I did not mind the well-deserved accolades for Mike Krzyzewski after he set the new victory record for Division 1 basketball coaches. What gave me a slow burn is how Dean Smith was left outside the three-point line by certain “analysts” comparing the greatest coaches of all-time.
Bob Knight was in every conversation, of course, because he owned the record until a week ago and is still on TV adding his dead-pan commentary to game broadcasts. UCLA’s John Wooden will be included for perpetuity with his never-to-be-matched 10 national championships. Adolph Rupp gets an occasional nod because he held the record for coaching victories so long until Smith broke it in 1997.
But in my (Carolina blue) book, Smith should never be left out of any discussion, and he ranks as a better all-time coach than Krzyzewski for reasons beyond national championships and all-time victories, categories in which the Duke coach leads the retired UNC legend. Both coaches could have, and probably should have, won more NCAA titles. The Tar Heels lost star players to the pros with eligibility remaining and had some horrible Final Four Saturday performances. The Blue Devils also lost some stars early and blew some big leads in semifinal and championship games.
For the record, Smith finished with 879 career wins to Krzyzewski’s 904 and counting. Coach K caught Smith with his 13th ACC Tournament championship last season and his 11th Final Four in 2010. Smith still leads most of the other numbers, like consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins, trips to at least the Sweet Sixteen, Top 10 finishes in the polls, top three finishes in the ACC; and ACC winning percentage.
There are four other measurable, and more meaningful, ways to compare the greatest coaches.
1) How did they do head-to-head?
2) How their innovations impacted the game.
3) What kind of basketball tree did they grow?
4) And did they coach on level playing fields?
Smith and Krzyzewski met head-to-head 38 times (not including the 1995 season when Coach K turned his team over to Pete Gaudet due to back problems and exhaustion). Smith won 24 of those match-ups. If you have to mention that Smith won 6 of the first 7 games before Duke reached the NCAA Tournament under Krzyzewski, you also have to say that Smith won 6 of his last 7 games against K.
Smith’s “Deannovations” are legendary and most have been long-lasting. Four Corners went out with the shot clock, but many teams besides Carolina still point at the passer for recognition, huddle at the foul line to call the next defense, save their timeouts and stop the clock when behind at the end of games, use some kind of tired signal, change defenses, show the match-up (or point) zone and spring surprise double-teams like the old “run and jump”. Coaches all the way down to grade school continue to teach some of those inventions.
Krzyzewski’s teams first slapped the floor when they want to make a big stop on defense, and the Cameron Crazies (embraced by Coach K) are the most creative and famous student fans. That’s it for “K-nnovations” as far as I can tell.
Both coaches produced plenty of All-Americans, first-round NBA draft picks and professional stars, although Carolina has the bigger names in NBA history. There is little comparison to how many each coach sent on to coaching and administrative careers in the game.
Smith’s basketball tree is a giant oak, with large limbs and strong branches named Doug Moe, Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Billy Cunningham, Eddie Fogler, Roy Williams, Robert McAdoo, Georg Karl, Tony Shaver, Mitch Kupchak, John Kuester, Phil Ford, Mike O’Koren, Joe Wolf, Matt Doherty, Michael Jordan, Buzz Peterson, Curtis Hunter, Dave Hanners, Jeff Lebo, King Rice, Scott Cherry, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese and Pat Sullivan – at least 17 of them (bolded) still earning a living in basketball.
By comparison, Krzyzewski’s basketball tree is a scrub pine. Tommy Amaker, Mike Brey, John Dawkins, Mike Dement and Quinn Snyder (barely) are still head coaches. Danny Ferry and Billy King are NBA executives. Kenny Blakeney, Robert Brickey, Jeff Capel, Chris Carrawell, Chris Collins, Nate James, Antonio Lang, Mike Schrage and Steve Wojciechowski are or have been assistant coaches, along with a few basketball power brokers like NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver who have Duke ties.
As for the level playing field, Smith was a head coach for 36 years from 1961 through 1997. Krzyzewski has now done it for 36 seasons and four games. Before Coach K took his first Duke team to the NCAA Tournament in 1984, Smith qualified for 13 NCAA fields ranging from 23 to 48 teams. By starting in the Sweet Sixteen or receiving first-round byes, Smith missed a potential 17 victories. Plus, his 1963 and ’65 Tar Heels would have made the NCAA tournament in years more than one team per conference was allowed and before ACC teams could go to the NIT. You can’t win games you did not get to play. Clearly, that all but one of Krzyzewski’s NCAA Tournament appearances came in a full, 64-team field helped him pass Smith and Wooden for the most NCAA victories a few years ago.
Furthermore, the 1962 through 1980 seasons averaged about five fewer games played. Those five games multiplied by 18 years equal about 90 less games for UNC. Even at a conservative winning percentage of 70, that’s more than 60 additional victories Smith would have earned playing on the same field as Krzyzewski. Those and the missed NCAA games before the field capped at 64 make about 80 more potential victories for Smith. So let’s say his adjusted total is 959.
Of course, it’s all a moot point because Krzyzewski looks like he might coach until he’s 70 and easily surpass 1,000 career victories. But it just goes to show there are many ways to measure the greatest coach of all time.
To me, it’s still Dean Smith.