The Next Great ACC Coach

Tony Bennett has ascended the ladder from “great young coach” to “member of the championship fraternity.” His legacy is cemented, and he now stands shoulder to shoulder with the ACC’s other elders Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski. The purpose of this article is to look at the next generation of ACC coaches and rank who’s got the best chances to join Tony at the table, especially as a big group of those elders nears retirement. With Krzyzewski, Williams, Boeheim, Larranaga, and Hamilton, *ahem*, fully vested in Social Security, it’s an interesting thought exercise as to who will emerge from the 60-and-Under group of ACC coaches to join Tony as the future net-cutting face of the league.

Our writers were polled as to our confidence levels that the following coaches will become all-timers at their respective schools.


On The Hot Seat

These guys inspire little-to-no confidence that they’ll one day be listed among the historical greats… heck, we’re not even confident they’ll still be employed in a couple of years.

Jim Christian (Age: 54 / Career HC Record: 304-254 / Years at Boston College: 5 / Record at BC: 62-100) – The Eagles leadership has given Christian a solid leash to date. He has a .200 winning average in ACC play over his five years in Chestnut Hill, never once making the NCAA Tournament, not even in 2017 when his backcourt featured Jerome Robinson, Ky Bowman, and Jordan Chatman. He received a vote of confidence from AD Martin Jarmond this past offseason, likely benefiting from a degree of ambivalence from the BC alumni base. His kids seem to stay out of trouble and go to class, and he’s relatively affordable at only $1.5 million annually. But while Christian has had success at the smaller stops along the way (winning records at both Kent State and Ohio), he failed first at TCU and is failing now at BC. He may yet hang around for a couple more years (his contract runs through 2022), but with no uptick in recruiting on the horizon, there’s little reason to expect his tenure to be long-remembered. At age 54 and 17 years into his career as a head coach, he likely is who his record says he is at this point.

Danny Manning (Age: 53 / Career HC Record: 103-122 / Years at Wake Forest: 5 / Record at WF: 65-93) – The Kansas all-American and 15-year pro has been back in college coaching since 2003, when he began a nine year stint on the KU bench under Bill Self. His head coach career got off to a decent start during a short tenure at Tulsa, where he went ~.500 in his first year before winning the C-USA in his second, and making the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight (and I’m sure many said this at the time too), it was a gamble to hire a guy with only two years of head coaching experience to run an ACC squad. He’s never had a winning conference record in any of his five years at Wake, topping out with a 9-9 record in the 2016-17 season which resulted in his only NCAAT appearance. It’s not just that he’s struggled to win in the ACC, however. Under his watch the last two seasons, Wake has suffered some inexplicable non-conference losses to the likes of Richmond, Houston Baptist, Gardner-Webb, Liberty, Drake, and Georgia Southern. The donors want him out of town, but Manning parlayed that “breakthrough” 2017 performance into a fully guaranteed contract extension that runs through 2025(!), and his buyout has been reported at around $18 million. For the time being, that’s buying him some time to right the ship, but those head-scratching losses with an ACC roster leave us skeptical he’ll ever be the long-term guy for the job.

Josh Pastner (Age: 42 / Career HC Record: 215-126 / Years at Georgia Tech: 3 / Record at GT: 48-53) – When I first drafted this, I had Josh graded better, in the “Needs Improvement” category but not necessarily in jeopardy yet. He’s still a relative baby at just 42 years old, so I think it’s fair to accept he’s still learning and growing as a head coach. He was given the reins to the Memphis program when he was just 31 years old after 7 years interning under Lute Olson and John Calipari. Riding the wave of the Calipari era and backed (allegedly) by the Memphis program boosters’ generosity, he was able to lure a lot of talent to the Tigers and got off to a fast start as a coach, winning at least 24 games in his first 5 years. That included a 16-0 season in C-USA before his results tapered off with Memphis’ move to the American Athletic Conference. Georgia Tech threw him a lifeline in 2016, and he repaid them with a respectable first-year run to the NIT Finals, one that actually earned him 2017 ACC Coach of the Year honors. But that next season, scandal struck with a former booster going on the record about illicit benefits to players, and after some suspensions, the team has been in a two year funk, posting back-to-back 6-12 league marks. Losses to the likes of Grambling State, Wofford, Wright State, and Georgia Southern were pretty damning. He arguably had a little more time to figure things out, with a quietly respectable youth movement in place, building on top of a culture of fiery half-court defense that’s actually tripped up a couple of league heavyweights along the way. The thought was he could get the young core to turn the corner and make the NCAAT by next year. But recently delivered NCAA sanctions for violations under his watch may cause the GT powers-that-be to conclude it’s just easiest to let him go now, especially if the sanctions give them the basis to fire him for cause and avoid the expense of a buyout.


Needs Improvement

Brad Brownell (Age: 50 / Career HC Record: 336-212 / Years at Clemson: 9 / Record at CU: 169-127)  Clemson is not a basketball school, neither now nor historically. Brownell’s job in forging them into one was always going to be an uphill climb. His nine-year stint with the Tigers has seen them become a tough unit, one that occasionally shows glimpses of potential, but nevertheless has to date failed to truly break through. In his eight years at the mid-major level (four with UNC-Wilmington, four with Wright State), he never had a losing season. And while he hasn’t had many bad years at Clemson (he hasn’t had a losing season since 2013), the team has separated from the middle of the pack just once, winning 25 games and making the Sweet 16 in 2018. There’s some hope they’re slowly going in the right direction, with decent recruits coming in (though lacking good post options), a major renovation just completed to Littlejon Coliseum, and a big contract extension locking Brownell in through 2024. Brownell also probably gets additional job security while Dabo Swinney keeps all the Tigers’ faithful happy and distracted. All the same, it’s hard to gin up much confidence that Brownell will ultimately be a guy who joins the “who’s who” of the historical ACC coaching fraternity, instead plateauting as perpetually just pretty okay.


Too Early to Tell

Mike Young (Age: 56 / Career HC Record: 299-244 / Years at Virginia Tech: 0 / Record at VT: 0-0) – The only new face in the ACC this year, any thoughts here are purely specualtive. The 56 year old spent a staggering 30 years at Wofford, the first 13 as an assistant and the last 17 running the program. A team that was Division II while Young was an assistant, he always had an uphill climb with the small South Carolina program in the Southern Conference. It was his seventh year in the captain’s chair before the Terriers first posted a winning conference record. But once that corner was turned, Young had Wofford positioned as a SoCon heavyweight, capturing the league’s lone auto-bid to the NCAAT five of the last 10 years, scoring a 10-7 win over Seton Hall in this past season’s tournament. They’ve even gone on the road to score some P5 upsets over the last couple years, including Georgia Tech, South Carolina, NC State, and even mighty UNC. At the mid-major level, there’s no denying Young could coach. Can he replicate that at historical middleweight Virginia Tech in the gauntlet of the ACC? We’re actually a little optimistic that he can. Maybe not at a championship level, but there’s reason to expect he’ll at least get them to be consistently dangerous, with early recruiting successes (three 4-star commits already) and a deep local network pointing to his eventually having ACC-level talent with which to operate (just try to ignore the pile of losses this coming season in the interim). He wasn’t the sexiest hire after Brent’s (*ahem*, Buzz’s) departure, but he actually may have been the right one. 

Kevin Keatts (Age: 47 / Career HC Record: 117-52 / Years at NC State: 2 / Record at NCSU: 45-24) – At age 47, Keatts is just now entering the prime of his career. After working his way up the ranks through assistant positions at Marshall and Louisville, in between stints running the Hargrave Military Academy program, he finally began his career as a D-1 head coach in 2014 when he took over at UNC-Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Seahawks had gone six seasons with a losing record in the CAA, but he promptly guided them to three straight regular season conference crowns and two conference tournament titles, even playing UVA tight in 2017’s 12/5 game. So far in two years at NC State, he’s dabbled in the middle tier of the ACC, getting in off the NCAAT bubble in 2018 before falling to the NIT last year. There’s reason for optimism though as he slowly begins to get his culture in place with his players. His first few years have seen a heavy reliance on transfers to put out a competitive team, but the potential for a standout 2020 recruiting class could put the exclamation point on the group of young talent he’s already brought into Raleigh. Two years is a small sample size, but given his ability to win consistently in his short tenure at UNC-W, Keatts could fathomably emerge once he gets his program self-sustaining.

Jeff Capel (Age: 44 / Career HC Record: 189-129 / Years at Pittsburgh: 1 / Record at Pitt: 14-19) – The Duke alum and veteran of head coaching stops at VCU and Oklahoma took over a Pitt program that had just gone 0-18 in league play. It’s a total tear-down and rebuild job; most of the players his predecesor Kevin Stallings had brought in had zero business playing in the ACC. Yes Capel only went 3-13 in his first year in the ACC, but it was always going to take a couple years to get the roster rebuilt properly to compete. He had a nice freshman core last year, and adds four new players this year, so it will probably be next year before we can truly evaluate his long term potential with the Panthers. In his favor, the program has a proud tradition from their Big East days (under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon) that is also getting a fresh injection of energy from their new AD Heather Lyke. Everyone thinks of VCU these days as a self-sustaining P5 Coach launching pad, but folks forget that before Will Wade, Shaka Smart, and Anthony Grant, it was Jeff Capel who got the ball rolling there 20 years ago. He was still young during his tour at Oklahoma, just in his early 30’s, so it may be fair not to hold the uneven results there against him (feel free to hold the NCAA sanctions against him though), and maybe the growth under Krzyzewski’s mentorship was genuine. He’s only 44 now, so he may just now be finding his stride. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s a flight risk back to Tobacco Road once K retires.


Immediate Potential

Chris Mack (Age: 49 / Career HC Record: 235-111 / Years at Louisville: 1 / Record at UL: 20-14) – It’s debatable whether Louisville historically qualifies as a Blue Blood, sitting comfortably a tier behind the crown heavyweights like its ACC counterparts Duke and UNC, or its in-state neighbor Kentucky. And yet the back-to-back tenures of Denny Crum and Rick Pitino saw the Cards make seven Final Fours and win three NCAA championships. The Yum! Center is a pro-quality venue and the city and state bleed basketball as much as their nextdoor neighbors in Indiana do. So to say that Chris Mack, entering his second year in Louisville, has a lot of wind behind his sails is an understatement. The program funds and recruits itself, and the fans loudly sell out regardless. Mack’s already parlayed this into a star-studded 2019 recruiting class that features both early-entry-quality shooting stars and potential four-year stalwarts. Mack, who turns 50 this fall, has made the NCAA Tournament every year but one in his 10-year head coaching career. He left his alma mater of Xavier specifically because he saw Louisville as a terminal job, a place where he could be the face of a top program and win championships for the next twenty years. If he can keep the talent flowing in and then get them to play as tough as cohesively as his Xavier teams did in the Big East, there’s every reason to expect he’ll have the Cards back as a perennial contender in short order. The cloud on the horizon for Mack is the possibility of having to deal with harsh NCAA sanctions from the Rick Pitino era.  Louisville was on NCAA probation when their assistant coach was recorded arranging shoe company payments to recruits.

Mike Brey (Age: 60 / Career HC Record: 511-257 / Years at Notre Dame: 19 / Record at ND: 412-205) – Of all the resumes being addressed in this article, Brey’s is by far the most established. Mike has been in South Bend for 19 years, having taken the Irish job after a successful five-year stint at Delaware. He acheived the bulk of his success while Notre Dame was a member of the Big East (the first 13 years of his Irish tenure), thrice being named the conference’s Coach of the Year, before joining the ACC in 2013. His time in the ACC has been a bit more up-and-down, with injuries derailing promising seasons the last two years. But when he has things clicking, his teams are a tough out. He’s got 12 NCAA Tournament appearances with Notre Dame on top of five more NIT bids. Brey has yet to crack the Final Four, having fallen just short in the Elite Eight twice now. It’s not a stretch to suggest he’s got another 10+ years in him (he’s 60 now), and the Irish brass are perfectly happy to keep him around that long, given that he’s perpetually competitive while running a squeaky clean program; he’ll likely retire on par with, likely even exceeding, the stature of Digger Phelps (who owns the Irish’s only Final Four appearance in his 20 year tenure) as Notre Dame’s all-time best coach. The question for Brey becomes how much longer he’ll want to coach, and what he can do in the interim to get himself over the top? There’s a “keep knocking” quality to Brey’s stewardship, and his roster looks every bit as competitive this year and in the coming years as many of his better ACC clubs have been. If he can keep quality talent coming to South Bend (most all of whom stay four years), Brey will have every opportunity to punctuate his career with a last deep tourney run.