Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Giving the (Blue) Devil His Due: Four Reasons Coack K Is Greater Than John Wooden

This is the most unlikely blog post I have ever written, and will probably be the only time I ever say anything nice about Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, so copy and save this! But as a college basketball fan I have to give Coach K his props, and want to give four reasons why he should be considered the greatest NCAA tourney coach of all time, far surpassing John Wooden.

1.  Coach K doesn't cheat.  It is true that John Wooden won ten national championships, twice as many as Coach K's five titles. But Coach K's program has never had any kind of taint of cheating. Contrary to his sainted reputation, the same was not true of John Wooden. Widely known among basketball insiders, but rarely discussed in public, Wooden's players during the dynasty years received illegal favors from a local booster named Sam Gilbert. "Papa Sam" gave the players cash, cars, and even arranged abortions for the players' girlfriends. This was so well-known among coaches that Jerry Tarkanian used to joke that th most important piece of Wooden's famous "Pyramid of Success" was Sam Gilbert! Wooden did not actively court Gilbert's support, but he knew of his activities, and by all accounts essentially turned a blind eye to him. It is interesting that when Seth Davis decided to write a biography of Wooden, people inside basketball would often ask him in hushed tones if he was going to mention Gilbert in the book (he did).

2.  Coach K is a great sportsman. Another aspect of the Wooden aura that is really frustrating is the notion that he was such a great gentleman. No, he did not pace the sidelines and rage like Bobby Knight. But Wooden was infamous for taunting opposing players and baiting officials. In pregame warmups he would  sometimes walk over to the opposing team and trash talk their players, telling them what a field day his team was going to have. Bill Walton once said that the two biggest trash talkers he ever knew were Larry Bird and John Wooden! Coach K probably baits the officials as much as anyone, but he has always been incredibly gracious to opposing players and coaches. I will never forget the way he came over to Cawood Ledford after the ending of the epic 1992 game against UK and congratulated our team for its heart and determination on the national radio broadcast. I can't imagine Coach K hissing insults at opposing players like Wooden did.

3.  Coach K has won five titles in a much tougher tourney format. During Wooden's tourney run, the field was much smaller - 16, or later 32 teams. But throughout Coach K's run, the format has been 64 teams. Wooden does deserve credit as a coach for winning ten titles. After all, other people in his era faced the same 16/32 team field but didn't win like him (even those who cheated like he did!). But to me, Coach K's success through the bigger bracket era is more impressive. I doubt the extra game or two in the tourney would have made much difference with the Alcindor teams, but otherwise, who knows. Over the span of twelve Final Fours that's 12-24 additional games Coach K has had to win.

4.  Coach K has won during very different eras. I give John Wooden credit for winning with very different teams. His early teams were small, and won by pressing and running, while his later teams with Alcindor and Walton were post-oriented. Coach K has also adapted his style of play, from the early days of motion offense to the pro-style pick and roll attack he now uses. But more impressively, Coach K has mainted success during significant rules changes, from the days of the advent of the shot clock to the three point line. Many coaches could not successfully adjust to these new rules (John Thompson, Denny Crum). And even more impressively,  he has adjusted to the change in kids, and learned how to relate to young people in four different decades, something many other great coaches could not do (Bob Knight).

So hats off to Coach K for a fantastic achievement. But I still think Kentucky would have kicked your butt this year!

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