Sometimes, a fan base might not appreciate the coach they have - until he’s gone.
That’s not necessarily the case with the 12 men listed below. On their respective campuses and in their cities or towns, the fans and followers of these programs know what to expect each season. When they buy a ticket or turn on a screen, they’ll see a polished product that protects its home floor and competes for conference titles.
Because their accomplishments occur in smaller leagues or sleepy media markets, the rest of the college basketball world might overlook these coaches. Each has proven - sometimes at multiple stops - they are among the best in the business. Winning is difficult in any conference. Doing it consistently requires a solid foundation and daily diligence. The success starts at the top and trickles down through every player, coach and member of the support staff. These coaches have figured out the formula.
John Gallagher, Hartford - Last year, Gallagher led the Hawks to their first NCAA tournament appearance since they joined Division I in 1984-85. It was the program’s fourth consecutive winning season, overall and in the America East standings. After a rocky nonconference slate, Hartford is trending upward again, pursuing its fifth 10-win conference mark since Gallagher arrived in 2010.
Chris Jans, New Mexico State - In six seasons, Jans’ teams (pictured above) have won 77 percent of their games. He’s led the Aggies to three regular season titles in the WAC and two NCAA tournament appearances. Opponents understand they’ll meet an aggressive, balanced New Mexico State squad with a deep bench and competitive spirit. This year is more of the same: the Aggies are 16-3 overall and 5-1 in the WAC.
Johnny Jones, Texas Southern - Signing up to coach in the SWAC is not great for a coach’s overall record. Texas Southern has played a top 10 nonconference schedule in three of four seasons under Jones, who played in the 1981 Final Four for LSU. The Tigers’ conference record is a better indicator. Texas Southern is 41-16 in Jones’ four seasons and reached the NCAA tournament a year ago.
Mike Jones, UNCG - Just ask the coaches who compete against his teams what they think of his ability on the sidelines. His teams, first at Radford and now in his first season at UNCG, are tough, sound on defense and rarely beat themselves. Jones steered Radford to 12 or more Big South wins in his last four seasons there and an NCAA appearance in 2018. He’s massaged the Spartans to a 10-8 overall and 4-4 Southern Conference record in his first season.
Robert Jones, Norfolk State - The administration at Norfolk State understands the value of their coach. After he led the program to the NCAA tournament - and a First Four defeat of Appalachian State last year - they signed Jones to a five-year contract extension. He’s validated their decision by guiding the Spartans to a 14-4 record and first place in the MEAC at 5-0.
Bob Marlin, Louisiana - The Sun Belt title may not always run through Lafayette but the Ragin Cajuns typically have something to say about who wins it. Marlin led the program to 10 or more conference wins in 9 of 11 seasons as the head man. Despite an injury infested opening month this season, Louisiana is on track again, 4-3 in the Sun Belt and 9-8 overall.
Bashir Mason, Wagner - During his playing days at Drexel, Mason was a fierce, tough defender. He’d gladly guard the opposition’s best scoring threat and force him into one bad shot after another. It’s no surprise his teams have taken on a similar identity. They won 11 or more NEC games six of the last nine years and are the clear favorite this season, 6-0 and beat VCU and Fairfield in the nonconference.
Ritchie McKay, Liberty - In his second stint at Liberty, the former associate head coach at Virginia has elevated the program into one of the best mid-majors in the nation. The Flames won a NCAA tournament game in 2019 and returned to the tournament last year. They’ve dominated the A-Sun of late, going 42-7 the last four seasons, including a 4-0 record entering this week’s games.
Matt McMahon, Murray State - The latest in a long line of coaches to cut their teeth in the tiny town of Murray. McMahon has recruited and developed star guards and put an exciting team on the floor in the heart of basketball country in Kentucky. He’s 141-66 overall, 83-31 in the OVC, won a NCAA tournament game in 2019 and don’t look now but his current 18-2 squad may be his best team yet.
Randy Rahe, Weber State - On the job since 2007, Rahe keeps the Wildcats in the mix for the Big Sky crown year after year. He’s led the program to three NCAA tournaments in the span and 12 or more conference victories in four of the last six seasons. Weber is on track to meet the standard again, sitting at 7-1 in conference games and 14-5 overall.
Byron Smith, Prairie View - Per usual, the Panthers hit the road in November and December this season, facing the most difficult nonconference schedule in the nation. The plan prepares Smith’s squad for the rigors of the SWAC and pays off in March. They played in the 2019 NCAA tournament, were the favorite to return in 2020 when the bracket was canceled and posted a 13-0 conference record a year ago.
Russell Turner, UC Irvine - Most of the nation became aware of the Anteaters in 2019 when Turner led them to an upset of Kansas State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Rest assured the rest of the Big West was well aware of this program’s power. UC Irvine is 110-38 in conference games in 10 seasons and it’s probably a wise bet that they’ll quickly correct their current 1-3 record.