If there’s one thing we learn every March, it’s that the NCAA Tournament is difficult to win. During the regular season, winning two or three games doesn’t seem like that much, but in the Big Dance, just two wins best you to the Sweet 16. Frankly, just getting to the tournament isn’t easy. That got us thinking not just about the coaches that have been in the tournament a lot but also the coaches that have built multiple programs into NCAA Tournament teams. With that in mind, we thought it was appropriate to bring attention to the only three coaches to take five different schools to the Big Dance.
Smith might be the best example of a journeyman coach. He got his first head coaching job at Tulsa in 1991 and took the Golden Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1994. After back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances at Tulsa, he moved to Georgia, taking the Bulldogs to the Big Dance in his only two seasons at Georgia.
Then came Smith’s decade at Kentucky. The Wildcats went to the tournament in all 10 seasons, including a national championship in Smith’s first year in Lexington. Later in his career, Smith guided Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament three times in six seasons and took Texas Tech to the Big Dance in his last of three seasons in Lubbock. Even if things didn’t work out for Smith at Memphis, he’s still been to the tournament with five different teams.
Kruger retired in 2021, completing a storied career that spans all levels of college basketball. Unfortunately, he never took Texas-Pan American to the Big Dance, but he did lead Kansas State there in all four of his seasons from 1986 to 1990. He then rebuilt Florida, going from 11-17 in his first season to the Final Four in his fourth season. Kruger later spent four years at Illinois with three of those seasons ending in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, Kruger had to work his way back up the ladder during a seven-year stint at UNLV. Of course, during those seven years, Kruger led the Runnin’ Rebels to the NCAA Tournament four times, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007. Finally, Kruger ended his career with 10 seasons at Oklahoma. In those 10 seasons, the Sooners went to the Big Dance seven times, giving Kruger tournament appearances with five programs.
Pitino became the latest coach to take five programs to the Big Dance in 2021, leading Iona there in his first season with the Gaels. Of course, his coaching career first took off when he led Boston University to the NCAA Tournament in 1983. Pitino then spent just two seasons at Providence but led the Friars to the Final Four in 1985.
That run with Providence helped Pitino land the job at Kentucky. Despite taking over a program that was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, he ultimately took the Wildcats to the Big Dance in six straight years, going to the Final Four three times and winning it all in 1996. Of course, after a stint in the NBA, Pitino had no problem taking Louisville to the Big Dance 13 times in 16 seasons, including a now-vacated national title in 2013. Despite leaving Louisville in disgrace, Pitino’s second chance at Iona allowed him to join Smith and Kruger on an exclusive list.