Beyond the historical matchup it setup for Saturday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels created a bit of history for their coach in the Elite Eight win over Saint Peter’s. With the victory, UNC made Hubert Davis the 10th men’s basketball coach to ever make a NCAA Tournament Final Four in their first season as a college head coach.
For a variety of reasons, that’s not a long list. Many teams changes coaches because the team is bad. It can also be difficult for a first-time coach to get hired at a Final Four-caliber program. In both instances, neither was really the case at UNC, but it was still somewhat of a gamble to hire a first-time coach with Davis. So far, it’s paid off and the Heels are going to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend.
Back to the fun fact, now that Davis has joined the list, let’s take a look at the company he joins in being the 10th coach to make the Final Four in their debut season.
From a UNC perspective, the first name from that list that we have to bring up is Bill Guthridge. After Dean Smith’s retirement ahead of the 1997-98 season, Guthridge ascended to the head role, and led the Tar Heels to a 34-4 record and a trip to the ‘98 Final Four. Less said about what happened when they got there, the better.
Guthridge is also far from the only well known name from college basketball history in that group of 10, as there are also three Naismith Hall of Famers on the list, including another notable Tar Heel.
Larry Brown had already coach in the ABA for a couple season when he was hired by UCLA ahead of the 1979-80, but the Bruins were his first head college gig...sort of. He technically had briefly been coach at Davidson, but resigned before ever coaching a game. That meant that his first college season came with UCLA, and he took the Bruins all the way to the title game, where they fell to Louisville, coached by the next man we’ll talk about.
(It should be noted that UCLA had their ‘79-80 season vacated by NCAA, so that Final Four run isn’t in the record books, but c’mon, it happened.)
Denny Crum was an assistant for John Wooden at UCLA when Louisville hired him in 1971. Crum helped make the Cardinals’ program into what it became, and that started pretty quickly when he took them to the ‘72 Final Four, where they lost to his old boss’s Bruins.
The other HOFer is Ray Meyer, who was the longtime DePaul coach from the 1940s through the 1984. All the way back in 1943, in the the fifth ever edition of the NCAA Tournament, Meyer took the Blue Demons to the Final Four, where they lost to Georgetown. It should be noted, however, that the tournament only had eight participants back then, so it wasn’t exactly a tough road there for DePaul.
There is only one person who has won the NCAA Tournament in their first ever season as a head coach, and their “first season” was really a small part of one that consisted of just six games. After Steve Fisher ascended to Michigan’s head job after the famous “Michigan Man” moment by Bo Schembechler. Between the end of the regular season and the start of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, then coach Bill Frieder told Schembechler that he was going to take the Arizona State job at season’s end. The Wolverines’ legendary football coach and AD did not take well to his and got rid of Frieder just days before the tournament. Fisher was promoted to the head job and led Michigan to the tournament’s championship in just his first six games as a college coach.
The other name that might stand out to you from this list is Bill Hodges. He took over the Indiana State head gig for the 1978-79 season. His Larry Bird-fueled squad then advanced all the way to the National Championship Game, where they lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
The last three are all names I knew nothing about: Bruce Drake (Oklahoma, 1939), Bully Gilstrap (Texas, 1943), and Gary Thompson (Wichita State, 1965).
While some of the older names on this list don’t mean much to us, this is mostly a fairly impressive list of coaches to be on. It’s hard to not feel good about the present and future of UNC basketball with Hubert Davis at the helm.