Ranking the AAC Coaches
When I asked about what people wanted to read about in college basketball, this was one of the first items that came up as a major topic of interest. The tough job of ranking the American Athletic Conference (AAC) head coaches was not one I was looking forward to. I knew I would have to look at the development of players, post-season play, number of players in the NBA and coaching record. These were all items I would have to use to determine the rankings. There are some very impressive resumes in the bunch. If the AAC continues to recruit excellent head basketball coaches, this conference will continue to get stronger. The recruitment has already started to improve as the conference gains more 5-star recruits and big name coaches. This was daunting task, but it was also very eye opening. Let’s get into ranking these 11 coaches.
11. Aaron McKie
This is unfortunately the easiest one to rank. Aaron McKie took over a tough job following Fran Dunphy. McKie returned to Temple in 2014 as an assistant basketball coach after playing professionally in the NBA. McKie’s first actual coaching job was as an assistant coach to the Philadelphia 76ers under head coach Maurice Cheeks. The Temple Owls gave McKie his first job as a head basketball coach so he has only had one season as a head coach in college basketball. In McKie’s first year coaching the Temple Owls, he was able to finish 14-17. This means he was likely not making the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tournament. The good news for Temple is that there is hope and he can always improve.
10. Joe Dooley
This is his second time as the head basketball coach of the East Carolina Pirates. Dooley’s coaching career started as an assistant at South Carolina in 1988. He has actually been an assistant to some great coaches. These coaches include Bill Self, Fran Fraschilla, George Felton and Eddie Payne. During Dooley’s first time as a head coach was for ECU, he had 1 player go to play in the NBA. His best head basketball coaching stint was at FGCU, where he finished second in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Dooley was able to make it to post-season play every year at FGCU. Since rejoining ECU in 2018, Dooley is trying to coach, implement his system and build a new team. Dooley is now 192-151 as a head coach with a winning percentage of .560.
9. Brian Gregory
At the beginning of his coaching career, Brian Gregory was an assistant basketball coach at Michigan State. After 13 years as an assistant coach, 4 years of which were under Tom Izzo, Gregory landed his first head coaching position at Dayton. He was able to take this team to the first round of NCAA tournament after being the Atlantic 10 Conference champion. Gregory was able to make it to the NIT 4 years later with a team he recruited and coached. Following that, he was able to get to the round of 32 in the NCAA, then made it back the two following years to the NIT. While at Dayton, he only had one losing season. After Dayton, he went to Georgia Tech where he started off poorly. He only had 1 winning season in his first 4 years at Georgia Tech. He was able to take Georgia Tech to the NIT quarterfinals in his last year there. Since getting to USF, he has only had 1 winning season where the team went 24-14 and won the CBI, and he has only able to produce 1 NBA player in that time. In his career as a head coach, Gregory is 296-233 with a winning percentage of .560.
8. Ron Hunter
After playing 4 years at Miami (Ohio) University, Hunter landed an assistant coaching position at Milwaukee. Here he learned from head basketball coach Steve Antrim from 1987-1993, before returning to Miami (Ohio) University as an assistant coach for 1 year. From here, Hunter received his first head coaching job at IUPUI. He coached this team from 1994-2011. In his first 4 years at IUPUI, the team consistently had a winning record under Hunter. Hunter became a NCAA division 1 basketball coach when IUPUI joined the Horizon or Summit League. The team struggled for the first few years in a transition before its first winning season in 2002. This is when the team made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament. The team secured this bid by winning the conference tournament. Since 2002, with the exception of a year of vacated wins, the team never had a below .500 winning percentage. Hunter led this team to the CBI quarterfinals before becoming the head coach for the Georgia State Panthers. Continuing his winning streak, Hunter took Georgia State to the CIT in his first year. After the basketball team switched conferences, he led the team to 3 regular season conference championships and 2 conference tournament champions. This Georgia State basketball team saw post-season play every year, except 1. The post-season play included making it to the NIT, CIT and 3 times to the NCAA tournament. In his first year as Tulane’s head basketball coach, Hunter was able to lead the team to a 12-18 season. In his career, he has an almost .580 winning percentage (not including vacated wins) and 457-332 career record. This should give a lot of hope to fans of the Green Wave basketball program.
7. Tim Jankovich
After playing 4 years of college basketball (1 year at Washington State and 3 years at Kansas State), Jankovich became a graduate assistant for Texas-Pan American for a year. He followed that up with being an assistant basketball coach at Kansas State, Texas, Colorado State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. He landed his first head basketball coaching position at North Texas. While coaching at North Texas, Jankovich struggled. He had 2 winning seasons and 2 losing seasons in the Southland Conference. Jankovich then went to Hutchinson Community College and boosted his basketball coaching record by going 50-17. After this coaching position, Jankovich went back to being an assistant and learning more from high-caliber coaches. He was an assistant at Vanderbilt, Illinois and University of Kansas. As an assistant basketball coach, Jankovich learned from Kevin Stallings and Bill Self. He then went on to become head coach of Illinois State. While there, he only had 1 losing year and made it every year except 1 to the NIT. He left Illinois State and went on to be the assistant basketball coach at SMU. This eventually led to Jankovich becoming the interim head coach in 2015 and then head basketball coach. He was able to make it to the NCAA Tournament after being the regular season conference champion and conference tournament champion. His record had a dip for 2 years as he had to build a new team. This past year the SMU mustangs went 19-11. In his career, Jankovich is 241-163 or a .597 winning percentage. He also had part in molding 3 NBA players.
6. Frank Haith
Knowing what he wanted to do, Haith started as a student assistant for the basketball team at Elon. He went on to be a graduate assistant at Wake Forest continuing to learn about basketball under Dave Odom. Haith went on to UNC Wilmington and learned from head basketball coach Kevin Eastman. From here, he went on to learn from Tony Barone at Texas A&M. Haith had a brief stint back with Dave Odom before going to his last assistant coaching job at Texas under Rick Barnes. He took his first head coaching job in Miami. Haith only had 1 losing basketball season during this time and 2 years in total without post season play. He did, however, lead the Miami Hurricanes to 3 of its first six 20 win seasons. Haith went on to coach the Missouri Tigers basketball team in its last season in the Big 12. He was able to have 3 years of post-season play with this team even after switching conferences and never having a losing season. Haith finally landed in Tulsa where he has had 3 20-win seasons, all of which would have ended in post-season play with the exception of this year due to COVID. As a coach, Haith is a career record of 321-205 for a .605 winning percentage and has sent 7 players to the NBA. With quite the reputation, I would not be surprised to have Tulsa hanging around in the top half the AAC.
5. John Brannen
As the youngest head coach in the AAC, Brannen was actually coached by Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall during his time as an assistant basketball coach at Marshall. Brannen first coaching job was as an assistant in Charleston (WV) for a year. Brannen then went on to be an assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky, St. Bonaventure, VCU and Alabama. As an assistant coach, he has learned from Travis Ford, Anthony Solomon, and Anthony Grant. Brannen was thrown into the interim Alabama head coaching job in 2015 for 2 games in the NIT. In the next season, he became the head basketball coach for Northern Kentucky. After a rough first year, he caught fire his next 3 years winning the conference tournament, being the regular season champion and then then winning both in his last year. In those 3 years, Brannen also made it to the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT once. With his success at Northern Kentucky, he was offered the Cincinnati Bearcat job. With Cronin leaving for UCLA, Brannen was able to take over right where Cronin left off. He was able to build bonds with players unfamiliar to him and not recruited by him and was able to finish tied for first in the conference. It will be interesting to see how Brannen does in recruiting and if the are able to finish at the top of the conference again. His career record is 102-62 and has a .607 winning percentage. Brannen has not yet had an NBA player emerge from his program.
4. Johnny Dawkins
A basketball player himself, Dawkins played for Mike Krzyzweski at Duke and then played in the NBA. He played for the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. After taking some time away from the game, Dawkins began his coaching career as he rejoined Coach K as an assistant coach at Duke. He learned his coaching philosophy for nearly a decade. Dawkins was offered a head coaching position at Stanford in 2008 and he accepted it. After making his first year coaching basketball a success, he was able to get to the CBI semifinals. Dawkins had a couple of rebuilding years that allowed him to recruit his players and implement his system. He made it to the NIT in 2012 and won the tournament, finishing the season 26-11. The following year, he made it back to the NIT, but without the same success. The next year Dawkins made it to the NCAA tournament, but lost in the Sweet Sixteen. The following year, the team was NIT champions again before his team had a record dip. Dawkins finished his last season at Stanford with a 15-15 record. At this point, Dawkins accepted the head coaching position at UCF. In his first year, he made it to the NIT semifinals. Starting to build his own team again, he was able to make it to the NCAA tournament in the 2018-2019 season. With a couple of big losses in 2019-2020 due to health and a player going pro, Dawkins was somehow able to stay above a .500 record. In his career, he is 239-163 as a head coach or .595 winning percentage. Dawkins has also sent 6 players to the NBA.
3. Penny Hardaway
Another coach in the AAC that started off as an NBA player is Penny Hardaway. He played his college basketball at Memphis and went on to play in the NBA for the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Miami Heat. Returning to Memphis shortly after ending his pro career, Hardaway tried to help the Memphis area by helping fund the University of Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, bought ownership in the Memphis Grizzlies and was working on renovating a multi-sports facility in Cordova, TN. This was meant to help kids from underprivileged kids and give them a safe place to play. He started coaching for a middle school and then became an assistant coach at East High School. During Hardaway’s last year at the high school level, he became the head coach just before moving on to the Memphis job. With limited upper level coaching experience, I am a little hesitant to have him ranked this high. But, Penny has done well in his 2 years at Memphis. In his first year, he was able to lead the team to the NIT second round and finished at 22-14 with a Tubby Smith-recruited team. In his second year, Hardaway led the team to 21-10 record before the abrupt ending to the 2019-2020 season. With these 2 years, Hardaway’s career record is 43-24 or .642 winning percentage. He has 2 players potentially going to the NBA this year and has a couple of 5-star recruits coming in the next couple of seasons.
2. Gregg Marshall
While earning his master’s degree in sports management from the University of Richmond, he was a graduate assistant at Randolph-Macon. Marshall landed his first assistant coaching job at Belmont Abbey where stayed for a year before moving to College of Charleston. It is there Marshall learned under John Kresse before moving on to Marshall. At Marshall, he was an assistant basketball coach under Greg White before accepting his first head coaching job at Winthrop. This is where Marshall started his tear on a conference. While at Winthrop, he only had 2 years without post-season play and never finished worse than third in the conference. In 5 seasons here, Winthrop basketball was the regular season and conference tournament champions. In 2 different years, his team won the conference tournament and in a different year the team won the regular season championship. Marshall was offered the head coaching job at Wichita State and took over a team unlike those he was accustomed to. In his first year, he struggled with former coach Mark Turgeon’s players, but was able to bounce back the next year to .500 on the year. This year, Marshall made it to the CBI second round. After that he found his groove and made it the NIT the next year. At the NIT, the Shockers suffered a loss in the first round, but came back the next year and won the NIT. After that, he didn’t miss a year in the NCAA tournament until 2018. One of these seasons, Marshall led the team to a 35-win season until the Shockers lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Marshall was also able to lead the team in a conference transition from the MVC to the AAC. The end of the NCAA appearances came to an end when the Shockers graduated 6 players. The team made it to the NIT semifinal that year. Marshall has an a solid coaching career going 337-119 with a .721 record. Marshall has also been able to send 6 players to the NBA.
1. Kelvin Sampson
No surprise at the #1 head basketball coach in the conference is Kelvin Sampson. He earned his degree in health and physical education from Pembroke State. Sampson went on to get his master’s in coaching and administration at Michigan State University. While here, he learned under Jud Heathcote. Sampson went on to be an assistant basketball coach at Montana Tech for only two years before being thrust into the head coaching position. He had a tough first year going 7-20, but was able to switch it around the next 3 years. Each of these years, he never had under a 20-win season. This was quite the feat considering that his second year had more wins than the previous 3 years combined. Sampson was able to win 1 conference tournament and had 2 years as regular season champions at Montana Tech. From here, Sampson took an assistant coaching job under Len Stevens at Washington State. After two years, Sampson was promoted to head basketball coach. He had 3 losing seasons, but was able to switch it around and make it to the second round of the NIT. In his final year at Washington State, Sampson made it to the NCAA tournament. Sampson was offered a job at University of Oklahoma. While at OU, he did not have a losing season or even miss out on post-season play. Sampson’s worse year as the Sooner basketball coach came in 2003-2004 when the team was only able to make it to the NIT. He was then offered the job at Indiana. In the first year as the head basketball coach for the Hoosiers, he took the team to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, he was not able to repeat that success in his second year. Sampson was investigated by the NCAA and found to have committed 5 major rule violations. These violations stemmed from recruiting a player and calling too much for the time. This is now a perfectly normal practice. Sampson resigned and many never thought he would coach in college again. He was hired as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, where he stayed for 3 years. Sampson then became an assistant basketball coach for the Houston Rockets for 3 years. After this, he was offered the head coaching position at the University of Houston. After struggling for 1 year as a Cougar, Sampson was back on track. He took the team from 10th in the conference to the top 3. He hasn’t missed post-season play since his return to college basketball. Sampson made it to the NIT from 2015-2017. After his NIT appearances, Sampson made his return to the NCAA tournament. These visits included the round of 32 and even finding himself in the Sweet Sixteen just 2 years ago. This team was hopeful for another strong NCAA tournament run, but, unfortunately, here we are. It is amazing how successful Sampson has been and his love for basketball shows. To add to his resume, he has also sent 9 players to the NBA.