January 25, 2015
Maybe he saw this coming. Mike Krzyzewski does have remarkable vision, as so many of the most accomplished people do. Steve Jobs knew we’d all want our music in single tiny box before most of us imagined such a thing was appealing, let alone essential.
Maybe Coach K knew when he stood before a crowd of reporters last weekend in Louisville at least one of them would be sitting down soon to write that he was the greatest college basketball coach of all time.
“There is no best coach,” Krzyzewski said that afternoon.
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OK, so it didn’t take such a wild degree of prescience to figure someone, somewhere was going to look at impending conquest of the 1,000-victory mark and try to put it in historical perspective.
Still, Krzyzewski has ascended to this particular position in large part because he anticipates: problems, challenges, obstacles and, as it turns out, accolades. He maybe doesn’t want anyone declaring he is superior to John Wooden (664 victories), Adolph Rupp (876), Jim Calhoun (873) and — perhaps most of all — his mentor, Bob Knight (902).
College basketball is a competition, and competitions have winners. Krzyzewski isn’t the greatest coach in the game because he has won more games, though it certainly is a substantial part of his resume. Accumulating 999 victories is partly a product of the era in which he has coached: an era during which college teams played more games and it became common for men to continue in the job long past the protypical “retirement age.” Krzyzewski will reach age 68 in less than a month; he has won 78 games since he turned 65.
Wooden occasionally said he wished he’d chosen to continue coaching beyond his 65th birthday. Seth Davis’ biography, “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” suggests he was pretty much ready to leave the job when he did. Either way, he retired having won 10 NCAA championships in the previous 12 years, a run of success no college basketball coach is likely to ever approach, let alone match.
However, what Krzyzewski has done over the course of a 35-year period at Duke that includes a broadening of the game’s competition — more players playing, more schools trying, more challenges succeeding in the NCAA Tournament — exceeds Wooden’s accomplishment.
For nearly the entire length of Wooden’s career, early NBA draft entry was not an issue. Wichita State and Gonzaga were not paying their coaches as if they were corporate CEOs.
Getting to the NCAA Final Four required no more than two victories, and his Bruins did not deal with the concept of balanced regionals. They only played teams from the West until they got to the Final Four.
When Wooden had been on the job a dozen years at UCLA, he had appeared in three NCAA Tournaments and hadn’t won a game. He was 50 years old with zero tournament victories. It took him two years after that to make his first Final Four appearance. A coach with that record in today’s game in a major conference might not make it to year 13.
By the time Krzyzewski had been at Duke for 12 years, he’d survived a brutal start to his tenure that nearly led to his dismissal but recovered to make nine NCAA Tournaments, win 33 NCAA games, reach six Final Fours and claim his first two national championships.
Wooden reached his first Final Four in 1962, and he wound up making 12 in all. Krzyzewski will match that if he gets there again. Exactly how much the sport has changed is clear in these numbers: In securing 10 NCAA championships, Wooden won 47 career NCAA Tournament games. Krzyzewski has won 82, which is 17 more than any other college coach.
Whereas Wooden’s breathtaking run of success took place over the final 12 years of his career, Krzyzewski has had enormous success in the four different decades. He reached three Final Fours in the 80s, five in the 90s, two in the 00s and one in the 10s.
Wooden won five titles with Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton as centerpiece players, each completing his senior year with the Bruins. Krzyzewski got the opportunity to coach such players as Jabari Parker, Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Luol Deng, Corey Maggette for only a single season, and Elton Brand for two.
In what would have been Brand’s senior year, Krzyzewski won his third championship with Shane Battier as the veteran star supported primarily by elite freshmen and sophomores. That is the nature of the game now, and Krzyzewski’s most important talents this season are freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
Mike Krzyzewski took over his first Division I program in 1975 at Army, just as John Wooden was leaving the business following one last title with UCLA. If one wishes to suggest Wooden was handing over a baton of greatness, there is little doubt Coach K dropped it onto the track and did not retrieve it until several seasons later. Ultimately, though, he has run longer, faster and farther than his predecessor.
Like it or not, Krzyzewski has been the best.