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The Top 10 Football-Basketball Coaching Tandems in the Nation

We rank the 10 best football-basketball college coaching tandems in the nation, and the Big Ten has a firm grip at the top.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Since Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh in late December, a thought that has crossed my mind once or twice is whether he and John Beilein constitute the best football-basketball coaching tandem in the nation. They're near the top, but I haven't taken the time to think it through or consider which other coaching tandems could supplant the the Harbaugh-Beilein combination.

Until now.

Last week, Rocky Top Talk, SB Nation's Tennessee team site, ranked the SEC's best coaching tandems, so I decided that enough was enough and I needed to dive in and finally rank the nation's best. So I have. Treating both football and basketball equally, here are the nation's 10 best football-basketball coaching tandems. Let the debate begin.

Just Missed: Baylor (Art Briles & Scott Drew); Notre Dame (Brian Kelly & Mike Brey)

10. Dan Mullen & Ben Howland, Mississippi State

At this time in 2014, Mississippi State was nowhere near the top 10. Dan Mullen had just recorded a 7-6 season -- his third straight with no more than eight wins -- and the basketball team had just finished in dead last in the SEC, which was considered the worst of the high-major conferences. But, 365 days later, the future looks much brighter for the Bulldogs. They broke through under Mullen in 2014, opening the season with nine straight wins and spending much of that time at No. 1 in the national polls. The season didn't end as they would have liked, losing three of their last four games, but it was still a 10-plus win season -- only the third in the program's 110-year history. For Mullen to pull that off in the SEC West, a division that chews the head off of some of the sport's best coaches, is impressive. Then, in late March, Mississippi State created buzz when it hired Ben Howland, the former UCLA coach that took the Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. Though Howland's time in Westwood ended in dysfunction and disarray, UCLA still won the Pac-12 championship in Howland's final season. He may be a bit rusty given that he hasn't been on the sidelines for the past two seasons, but he has the ability to make Mississippi State a formidable program in an SEC conference that may have little basketball substance in the future other than perennial power Kentucky.

9. Bob Stoops & Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

Yes, Oklahoma football just endured one of its most underwhelming seasons, going 8-5 after the Sooners were ranked in the preseason top five, but few active college football coaches have accomplished more in their career than Bob Stoops. Prior to 2014, Stoops had posted double-digit wins in 12 of 15 seasons at Oklahoma, appeared in nine BCS games, won seven Big 12 championships, and taken home a national title in 2000. Heck, Stoops was the only head coach to win the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl during the BCS era. Good luck topping that resume. Lon Kruger hasn't had that type of success on the hardwood -- if he had, Oklahoma would be at the top of this list -- but he's still a very good basketball coach. Kruger has developed a reputation as one of the nation's best rebuilders. He put the pieces back together at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, and now Oklahoma, and won an NCAA Tournament game at each school, becoming the first and only head coach in D-I history to win an NCAA Tournament game with five different programs. Last season, he had his best team at Oklahoma, coaching the Sooners to a second-place finish in the nation's best conference and a Sweet 16 appearance. With Buddy Hield's decision to return to Norman for his senior season, Oklahoma has even higher aspirations for next season. Boomer Sooner!

8. Charlie Strong & Shaka Smart, Texas

These are the up-and-comers, and, with the resources that Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart will have at Texas, this duo could be No. 1 on this list in no time. Strong is 54 years old but has been a head coach for only five seasons. After guiding Florida to two national titles as a coordinator under Urban Meyer, Strong won a Big East title in his second season at Louisville and earned a combined 23-3 record and national top-15 finishes in his third and fourth seasons. And that includes a 33-23 upset win over his former team, the Gators, in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Though Strong had a rocky start at Texas, posting a 6-7 record and suspending or dismissing several players for disciplinary reasons in 2014, the Longhorns should become a superpower once again under Strong's stern leadership. On the hardwood, Texas just hired Smart, who's only 38 years old and was the hottest coaching commodity on the market. To have him replace Rick Barnes, whose teams always were less than the sum of their parts, is a slam-dunk move. Though Smart never won a conference title at VCU, he's wreaked "havoc" in the college basketball world with his nasty full-court press and uptempo style, which propelled the Rams to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2011. We'll see if Smart brings his HAVOC press with him to Austin, but it's difficult to envision that the Strong-and-Smart duo won't live up to their names.

7. David Cutcliffe & Mike Krzyzewski, Duke

If more weight was given to basketball than football, Duke would be much, much higher on this list. However, because I'm treating football and basketball as equals, Duke finds itself at No. 7 with the combination of David Cutcliffe and Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K's resume speaks for itself. He's won 1,018 games at Duke and Army, which is the most by a coach at D-I programs. He's tallied 12 ACC championships, 12 Final Fours, and five national championships. Oh, he won his fifth of those five national titles this past April when the Blue Devils stormed back late to upend Wisconsin. And, in his spare time, he wins Olympic gold medals as the head coach for USA Basketball. Cutcliffe isn't an all-time great like Coach K is, but what he's done for Duke football is unbelievable. In the 12 seasons before Duke hired Cutcliffe in December 2007, the Blue Devils won a grand total of 19 games. Under Cutcliffe, they won 19 games in the past two seasons. I docked Duke a few spots because Cutcliffe hasn't won a conference title as a head coach, but very few coaches are capable of putting Duke football in contention to win an ACC championship.

6. Gus Malzahn & Bruce Pearl, Auburn

Gus Malzahn may not be fond of Michigan right now, but he's still part of one of the best football-basketball coaching tandems. Malzahn was a high school coach for 15 years before he became a coordinator at Arkansas in 2006, and, since then, he's become one of college football's top offensive gurus. He was Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010 when the Tigers went a perfect 14-0 and won the national championship behind Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Then, after leading Arkansas State to a Sun Belt title in his first season as a college head coach in 2012, he was hired to be the head coach at Auburn, which had just suffered a 3-9 season that didn't include one win against an SEC opponent. So what did Malzahn do? He coached Auburn to one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in college football history as the Tigers rode his uptempo, run-oriented spread -- as well as a couple miracles -- to the BCS National Championship Game, where they couldn't hold off Florida State's comeback. Auburn shouldn't attain that level of success in basketball, but Bruce Pearl is of the caliber that can give them a shot. Pearl took Milwaukee to a Sweet 16 in 2005 before reaching the Sweet 16 or better three times in six seasons at Tennessee. He then was forced out of the gym after the NCAA hit him with a three-year show-cause penalty for committing several NCAA violations, but Auburn decided to give him back his clipboard after the show-cause penalty expired. It's going to take some time for Pearl to rebuild Auburn -- the Tigers haven't been to an NCAA Tournament since 2003 -- but, given his infectious personality, his recruiting prowess, and a weak SEC, Pearl has them headed in the right direction.

5. Rich Rodriguez & Sean Miller, Arizona

When the Lute Olson era came to an unexpected and tumultuous close, one that was followed by not one but two interim coaches, Arizona asked Sean Miller to stabilize the program. Miller had led Xavier to three straight Atlantic 10 titles and two trips to the Sweet 16, including one to the Elite Eight in 2008. Though Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years in Miller's first season in Tucson, which wasn't a surprise because the program had no chance to recruit well under two interim coaches, the Wildcats have been to three Elite Eights and an additional Sweet 16 in the five years thereafter, while winning three Pac-10/12 championships. Miller has transformed Arizona into the best basketball program in the West and brought it similar success to what it experienced under Olson. However, the next step for Miller is to shed the label as the "Best Coach Without a Final Four." Though Arizona always will be a basketball school, Rich Rodriguez is doing his best to make football relevant in the desert. As an offensive innovator, Rodriguez took West Virginia to unprecedented heights, claiming four Big East titles in his last five seasons in Morgantown and leading them to three straight national top-10 finishes from 2005 to 2007. While his troubles at Michigan from 2008 to 2010 have been well-documented in this space and others, he's begun to have some of the same success at Arizona that he had at West Virginia. Last season, the Wildcats went 10-4 and won a deep Pac-12 South division, and, in his three years in Tucson, they have a 26-14 record -- the best in a three-year stretch for Arizona since 1976. The Wildcats shouldn't be a constant contender competing in the same division as USC and UCLA every year, but Rodriguez will be a thorn in their sides most seasons.

4. Bobby Petrino & Rick Pitino, Louisville

No, this isn't a list that ranks the most adulterous football-basketball coaching tandems, so Louisville will have to settle for No. 4 rather than No. 1. Rick Pitino is one of the most accomplished basketball coaches in the sport. He's taken home nine conference titles from five different leagues, been to 12 Elite Eights, reached seven Final Fours, and been the last man standing in the NCAA Tournament twice. And one of those national titles was in 2013 when Louisville outlasted Michigan (sigh) in an exhilarating final. What Pitino has done is turn Louisville into one of the most consistent college powers in the nation. The Cardinals have reached at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past four seasons. The other schools with that accomplishment? Michigan State. That's it. Then there's Bobby Petrino, who's in the middle of his second stint at Louisville. He coached the Cardinals for four seasons from 2003 to 2006, during which he tallied a 41-9 record, two conference titles, and three national top-20 finishes. This success led him to the NFL and the Atlanta Falcons, which he abandoned for Arkansas before completing even one season. However, right when Petrino was beginning to find his groove with the Razorbacks, earning a 21-5 record in 2010 and 2011, he was involved in a motorcycle accident, the aftermath of which led to the revelation that he was engaged in an adulterous affair with an athletic department employee. This led to his dismissal from Arkansas, but Petrino has found his way back to Louisville, where the Cardinals went 9-4 in their first season in the ACC in 2014. With Pitino and Petrino on board, Louisville should continue to excel in football and basketball, as long as both keep it in their pants.

3. Jim Harbaugh & John Beilein, Michigan

Michigan, which is home to one of the most prestigious college football programs in the land, hasn't been much of a contender for the past decade. The Wolverines haven't won a Big Ten title since 2004 -- their longest drought since 1963 -- and own only a 2-12 record against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State since 2007. But Jim Harbaugh hopes to return his alma mater to its winning ways. Harbaugh has been a masterful rebuilder at each of his stops as a head coach. His first gig was at San Diego, where he led the Toreros to back-to-back 11-1 seasons that still are the best in program history. His next stop was Stanford, where, in four years, the Cardinal went from a 1-11 season to a 12-1 season that included a 40-12 thrashing over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Harbaugh then made the leap to the NFL, and, in his first three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, he coached them to three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance. Though Harbaugh may not have the college football accolades that some of the other coaches on this list have, how many active college football coaches have been successful in the NFL? Exactly. Not even Alabama's Nick Saban can make that claim. On the hardwood, John Beilein has proven himself to be one of the best offensive tacticians and identifiers of under-the-radar talent. This has propelled him through the college basketball ranks over the past four decades -- he's the only active college coach to have 20-win seasons at four different levels -- to Michigan, where he's coached the Wolverines to their first two Big Ten titles since 1986 and first Final Four since the Fab Five era. Beilein has been successful everywhere he has been, and, accordingly, he is one of just eight active coaches in D-I basketball with over 700 career wins. Though Michigan failed to make the NCAA Tournament or NIT in 2014-15 thanks to an injury-riddled season, Beilein's Wolverines should bounce back in a big way the next two years.

2. Urban Meyer & Thad Matta, Ohio State

There are two correct answers to the question "Who is the best active college football head coach?" One is Alabama's Nick Saban. The other is Ohio State's Urban Meyer. Meyer has been a college football head coach for 13 seasons, and not once has his team ever had fewer than eight wins. And, most times, his teams are winning quite a few more than that. He guided Utah to an undefeated season and win over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl in 2004. He had three 13-1 seasons in six years at Florida, two of which resulted in national championships. And, in three seasons in Columbus, his Buckeyes are 38-3 with an undefeated season in 2012 and a national championship in 2014. Given that Ohio State beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals en route to that national title, Meyer may just have the edge over Saban as college football's best head coach, as painful as that is for me to type. Thad Matta is a pretty good college basketball coach, too. He came to Ohio State in 2004 after leading Xavier to two Atlantic 10 titles and a trip to the Elite Eight in three seasons. And, from 2006 to 2013, his Buckeyes won five Big Ten championships, appeared in five Sweet 16s, and participated in two Final Fours. But Matta, who has a reputation for being more of a recruiter than an in-game tactician, has seen Ohio State slip a bit the past two seasons. The Buckeyes haven't finished better than fifth in the Big Ten or advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in either year, and even one of those was with D'Angelo Russell, an uber-talented freshman guard that should be a top-5 selection in this summer's NBA Draft. This has opened the door for another football-basketball coaching tandem to take the top spot on this list. And the tandem that walked through that door won't make Michigan fans very happy.

1. Mark Dantonio & Tom Izzo, Michigan State

No program has had the level of success in both football and basketball in recent seasons than Michigan State. Michigan State basketball has been a juggernaut for two decades under Tom Izzo. He's led the Spartans to seven Big Ten titles, 13 Sweet 16s including seven in the past eight seasons, nine Elite Eights, seven Final Fours, and a national championship in 2000. And Izzo's had two of his best coaching performances the past two years. In 2014, Michigan State was a talented team that consistently was inflicted with injuries, of which Izzo made sure everyone was aware (#excuses), but the Spartans regrouped in time to reach the Elite Eight. Then, last season, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after missing on several high-profile recruits, they maneuvered through the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed to the Final Four. You just can't doubt Izzo in March. But what put Michigan State at the top of this list is Mark Dantonio's ascension as one of the best coaches in college football. Utilizing an aggressive, physical defense and an offense that likes to bully opponents at the line of scrimmage, Dantonio's Spartans have compiled four 11-plus win seasons in the past five years, recording a 53-14 record in that time. Not only did this five-year stretch include two Big Ten titles, it also included wins in the 2014 Rose Bowl -- their first Rose Bowl win and appearance since 1988 -- and the 2015 Cotton Bowl, which is one of the New Year's Six bowls. Accordingly, Michigan State was the only school to win a BCS or New Year's Six bowl game in football and advance to the Elite Eight in basketball in each of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 athletic seasons. That's a sign that a school has the best football-basketball coaching tandem.


What do you think are the best football-basketball coaching tandems in the nation? Is Michigan's duo of Jim Harbaugh and John Beilein too high? Too low? Should Michigan State's combo of Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo be No. 1 or would you give that label to another tandem? Please vote in the poll and share your thoughts in the comment section.