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1980s Basketball Coaches Power Poll

Who was the top 80s basketball coach - this ‘writer’ offers an opinion or 2

Bobby Knight and Gene Keady
Rick Moore

MsuNavyGrad offered a suggestion in the Jud Heathcote article about a poll on the top Big Ten basketball coaches of the 1980s. Inspired by that idea, and a Friday off of work, I decided to take a crack at a Top 10. In reverse order, here they are. Note that Maryland’s Lefty Driesell is included in this list, although Maryland was still playing in the Association of Carolina Colleges back then (and I’m the ‘writer’ here, so I can make up my own rules):

10. Rich Falk - Northwestern (1978-1986)

Rich Falk
Lois Bernstein

Well someone had to be at the bottom of the list, and Northwestern basketball during the 1980s certainly meets the criteria of bottom of the list. A Northwestern Athletics Hall of Famer from his playing days in the early 1960s, Falk’s coaching record would have been considered poor anywhere other than Evanston. Falk makes this list by getting the Wildcats to their first-ever post-season appearance: the 1983 NIT.

9. Gary Williams - Ohio State (1986-1989) and Maryland (1989-2011)

Gary Williams
Associated Press

Gary Williams ranks here primarily due to only spending 4 years during the 1980s (3 seasons in Columbus and 1 season in College Park). Williams, much like his mentor Dr. Tom Davis (see below), brought the flex offense and 1-2-1-1 full-court press to the Big 10. While not having overwhelming success in Columbus, Williams laid the groundwork for the 1992 Buckeyes team that went to the Elite 8. As Bobby Knight once quoted while doing color commentary for ESPN, he saw Gary Williams argue with referees when calls went his way.

8. Dr. Tom Davis - Iowa (1986-1999)

Dr. Tom Davis
File Photo / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Speaking of Gary Williams mentor, Dr. Tom Davis slides in here at #8, again for coaching just 4 seasons during the 1980s decade. Davis brought excitement to the Big 10, utilizing the 1-2-1-1 diamond press and literally playing his entire bench. 1986-87 was Davis best season, taking Iowa to the Elite 8 before losing to UNLV in one of the best games I’ve seen (and honestly Iowa should have won that game). Dr. Tom would have rated higher; however, he was only in Iowa City for 4 seasons during the 1980s, and he employed Bruce Pearl on his staff with the Hawkeyes.

7. Bill Frieder - Michigan (1980 - 1989)

Bill Frieder
AP Photo / Ed Reinke

Former Michigan player Bill Frieder had a decent run in Ann Arbor going 188-90, 102-64 in conference play. Michigan also won back-to-back Big 10 Titles under Frieder in 1984 and 1985. However, things didn’t quite go so well when the NCAA Tournament arrived; as Michigan experienced some epic flameouts there (e.g.; losing as a #1 seed to Villanova in the 1985 Round-of-32). Frieder loses some points though for taking the Arizona State job before the end of the 1988-89 season, prompting Athletic Director Bo Schembechler to emphatically fire Frieder and state that a Michigan Man will coach the Wolverines.

6. Lute Olson - Iowa (1974-1983)

Lute Olson
File Photo

Like Williams and Davis, Lute Olson only coached for 3 seasons during the 1980s. However, Olson scores additional points for getting the Hawkeyes to the 1980 Final Four via knocking off John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas in the East Regional Finals. One of Athletic Director Bump Elliott’s best hires in Iowa City, Olson is literally responsible for the construction of Carver Hawkeye Arena and re-energizing Hawkeye basketball.

5. Charles “Lefty” Driesell - Maryland (1969-1986)

Lefty Driesell (right) with old nemesis Dean Smith
Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Similar to Gary Williams and Dr. Tom Davis, if this power poll extended beyond (or in this case, prior to) the 1980s The Lefthander would score considerably higher. A majority of Driesell’s success came in the 1970s. However, in the 1980s Driesell’s Terrapins made 6 NCAA Tournaments in 7 seasons, and 3 ACC Tournament Finals winning in 1984 (beating his alma mater Duke and some young coach named Mike Krzyzewski).

Driesell also handed Dean Smith his first-ever loss in the Dean Smith Center in 1986. Finally, Driesell has to make the top 5 if for no other reason than beating Dick Vitale in a game of horse at the 1988 ACC Tournament (while working as a color commentator for Raycom).

4. Gene Keady - Purdue (1980-2005)

Gene Keady
G. Todd Moore

Keady took over in West Lafayette for the 1980-81 season and led the Boilermakers to 9 postseason appearances during the decade of the 1980s. Purdue won or shared 3 Big Ten titles during the decade, although (like Bill Frieder’s Wolverines) postseason success might have been a bit lacking. While losing some points for the worst comb-over ever worn (at least he didn’t wear a toupe like #3 on the list), Keady earns some extra points for prompting this reaction back in 1985:

3. Lou Henson - Illinois (1975-1996)

Lou Henson
Getty Images

Coming in at #3 is Lou Henson and the Lou-do (I just threw up in my mouth typing that Dick Vitale-ism). Henson’s ‘Flying Illini’ made the postseason each season during the 1980s, winning a Big Ten title in 1984 and advancing to the 1989 Final Four. Henson is a bit underrated perhaps due to an infamous flame-out in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, and the dirt kicked on the Illinois program by Bruce Pearl.

2. Jud Heathcote - Michigan State (1976-1995)

Jud Heathcote
Julian H. Gonzales / Detroit Free Press

Rather than repeating what I’ve already written (‘written’), I’ll simply state that Michigan State basketball would be a non-entity if it weren’t for Jud Heathcote. From playing Magic Johnson at point guard to his sense of humor, Jud would be #1 on a lot of lists if it weren’t for the guy shown below.

1. Bobby Knight - Indiana (1971-2000)

Bobby Knight
Getty Imaages

Again, not to repeat what I’ve already written Knight’s record in the 1980s speaks for itself: 2 National Championships, 4 Big Ten titles, and 9 NCAA Tournament appearances. But even moreso than the on-the-court success, the sideline and off-the-court antics of Knight made him must-see television back in the day; such as discussing the Purdue mascot:

and some kind, encouraging words for Steve Alford after a narrow win at Northwestern:

That’s my Top 10 list of 1980s Big Ten (including Maryland) basketball coaches. Feel free to share your memories and/or whom else should have been included.


What should be changed in the 1980s coaches power poll?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Really, a Northwestern head coach!!!
    (28 votes)
  • 14%
    No Minnesota coaches and TWO Iowa coaches!!!
    (15 votes)
  • 16%
    Meh, basketball wasn’t discovered in Madison until Dick Bennett’s arrival.
    (17 votes)
  • 27%
    Tom Osborne was a better coach than Joe Paterno... oops, wrong sport.
    (28 votes)
  • 14%
    Other (with details provided in the comments)
    (15 votes)
103 votes total Vote Now