By Jason Keidel
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Comparing eras is about as empirical as comparing ex-wives. The latest tends to be the greatest, unless you’re in the middle of a divorce, at which point the first spouse sounds like a saint through the hazy prism of memory.
So the question sounds more blasphemous than it means.
Is Mike Krzyzewski the greatest coach of all time?
College basketball, of course. No comparing Coach K to Vince Lombardi, Bud Wilkinson, Red Auerbach or Connie Mack.
But the man to whom we will compare Coach K is perhaps above the above list of luminaries.
That’s John Wooden, of course. The Wizard of Westwood. The patron saint of the hardwood. The man who coached Kareem, Walton, and Wilkes; the man who won 10 rings in 12 years, the man who won 88 straight games, the man who has become the emblem of victory and humility.
And the man who never even mentioned winning to his students.
Wooden coached when players actually attended college, long before high-end athletes saw school as little more than a chalkboard funnel for their first sneaker deal.
Sure, Wooden wasn’t allowed to start his freshmen. But Coach K is in an era when you only have freshmen. Well, that’s if they have any real talent — then they bounce to the Association faster than you can say “lottery.”
Why is anyone even pondering this? Because Coach K just reached his 12th national semifinal, which means he’s had his mail forwarded to the Final Four since the late-’80s.
Coach K is the only coach with a sobriquet that sticks. He is never embroiled in academic or athletic scandal. He’s not blasted by his former players or coaches. He’s never exposed by some bio written by a scorned associate. His integrity is never questioned. His ethics, like his oddly black mane, haven’t changed in 30 years.
He’s still got that mousy face that seems to collapse under his nose. He still speaks with his Chicago cadence, his hard-hat ethos no different today than it was 900 wins ago.
He learned at West Point, under Bob Knight, yet never acquired the irascible coach’s ornery public persona. Sure, he yells at his players and exchanged some heated monologues with Dean Smith at the height of the Tobacco Road rivalry. But the sainted Smith wound up befriending Coach K long before he faded under the dim lights of dementia.
And it helps to have talent.
Elton Brand. Shane Battier. Jay Williams. JJ Redick. Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill. The polarizing Christian Laettner.
Those are just a few of the bedrock hardwood greats he coached.
But Smith had Michael Jordan and won just one ring with him. (Smith won a second title in the 90s.) So it’s more than cobbling together some high-school studs and rolling the ball out to center court.
There were far fewer teams in the NCAA Tournament when Wooden was working his magic at UCLA, so his senior-laden teams had fewer inherent hurdles to the Final Four.
His second title team (1965) went 28-2. If Duke wins it this year it will take them 39 games to do so, as opposed to UCLA’s 30. There were 23 teams in the 1965 NCAA Tournament, in vivid contrast to today’s 64 teams. UCLA won the tourney in four games, while Duke won each of their four titles — and perhaps their fifth this year — under Coach K in six games.
An argument for one man always sounds like an argument against the other, which is impossible in this case. Wooden is more than a coach. He’s an avatar, a teacher, a legend, a deity. And to win 10 titles with turnover every few years speaks to Wooden’s singular brilliance in keeping the message despite the myriad messengers.
Perhaps there should be a symbolic line in the sand, a dog-eared page in the archives. Pre- and post-Wooden. I will be harpooned for even broaching the subject. But unlike other sports — like football, where losing the Super Bowl is often worse than not making it, as well as losing in the NBA Finals — the Final Four is still hallowed hardwood.
Including his two years at Indiana State, Wooden’s career record is 664-162, for an .804 winning percentage. Krzyzewski’s overall record (including his years coaching at West Point) is 1,016-310, for a .766 winning percentage.
Wooden went 47-10 in the NCAA Tournament and won the Pac 8 title 16 times, but never had to play in a conference tournament. Coach K is 86-26 in the NCAA Tournament and won the ACC 12 times.
But did you know Wooden coached 18 years before he finally won his first national championship? In the nouveau world of college athletics, 18 years would include four or five job changes if you haven’t won a championship.
Coach K was squirming on the hot seat after just a few years under the radar. And he rewarded their relative patience with a sprawling montage of memories and banners.
But even if you don’t consider Coach K the equal of Coach Wooden — or even close — there’s no shame in coming in second place. At least in this case.
If he wins two more games, Krzyzewski is one step closer to sharing the Wizard’s wand.