The class will be announced on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN), a day that would have been the start of the Final Four in Atlanta.
The Naismith Hall of Fame, unlike the Pro Football Hall of Fame, does not belong solely to the professional ranks. Its goal is to recognize contributors at all levels of the game. That said, it’s difficult for players to secure votes based on collegiate performances alone, especially if they’re already members of the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri. Elite college coaches, on the other hand, consistently earn consideration.
The following is a list of players and coaches who made their mark largely in college basketball and deserve a spot, or at least consideration, in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
There are 10 coaches in the history of Division I basketball with 800 career wins. Sutton is one of three in that club who has not been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (Cliff Ellis and Bob Huggins are the others). Sutton — who led four schools to the NCAA tournament (Arkansas and Oklahoma State both reached the Final Four during his tenure) — is a finalist this year, but he has been in this position in the past.
What’s the problem? Well, Sutton’s experiences with alcoholism and a high-profile scandal have been perceived as perennial roadblocks. At Kentucky, an illicit cash payment to top recruit Chris Mills and a challenged entrance exam for UK player Eric Manuel led to Sutton’s resignation and a two-year postseason ban for the Wildcats in 1989. Then, after he’d rebuilt his career at Oklahoma State, Sutton’s time in Stillwater ended with a 2006 drunken-driving crash that resulted in serious injuries for the other driver. Sutton resigned and became an advocate to help those struggling with alcoholism and addiction. He also was a leader who helped Oklahoma State’s community heal in 2001 after 10 people, including two of his players, were killed in a plane crash following a game at Colorado.
Sutton is a legitimate coaching legend, and if the vote is based on basketball, he obviously deserves a slot in the Hall of Fame. If the Hall removed every coach connected to a scandal or NCAA investigation, the group would be much smaller. It’s unfair to point to Sutton’s controversies as reasons to keep him out. His nomination shouldn’t even demand any debate or qualifiers. Put Sutton in the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.
The West Virginia coach has amassed 809 career wins during his career as a Division I coach at Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia, and is widely recognized as one of college basketball’s great minds. His full-court press has been mimicked by coaches throughout the game. He has reached the Final Four twice (1992 at Cincinnati, 2010 at West Virginia), with two different schools.
Bad timing and back luck have been the main barriers between Huggins and a shot at a national title. His Cincinnati squad entered the final 10 minutes of its Final Four matchup with the Fab Five and Michigan tied at 54-54 before unlikely hero James Voskuil helped the Wolverines escape with the win. In 2000, Huggins had the No. 1 team in America before Kenyon Martin suffered a season-ending injury in the Bearcats’ conference tournament. In 2010, Huggins’ West Virginia squad met Duke in the Final Four and trailed by 15 in the second half. Da’Sean Butler‘s knee injury ruined any shot at a miraculous comeback.
Huggins has blemishes, such as a 1998 NCAA investigation at Cincinnati that cost the program scholarships and triggered probation, and a drunken-driving arrest in 2004. But his basketball résumé is worthy. Huggins is also proof that a few unlucky breaks can change a career. Yet he’s still clearly one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. That has to count for something.
Massimino led No. 8-seed Villanova to a 1985 win over Patrick Ewing and top seed Georgetown in the national title game, sealing one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. If John Thompson Jr. ran the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Massimino would have been inducted years ago.
“If his win is the greatest upset ever, why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?” Thompson, Georgetown’s former coach, told USA Today in 2017, the year Massimino died. “That was something I used to kid him about. But this is still something I know he wanted, he deserved and I think it hurt him, the fact it didn’t happen.”
Massimino recorded 816 total wins, including 481 at the Division I level. Beyond the title, he also led Villanova to four Elite Eight appearances. Massimino was not without his own controversies, running into negative headlines at Villanova, UNLV and Cleveland State. But he certainly has a case for consideration.
Sure, he’ll make it at some point in the future, but why wait? John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self were all inducted recently as active coaches. Villanova’s Wright has more national championships (two) than they do. He’s a six-time Big East Coach of the Year. He has won multiple versions of the national coach of the year award. Wright has been one of the best coaches in college basketball for more than a decade. And he has produced multiple NBA prospects.
Wright, who could crack 600 wins during the 2020-21 season, joins Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan and Roy Williams as the only coaches with multiple national titles in the one-and-done era. Wright belongs.
The High Point coach never duplicated the success he enjoyed in his first season at Kentucky, when he led the Wildcats to the 1998 national title. But like Massimino, Smith has a ring — that ought to be a crucial element in the selection process for coaches. He’s also one of two coaches, along with Lon Kruger, to lead five Division I programs to the NCAA tournament.
Smith was just the third African American coach to win a national title, and his career is scandal-free. He’s also highly respected among his coaching peers, and he has contributed millions to various charitable causes. Smith has 622 wins — most of which were recorded in some of college basketball’s toughest leagues (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12) — and a national title. Guaranteed Hall of Fame candidate? Probably not. Worth consideration? Definitely.
For players, induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, which touts its acknowledgement of amateur and pro standouts, is nearly impossible without a stellar NBA career. But Manning is an interesting case. He was a three-time All-American at Kansas, where he won the Wooden Award and led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national title after averaging 24.8 points per game during the 1987-88 season. He also won a bronze medal as a member of the 1988 national team in that year’s Summer Olympics. Once he reached the NBA, he became a two-time All-Star who averaged 14.0 PPG in his career.
Manning, however, never lived up to the hype due to various knee injuries. He’s on a list of NBA players who were affected by injuries after outstanding college careers. But Manning wasn’t merely good. He was one of the greatest college players we’ve seen, and was kept from NBA greatness due only to issues that were out of his control at the next level. Manning should be in the Hall of Fame conversation.
Last month, Loyola Marymount unveiled a statue of Gathers, the college star who died of a heart condition after collapsing during a game in 1990. That Loyola Marymount squad had a chance to challenge UNLV for the national title. LMU memorably made it to the Elite Eight anyway, but Gathers’ death prior to the NCAA tournament changed everything.
While his untimely passing is often the focus of stories about him, it’s easy to forget the ridiculous numbers he amassed in Paul Westhead’s system, which the veteran coach used at the next level, too. Gathers averaged 30.8 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in his final two seasons at Loyola Marymount under Westhead.
Gathers was the anchor of one of the most innovative systems in college basketball history. (Loyola Marymount averaged 122.4 PPG in his final season.) During the 1988-89 season, he became the second player to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. He would have been a lottery pick, and possibly an NBA star. His death created awareness about heart health and sudden cardiac death among athletes, proof that Gathers left his mark on the game in more ways than one. That’s why he deserves a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame’s contributor category for “significant contributions to the game of basketball.”
Johnson, now a TV analyst for the Milwaukee Bucks, is not a finalist this year after appearing on that list in each of the previous two. Even if you count just his pro career, Johnson has an interesting case. He was a five-time NBA All-Star who averaged 20.1 PPG, but a neck injury forced him to retire at 30 after the 1986-87 season. (He made a brief comeback with the Golden State Warriors during the 1989-90 season.)
If you combine those feats with his collegiate exploits, his case seems more solid. Johnson, a star in the NCAA tournament, helped John Wooden win his 10th and final national title at UCLA in 1975. Two years later, Johnson averaged 21.4 PPG and won every reputable national player of the year award. Again, if the Hall of Fame is tied to players’ contributions throughout their entire careers, Johnson is a legit candidate.