Get to Know the Final Four Coaches

If the Final Four coaches were to play a game of two-on-two this weekend in Glendale, it wouldn’t be great basketball. Semifinal opponents Gonzaga and South Carolina are coached by guys who did not play in college, Mark Few and Frank Martin. North Carolina’s Roy Williams played just one year on UNC’s JV squad, while Oregon coach Dana Altman played at a junior college in Nebraska and Division II Eastern New Mexico. “I didn’t have many highlights as a player,” Altman said Monday on a conference call. “I was awful. I would have sure hated to coach me, that’s for sure.”

Plus, the coaches might be nervous on the big stage. Only Williams has Final Four experience (this is his ninth trip as a head coach). There’s a lot more to this improbable group than their lackluster playing careers. Get familiar with the last coaches standing in the NCAA Tournament.

Mark Few, Gonzaga

Few has already won a trophy in Glendale. He was named the AP Coach of the Year yesterday. Few hasn’t coached anywhere else. He joined the Gonzaga staff as a grad assistant in 1989. Ten years later, he was named the head coach in Spokane. It was the season after Gonzaga put itself on the basketball map with an NCAA Tournament run to the Elite Eight.

While that was just Gonzaga’s second Tournament appearance in program history, the Bulldogs haven’t missed the Dance since. That’s 19 years and counting, 18 of them under Few. He is 54 years old and it appears he’ll stay at Gonzaga as long as they’ll have him, especially since he’s proven he can recruit top talent (many from other countries). When he does leave, associate head coach Tommy Lloyd will take over. On Few’s recommendation, Lloyd was designated the “coach-in-waiting” in 2012.

Few has connections to the school he could face in the championship, Oregon. He grew up in the state, graduated from the school, and his name has come up for the Ducks job in the past.

Frank Martin, South Carolina

The son of Cuban immigrants, Martin grew up in Miami and went to Florida International University. He spent the first 15 years of his coaching career at the high school level before taking an assistant job at Northeastern. He worked under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and, for a year, at Kansas State, before taking over as head coach there.

He went to the Tournament four times in five seasons at K-State before making the lateral move to South Carolina, reportedly because of tensions with the AD. In this, his fifth season in Columbia, he got the school to its first Tournament since 2004 (the Gamecocks are apparently making up for lost time).

The 51-year-old Martin is, in a word, intense. This is sometimes viewed negatively, but not so much now that Martin is in the Final Four. (I played for a super intense coach as a fourth grader, so I’m sure these college kids can handle it.)

Dana Altman, Oregon

Altman grew up in Nebraska and spent the first decade of his coaching career nearby: Division II and junior colleges in Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, and Kansas. He spent a year as the head coach at Marshall and then four at Kansas State, reaching the NCAA Tournament once. Much like Martin’s departure from Manhattan, Altman’s move to Creighton seemed strange at the time.

Starting in 1994, Altman coached at Creighton for 16 seasons, winning the Missouri Valley tournament six times. This is his seventh year at Oregon. The Ducks were a No. 1 seed in last year’s Tournament but came up one game short of the Final Four. Unlike Gonzaga and South Carolina, Oregon has made the Final Four before, albeit just once (in 1939, the first year of the NCAA Tournament). Altman is 58 years old.

Roy Williams, North Carolina

You’re probably familiar with Ole Roy. Gonzaga’s Few said earlier this week that Williams belongs on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches. I love those kinds of debates, though Few didn’t clarify whether he meant among current coaches (if so, Williams definitely belongs) or all-time (in which case he does not).

Anyway, he’s the veteran of this group, both as far as age (he’s 66) and the fact that he’s been here often. He made four Final Four appearances at Kansas, where he coached from 1988 to 2003, before famously returning to his alma mater. Before all of that, he coached in high school and was an assistant in Chapel Hill under Dean Smith.

The North Carolina native won championships in 2005 and 2009 and is the favorite to cut down the nets this weekend. He is fond of the word “dadgum” and the sport coat battle between him and Martin is worth watching.

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