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Starting Your Head Coaching Career In The ACC Can’t Be Easy

Here are those who came to the league untested. Some soared, some crashed.

Syracuse v Duke
DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 22: Head coach Jim Boeheim (L) of the Syracuse Orange talks with associate head coach Jon Scheyer of the Duke Blue Devils following their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Some were among the greatest coaches in ACC men’s basketball history. Others were among the ACC’s most forgettable bench commanders. And now we’ve added two more to the mix — at Duke, replacing a legend, and at Louisville, trying to fix a mess of a program that secured a national title a mere decade ago.

The track records of those lacking head coaching experience contradict the oft-heard protestations of athletic directors who insist they want –no, need — to hire someone tested on the sidelines. Seasoning is useful and instructive in gauging and sustaining coaching talent, but hardly a prerequisite for success.

Taking a chance on an unproven leader is often worth the risk. And cheaper, too.

True, there are plenty of fizzles among those who gain their baptism under fire as first-time ACC head coaches. A quick look at the chart below reveals that truth.

On the other hand, if you count eventual ACC coaches Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams, unproven commodities when they took over at Syracuse and Kansas and later UNC, respectively, the league benefited from four men who went from assistants to Hall of Famers. The others, of course, were UNC’s Dean Smith, a Frank McGuire assistant, and NC State’s Everett Case, who hadn’t previously coached in college.

Add Duke’s Vic Bubas, a Case assistant whose teams won four ACC tournaments and reached three Final Fours in his decade establishing the Blue Devils on the national stage; and UNC’s Bill Guthridge, a Smith protégé with a pair of Final Four squads in three years at the helm, and that’s quite a contingent.

Less notable was the tenure of Sidney Lowe, who arrived at NC State with several short stints as an NBA coach but no college experience under his belt. When established coaches shied from coming to the unsettled program in Raleigh, Lowe guided the search committee on which he participated to pick himself. His first year on the job was his best; his teams never finished higher than tied for ninth in the ACC.

Lowe benefited in Wolfpack eyes because, along with Payne, Smith and Scheyer, he did have an NCAA title under his belt as a player.

Among the toughest tasks laid on a head coaching newcomer was given to Frank Haith, an eight-time assistant who ushered a struggling Miami program into the ACC in 2004-05. In seven seasons Haith’s squads were competitive but failed to do better than break even (8-8 in 2008). They did win 20 or more games in three seasons and endured a single losing record before he was replaced by Jim Larranaga.

Haith is currently on Penny Hardaway’s Memphis staff along with former Wake head coach Danny Manning (an NCAA titlist in 1988).

To be fair some one-year wonders filled in on short notice, and predictably struggled. And some hires were simply bad mistakes, foremost among them Bob Wade at Maryland.

Wade, the ACC’s first Black head coach, went from a high school job in Baltimore to directing the Terps in the wake of Lefty Driesell’s inglorious exit in 1986. Wade’s reign was worse than Driesell’s, as he left Maryland on probation, hit with heavy penalties that his successor, Hall of Famer Gary Williams, rightly laments to this day.

This season the ACC tests two newcomers to the college head coaching seat – Duke’s Jon Scheyer and Louisville’s Kenny Payne, each of whom played on NCAA championship squads 14 years apart. Payne’s Cardinals beat Duke in the ’86 title game, led by Pervis Ellison.

ACC Head Coaches Without Previous College Experience in the Position
Coach, School ACC Tenure All-ACC, National Peak As Player National Best As Coach
Jim Boeheim, SU 1977- NA 1 NCAA title, 4 FF
Vic Bubas, D 1960-69 NA 3 FF
Everett Case, NS 1947-64 NA 1 FF
Hubert Davis, NC 2022- 1992 (2nd team) 1 FF
Frank Fellows, M 1968,1969 NA NA
Bill Guthridge, NC 1998-2000 NA 2 FF
Frank Haith, UM 2005-11 NA NA
Walt Hambrick, SC 1959 NA NA
James Johnson, VT 2013,14 NA NA
Jeff Jones, V 1991-98 NIT 1980, FF 1981 NA
Sidney Lowe, NS 2007-11 1981(2), 1983(1),NCAA 1983 NA
Neil McGeachy, D 1974 NA NA
Jackie Murdock, WF 1966 1956 (2), 1957 (1) NA
David Padgett, UL 2018 NA NA
Kenny Payne, UL 2023- NCAA 1986 New
Bobby Roberts, C 1963-70 NA NA
Jon Scheyer, D 2023- 2010 (1), NCAA 2010 New
Dean Smith, NC 1962-97 NCAA 1952 2 NCAAs, 11 FF