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The Legacy of Rick Barnes

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Where does Rick Barnes rate in the pantheon of college coaching?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Krzyzewski just won his 1,000th NCAA game this week, an accomplishment that's only happened twice before in men's basketball(the other two being NAIA legends Harry Statham & Danny Miles). Perhaps you saw something about it, what with ESPN mentioning it approximately 48 times per telecast and video tributes pouring in from other coaches like Coach K just cured cancer. It's an impressive career mark and one of the cherries on top of the mountain of cherries his career has unloaded onto his Chris Christie-sized ice cream sundae of a legacy. There's little argument that Coach K is one of the 4-5 best college coaches of all-time, and he'll probably retire as the 2nd winningest coach after passing Danny Miles early next season.

Sometime this season, Rick Barnes is going to win his 600th game as a college coach. It isn't getting nearly the publicity of Coach K's accomplishment(nor should it), but it's a substantial achievement in its own right. He's currently sitting at 598 and will likely get it against either Oklahoma State or Kansas State next week. Barnes' legacy isn't as clear-cut as someone like Coach K, and attempting to slot him in the pantheon of college coaches is a surprisingly complex endeavor. As per usual, if I'm mulling over a complicated question, I dig into statistics to see what enlightenment can be gleaned from the numbers. (This may be obvious, but I feel compelled to mention that this exercise isn't an attempt to rank where Barnes will ultimately end up at the end of his career so much as an attempt to gauge where he would rank if he stopped coaching at the end of this season.)

If we're going strictly by wins, Barnes is currently 88th in college coaching history. That statistic on its own is impressive to me when you consider how many coaches have come and gone over the past century. To be clear, this isn't 88th in NCAA D-I history, this ranking includes NCAA D-I, D-II, D-III, NAIA(all levels), and NCCAA as well. As a point of reference, there are currently 793 teams in those classifications combined. So right now there are nearly 800 active head coaches somewhere on that career wins ladder(a little under half of which are in D-1), and that's just this year. It's not a stretch to say that over the past 110 years(Phog Allen's first year coaching the tiny Baker University was 1905) there have been several thousand men attempt a career as a head coach in college basketball and less than 90 of them have won more games than Rick Barnes.

Let's drill down a little further; if our goal is to attempt to rate Barnes' career to this point, we should try to find a comparison that's a bit more apples-to-apples. With all due respect to the Holley brothers(OK, technically they aren't brothers, but it's a little unusual that there are 2 guys named Holley each with 800+ wins), winning a lot of games in the NCCAA(National Christian College Athletic Association) or NAIA isn't the same as a long career in the NCAA. That strikes 28 names off the list, so we're down to 60. Let's go further and strike out the guys who made their bones in D-II & D-III. Out goes Glenn Robinson(not that one), David Hixon, and 20 others, and now we're down to 38 coaches that won the majority of their games in D-1(or the historical equivalent). But wait, there's more: Barnes didn't win most of his games in D-1, he's won all his games in D-1, so let's cull the list a little further. We're basically down to 35 coaches who won 600+ games in D-1, Barnes included. 35 men out of thousands.

At this point, there are a few directions we could go to narrow things down a bit. One of the data points I used to narrow things down was to filter the list to only coaches without a national championship, because I think it helps exclude the coaches that most would consider at the very top of the list(Wooden, Coach K, etc.). If we're looking for an analogous career, Barnes obviously isn't going to rate with those guys. That gets us down to a list of 13 guys. At this point, I think we're in the right stratum of coaching greats. The similarities are starting to emerge; none have national titles, all of them have 3 or less Final Four appearances(7 of them have none), and all of them have 600+ wins at the D-1 level. Further, if you sort by winning percentage, Rick Barnes(.661) sits dead in the middle of this group(.596 - .715). I started to dig further into the 12 men listed alongside Barnes, and after reading up on them I think I have a list of 4 coaches that I think are pretty solid analogues to Rick.

Coach Wins Losses Win % Final Fours National Championships
Bob Huggins 753 304 .712 2 0
Eddie Sutton 804 328 .710 3 0
Lefty Driesell 786 394 .666 0 0
Rick Barnes 598 306 .662 1 0
Billy Tubbs 641 340 .653 1 0

I like that list for a number of reasons. All of these guys were known for fielding high-quality teams on a regular basis, all of them had tenures at a school long enough that they became synonymous with that school, and they all had trouble reaching the final weekend of the tournament. There's also a decent chance 2-3 of them eventually make it into the Naismith Hall of Fame(how Eddie Sutton isn't already in there is beyond me). I think this group is just about right. So where is this group in the pantheon of college coaches? I'd feel pretty confident putting them in the top 50 all-time, 2-3 notches below the likes of Wooden, Rupp, K, & Dean Smith, and a notch or two below guys like Lute Olsen, Tom Izzo, & Henry Iba. We're in the rarefied air of coaches who get courts named after them, and that sounds about right for someone like Rick Barnes regardless of how his tenure ends at Texas.

As a last bit, there are some odds and ends that I found interesting in my research:

  • Of the 88 coaches with 600+ wins in the college ranks, 48 of them never won an national championship at any level. Less than half of the most prolific coaches in men's college basketball history cut down the nets at the end of the year.
  • 23 of them only won 1 title, and these 88 guys averaged 36.3 seasons as the head coach. Even amongst the best of the best, winning a national championship was an elusive achievement.
  • Ray Meyer coached at DePaul for 42 years and made it to the Final Four twice. 36 years elapsed between appearances; the first was in 1942 and the second in 1978.