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NCAA Tournament coaches as players: Where do Mark Pope, Craig Smith rank?

SHARE NCAA Tournament coaches as players: Where do Mark Pope, Craig Smith rank?

BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, left, and Utah State basketball coach Craig Smith.

Deseret News composite photo

It’s relatively obvious that coaches don’t necessarily need high-level playing experience to be successful on the sidelines, but a ranking earlier this week by ESPN’s Tony Moss of the experience of all 68 coaches who are in the men’s NCAA Tournament highlights how much that is the case.

Only six, for example, played in the NBA at all, and four of those had rather brief stints. On the other end of the spectrum, two didn’t even play varsity high school basketball, and eight more didn’t play in college at any level.

The two coaches who will lead teams from Utah into the tournament fit at the ends of this spectrum. Utah State’s Craig Smith ranked down at No. 65 for playing experience, while BYU’s Mark Pope is all the way up at No. 4.

Moss notes that Smith played at Stephen-Argyle Central High School in Minnesota but not while he attended the University of North Dakota.

“It was while still a student at UND that Smith met Tim Miles, then the coach at NAIA Mayville State (North Dakota), who helped launch Smith’s coaching career by hiring him as an unpaid volunteer assistant,” Moss wrote.

Pope, on the other hand, was the Pac-10 Rookie of the Year as a freshman at Washington before transferring to Kentucky, where he “was an important reserve on two very good Wildcats teams, the second of which won the 1996 national title.” He then played 153 games in the NBA, just edging out Virginia’s Tony Bennett in the ranking, as Bennett played in 152 games.

Only two coaches in the tournament, Michigan’s Juwan Howard and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, had long NBA careers. Howard was named an All-Star one time while Ewing “is not only the best former player in this tournament but arguably the best player ever to serve as a head coach in college basketball’s history,” Moss wrote, as he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Moss also observed that should either Howard or Ewing win the national title this year (Michigan has a good shot as a 1 seed while Georgetown made a surprise run to earn a 12 seed), either “would become a fairly clear No. 1 on the ‘best players among title-winning college coaches’ list.”

LSU’s Will Wade ranked 68th on the list, as he didn’t play in high school. Baylor’s Scott Drew just beat Wade out for the dubious distinction, as he played junior varsity but not varsity.