The Greatest Coaches In Los Angeles History, By Sport

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phil jackson

Picking the greatest coach in Los Angeles sports history is like picking your favorite blockbuster movie series: Avengers, Star Wars or Godfather.

Besides, the honest answer is that the best coach in Los Angeles is probably a high school basketball coach sitting somewhere in a run-down gym with old banners on the wall, who drives the bus, cleans the uniforms and inspires new kids every year. 

What I thought though, like in the movies, I would break down the greatest LA coaches by genre (sports). How can we compare a Super Bowl winning coach against someone who won an NBA finals or five? You can’t. 

Los Angeles has a deep and rich history of great coaches. These men (and sorry, but they are all men) are all blockbusters in their fields.

Soccer: Bruce Arena

A-ha, surprised you with this one, but we should take Major League Soccer seriously, and Los Angeles is the proud owner of two of the best MLS franchises. 

The LA Galaxy have won the most MLS Cups with five, three of them coming under the direction of Bruce Arena (2011, 2012, 2014). He’s also won two MLS Cups with the DC United when the league was just getting started.

Arena also won five championships at the University of Virginia. He took the US National team to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, but Team USA flopped in 2006. Arena came back to Team USA in 2016, and well, that didn’t go so well either. Arena is now the coach of the New England Revolution.

Hockey: Darryl Sutter

Ten years ago, ‘King Mullet’ and ESPN personality Barry Melrose would have been the only choice for best hockey coach ever to grace a penalty box in Los Angeles, but then Sutter came along.

One of six NHL-playing brothers, Sutter inherited an LA Kings team going nowhere early in the 2011-2012 season. He got LA into the playoffs as the eighth seed and beat the top-seeded Canucks, the Blues and the Coyotes to make the Stanley Cup Finals. Then they took down the New Jersey Devils in six games to win the first Cup in franchise history and briefly make LA a hockey town.

Sutter followed that up with another incredible Cup run in 2014. The Kings were down 3-0 in the first round to the Sharks, pulled the ‘reverse sweep’ and eventually won the Stanley Cup 4-1 over the New York Rangers.

Sutter, now the coach of the Calgary Flames, was dismissed from the Kings after missing the playoffs two straight years in 2017. He still has the most wins in franchise history (225) and highest winning percentage (.641).

Baseball: Walter Alston

Don’t get sucked into recency bias. Yes, almost everyone in this generation associates the Los Angeles Dodgers with Tommy Lasorda, but Alston coached the franchise longer and had more success. There should be no dispute.

Alston came over with the Dodgers from Brooklyn. He was renowned for coaching every one of his 23 years on a one-year contract. 

Under Alston, the Dodgers won three World Series titles (1959, 1963 and 1965) and the NL Pennant in 1966 and 1974. He’s ninth on the all-time MLB managers’ win list with 2,040 wins and his winning percentage of .558 ranks 12th all time.

Lasorda took over for Alston. He spent 21 years as Dodgers skipper, 47 years with the team, but his titles don’t beat Alston. Lasorda won four pennants and two World Series.

Pro Football: John Robinson

Sean McVay? Well, you must give the current Rams coach his props, but he hasn’t been around long enough for me to consider him tops.

This is a tough one because of Los Angeles’ weird pro football history. Technically Tom Flores won a Super Bowl here with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983. And honestly, if you want to talk greatest pro football mind then Sid Gillman, basically the pioneer of throwing the ball down the field, is the best LA coach, but he only coached the Los Angeles Chargers for one year in the old AFL, and then they moved to San Diego.

The original Rams had some good years with George Allen in the late 60s, but never had the sustained success they had under Robinson. He came over from USC (more on that in a minute) in 1983 and took the Rams to the playoffs six times in nine years and two NFC title games. 

The biggest problem for Robinson and the Rams was they played in the same division as Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers and no one was beating them. Robinson’s 79 wins are still the most in Rams franchise history.

College Football: John Robinson

Can it be that Robinson is also the best college football coach in LA history? I’ll get to Pete Carroll in a minute. 

Robinson made ‘student body right’ an iconic college football play when he was coaching Southern Cal. He made USC Tailback U. Robinson was the Trojans coach from 1976 to 1982 and again from 1993 to 1997. He won a split national title in 1978 (this was back when the title was decided by the polls), five conference titles and four Rose Bowls.

When USC called him again in 1993 when he left the Rams, Robinson responded and showed he still had it. His 1995 Trojans team went 9-2-1 and won the Rose Bowl.

So what about Carroll? His USC teams won three national titles and 97 games on the field, and his Trojans were No. 1 in five of his nine years at some point in the season, but his tenure is still stained by recruiting allegations and NCAA sanctions. 

You can give Pete the nod if you want, but I think Robinson is better.

Listen, you can also make the case for Terry Donahue at UCLA. He had 151 wins with the Bruins, and went 10-9-1 against USC. He doesn’t have the success on the national scale, however.

Pro Basketball: Phil Jackson

This is the hardest one to pick. This is like asking whether you like Star Wars or Star Trek better.

I mean, the LA Clippers have had Larry Brown, Jack Ramsey and Bill Fitch, three of the greatest NBA coaches ever.

Oh wait, that’s the Clippers.

Professional basketball in Los Angeles means the purple and gold, 17 NBA Championships, the Lakers, Showtime, the Lake Show.

And the Lakers have had two of the greatest coaches in sports period. Pat Riley won four NBA titles in the 80s and his teams transformed the way basketball is played. And his resume beats Jackson when it comes to success as an administrator. Phil Jackson has been a lousy GM, Riley is still going strong with the Miami Heat.

Jackson is also still, in my opinion, more aligned with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but head-to-head with Riley in LA, Jackson has more NBA titles (5 to 4) and more wins (610 to 533). Riley’s winning percentage is higher (.733 to .700). You can’t go wrong with either one, unless you’re the Clippers, then everything you touch turns bad.

College Basketball: John Wooden

Quite simply, pound-for-pound the most successful coach in American sports. Period.

The quiet and humble man from Indiana came to UCLA in 1948 and revolutionized the sport of basketball. There’s no Pauley Pavilion without John Wooden. There’s no Pyramid of Success. There’s no Bill Walton, no Jamaal Wilkes, no Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). There’s no Final Four without the Wizard of Westwood.

In his 27 years at UCLA, Wooden put together a streak of success and longevity that will never be matched. His teams went to 12 Final Fours in 13 seasons. He won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. The Bruins etched the longest winning streak in college basketball history: 88 games, and his winning percentage is seems-like-a-misprint .808.

Wooden has inspired a generation of coaches behind him with his approach to the game and grace. UCLA has never been able to replace him, but who could? He’s the greatest.