH (Smith, Kentucky 1998 | +.068 PASE

Novices are the biggest coaching class. They’re the coaches who’ve had a taste of tourney experience, but have yet to achieve success in the dance. Surprisingly, these coaches perform above seed expectations at a +.068 PASE rate—better than veteran coaches, flashes in the pan and even destined coaches. That said, only one Novice has cut down the nets. That would be Tubby Smith in 1998. Smith inherited a Kentucky powerhouse from Rick Pitino that had won the 1996 tourney and lost in the finals in 1997. This year, you’ll see at least three Novices in the dance: Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State, Josh Pastner of Memphis, Tommy Amaker of Harvard and Travis Ford of Oklahoma State.

Prodigies (2-5 trips, >0 E8s)
72 trips | 136-71, .657 | 11F4, 1CH (Izzo, MSU, 2000) | +.97 PASE

Prodigies are the second best performers of the eight coaching classes. They beat expectations at a +.097 PASE clip. These are the coaches whose names always come up when there are job openings at major programs. Think Shaka Smart. Only one Prodigy has brought home a championship. Tom Izzo led his 2000 Spartans to the promised land in his third tourney appearance, one year after losing the championship game. Keep your eye out for these Prodigies in the 2014 tourney: Shaka Smart of VCU, Scott Drew of Baylor and (ahem) Larry Brown of SMU. Yeah…Larry Brown (five appearances, two Elite Eights).

Snakebit (>5 trips, 0 E8s)
72 trips | 101-72, .584 | 6F4, 0CH | -.405 PASE

The most notorious coaching class is the Snakebit coaches. If you’ve spent any time on Bracketscience.com, you’ve probably read something from me advising you to steer clear of them. Amazingly, coaches with more than five tourney trips and no Elite Eight runs perform nearly the same as Rookies, with an underachieving -.405 PASE that’s .002 worse than the results of wide-eyed newbies. Not a single Snake-bit coach has cut down the nets. There are a host of unsuccessful tourney coaches that will likely go dancing this year: Mark Few of Gonzaga, Dana Altman of Oregon, Steve Alford of UCLA, Herb Sendek of Arizona State, Doug McDermott of Creighton, Jim Crews of St. Louis, Mick Cronin of Cincinnati and Fran McCaffery of Iowa.

Flashes (>5 trips, 1 E8)
74 trips | 136-71, .657 | 13CH, 3CH (Donovan, Florida 2006 | -.155 PASE

Flashes are the group of coaches that have had one good run to the Elite Eight, but haven’t been able as yet to repeat the feat, despite more than five chances. Three champions have been led by coaching Flashes. Billy Donovan took Florida to the title in 2006, Gary Williams did it with Maryland in 2002 and Jim Harrick led UCLA to the championship in 1995. Despite these successes, Flashes are significant underachievers. Their -.155 PASE ranks second worst of the eight coaching classes. Four Flashes will probably make the tourney: Bo Ryan of Wisconsin, Gregg Marshall of Wichita State, Bruce Weber of Kansas State and Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh.

Destined (6-10 trips, >1 E8s)
78 trips | 167-71, .702 | 15F4, 7CH (Self, Kansas 2008) | +.062 PASE

Destined coaches have tasted tourney success more than once in six to ten tourney trips. Several champions have been led by Destined coaches. The three most recent are Bill Self of Kansas in 2008, Billy Donovan of Florida in 2007 and Rick Pitino with Kentucky in 1997. Surprisingly, Destined coaches have just the fourth best performance against expectations of the eight classes with a +.062 PASE that’s lower than Legends, Prodigies and even Novices. Major programs often turn to the Destined when they make coaching changes. The two Destined coaches that will be in the dance this year are John Beilein and Sean Miller.

Veterans (>10 trips, 2-4 E8s)
92 trips | 168-89, .654 | 11F4, 3CH (Boeheim, Syracuse 2003) | -.114 PASE

Veterans have logged a high number of appearances in the tourney with just modest success. Their fate is either to become a Legend or to retire. Only three champions have been led by Veteran coaches: Jim Boeheim with Syracuse in 2003, Jim Calhoun with UConn in 1999 and Lute Olson with Arizona in 1997. Overall, Veterans are surprising underachievers in the tourney, with a -.114 PASE that compares to the performance of Flashes. This year, the crop of Veterans heading to the tourney include: Jay Wright, Steve Fisher, Rick Barnes, Lon Kruger and Thad Matta.

Legends (>10 trips, >4 E8s)
103 trips | 287-91, .759 | 32F4, 12CH (Pitino, Louisville 2013) | +.434 PASE

Legends are the coaches with both extensive tourney experience and consistent success. More Final Four entrants (32) and champions (12) come from the ranks of Legends than any other coaching class. Moreover, Legends are far and away the best performers against seed expectations, with a +.434 PASE that dwarfs the seven other groups. The four most recent tourneys were won by Legends: Rick Pitino of Louisville in 2013, John Calipari in 2012, Jim Calhoun in 2011 and Mike Krzyzewski in 2010. This year’s tourney Legends are: Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, Coach K, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, John Calipari and Jim Boeheim.

When you fill out your bracket this year, make sure you know where the coaches fall in these classes. While it’s good to know what their individual PASE values are, it’s also helpful to understand how coaches like them have performed historically.

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12 Responses to A taxonomy of tourney coaches: eight classes of experience and success

  1. Tom says:

    Fun fact: Three coaches all-time have achieved Legend status without ever winning a national championship. All three are now retired.

    John Chaney (17 trips, 5 E8, 0 CH)
    Guy Lewis (14 trips, 5 E8, 0 CH)
    Eddie Sutton (26 trips, 6 E8, 0 CH)

  2. ptiernan says:

    Good man, Tom. This is the sort of stuff I love to dig up.

    • Tom says:

      Interestingly… both Lewis and Chaney made their fifth Elite Eight in their final tournament trip.

      Lewis not only made five Elite Eights; he made five Final Fours, and the championship game twice. All of his E8/F4 teams had at least one Hall of Famer on it — how he never managed to win a championship is a mystery (something about Lorenzo Charles…)

      Chaney went 0-5 in the Elite Eight; he never really came close to winning a championship.

      Sutton’s six Elite Eights spanned four decades, with the first coming in 1978 and the last in 2004, and had three Final Fours but never won a championship.

  3. Byron Watkins says:

    Larry Brown should actually be a Destined. He made two Tournaments with UCLA in addition to five with Kansas and made three Elite Eights (and three Final Fours too).

    • Ryan Tressler says:

      i would assume the years with UCLA do not count for what Pete is talking about here since it was before the 64 team era

    • Tom says:

      Brown’s one of five active coaches with pre-1985 tournament appearances. The others are Pitino, Coach K, Boeheim, and Cliff Ellis.

      The first three are already Legends and that wouldn’t change (Pitino and Coach K each only had one pre-1985 appearance.) Ellis isn’t, but he’s going to be piloting a likely 16 seed anyway.

    • ptiernan says:

      Ryan is correct. I’m only considering the modern tourney era.

  4. Andy says:

    Shaka Smart was a rookie in 2011 when VCU made its Final Four run. Therefore the number is three rookie coaches making the Final Four. There’s also no guarantee Tennessee will get in, as many bracketology runs have them in a First Four game (much like that VCU team).

  5. Jason says:

    Speaking of VCU, I think it would be interesting to see how they do against a team like Cincy or San Diego St. VCU is predicated on scoring so they can set up the press. We saw that a super-efficient offensive team with a great guard in Michigan and Trey Burke could handle Havoc. I wonder how a great defensive team would do against them with only 1 day to prepare. I know St. Louis is built somewhat similar to those teams, but they know the system and have more days to prepare.

  6. Dave K says:

    Hey Pete, between the Veterans, Flashes, and Snakebit classes which group sees the most coaches able to break out and move up or if they’re all few and far between. No need to dig up exact numbers if you’re too busy, just curious. Thanks.

  7. Cam says:

    Larry brown only has 4 appearances in the 64+ team era. His first run with Kansas was in 84, when 64 team started in 85

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