Is Coach K The Best College Basketball Coach Ever?

By Jason Keidel

Take Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor from your college basketball team, and say sayonara for a year or two. The program will have to recover and rebuild, retool and regroup. Unless you’re Mike Krzyzewski. And you coach at Duke, that little fiefdom down in Durham, where those ‘r’ verbs don’t make it into the vernacular.

According to CBSSports.com, 39 players in these eight delicious games over the next four days are on the CBS Sports NBA Draft Big Board of 150 prospects. Of all the players with pro potential, the highest-rated player left in the tourney plays for Duke, of course.

Coach K didn’t exactly reload, but he hardly had to rebuild. Gone is Okafor; in is the 6′ 9″ Brandon Ingram, he of the 7′ 3″ wingspan. Depending on how far Ben Simmons’s stock falls, Ingram could replace him at the top of the NBA Draft in a few months.

Surely Ingram’s next loss will be his last in college hoops. But do you doubt he will have a sublime successor next year? Maybe Coach K was late to the party, but once he got here he closed it down, way past last call.

Once Coach K surrendered to the meat-hook realities of the one-and-done world, the fact that kids see college as a chalkboard funnel to their first sneaker deal, he started dealing. Keeping his grip on the roundball, he continues to prove the pundits wrong. Only a back problem, which spawned a significant hiatus, can keep him from winning, and dominating college basketball.

And he’s done it so well for so long, and without the scandals that plague almost every other university. One need only look 10 miles away to North Carolina, where some kids who could barely read left with college degrees. Coach K is a marvel.

This raises a heretofore blasphemous question. Is Coach K the best coach ever?

 

Before you douse me with holy water, at least consider the possibility. The gold standard, of course, is John Wooden, the Wizard, monolith and emblem of college basketball. Wooden’s contributions to the sport are surpassed only by Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game.

It’s hard to properly assess Wooden’s career through the fog of fairy dust around his legacy. Parsing his resume feels like questioning God. And, in a very real sense, he was a hardwood deity. Between his lectures and lessons and pyramids of success and iconic disciples, the man (who never swore or partook in vulgarity) was literally too good to be true.

No one doubts or questions Wooden’s genius or importance. Just consider the notion that Coach K is his peer.

Wooden went to 12 Final Fours. So has Coach K. And if he wins just two more games in this tournament, he’ll pass Wooden.

Wooden won 81 percent of his games with UCLA. Krzyzewski has won 79 percent at Duke.

And here’s a fact buried under the ample archives of Wooden’s glory. Wooden wasn’t born with a fistful of championship rings, it took him 14 seasons with UCLA to reach a Final Four. It took Coach K six years at Duke.

There were 25 teams in the 1964 NCAA Tournament, the year Wooden started his epic run of championships. There were 32 in 1975, his last year on the bench, when he won his final title. There were 64 teams every year in which Krzyzewksi won a championship.

It took Wooden four tournament wins to bag each of his national titles. It took Krzyzewski six wins for his.

Wooden won 643 games. Krzyzewski has won 1,043.

The firewall between Wooden and everyone else, of course, is his 10 NCAA titles. No one will approach that. Coach K has half that total, and he turns 70 next year.

But still.

Wooden was allowed to coach a player for more than six months. Granted, freshmen couldn’t play with the varsity for most of his coaching career — until the 1972-73 season, to be exact. But when players like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton play through their senior seasons, you have an inherent and insane edge over the rest of the nation. (In today’s rabid basketball world, would anyone have let a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar land west of the Mississippi?)

Coach K enjoyed upperclassmen for a while. But his last true, all-world talent to stick around for his college degree was Grant Hill. That was 22 years ago.

There weren’t nearly as many teams pining for players back in Wooden’s day. Kids didn’t have 200 schools from which to choose, with at least 50 of them legitimate tournament contenders. There were no pressers inside high school gyms, attended by gaggles of reporters, where 17-year-olds announce their next school, stuff hats over their inflated heads, and sign letters of intent.

There weren’t stacks of scouting tomes, or dozens of websites charting young men’s growth from puberty onward. And with the proliferation of AAU teams and preteen D-Leagues, kids are being groomed as early as six-years-old.

There are more great players than ever. More teams can honestly strive for a title, unlike 40 years ago, when a wide chasm separated the No. 2 and No. 20 teams. These days, you can practically toss a dart at the bracket and pick a David toppling a Goliath. This March may have seen more epic upsets than any in NCAA history.

Parity was a parody in the 1960s. Throughout Wooden’s career, only one team from his conference (Pac 10) was assured a place in the NCAA tournament, usually his. This year, seven teams from the Pac 12 made it to March Madness.

There were few mid-major infestations in Wooden’s time. Schools like George Washington, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth didn’t have access to the wide palate of players and fine coaching minds back in Wooden’s day.

So imagine the gigs Coach K has rejected over the decades. We know the Lakers drooled over him years ago. Surely there have been at least a half-dozen other NBA offers in the high, eight-figure realm. Between his resume, Olympic connections and friendships with the best NBA players, Krzyzewski could have named his job and his price for 20 years. Yet he stayed.

Longevity and productivity are key. Not just individual, but collective, the logic and loyalty that comes with a hardwood marriage between one coach and one college.

There are barely a handful of coaches who approach Coach K’s orbit — Roy Williams, Bill Self and John Calipari are among them (if not all of them). But add up their total titles (4), and they don’t match Krzyzewski (5).

If total titles is your only metric, then the NCAA Mt. Rushmore will always bear one bust, John Wooden’s. But there won’t ever be another Coach K either, even if you don’t think he’s quite the wizard we had in Westwood.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Listen Live