College basketball is not supposed to be an arena for legitimate GOAT debate, because the last time anyone checked, 10 national titles are better than five. John Wooden won 10 at UCLA, and Mike Krzyzewski has won five at Duke. That evidence seems strong enough for what the legal system calls summary judgment.
A slam dunk, in other words.
But as Krzyzewski begins the end Tuesday night in the Garden, tipping off his 42nd and final season at Duke with a game against his career-defining victim, Kentucky (see 1992, Laettner, shot), his case as the greatest college basketball coach of all time is actually quite strong. In fact, I would put him a half-step ahead of Wooden based on overall body of work, longevity, and the ever-evolving circumstances of the sport in the Coach K era that made winning more difficult than it was in the Wizard’s world.
You know, things that might tweak the numbers just enough to make 5 > 10.
Of course, you could argue that the score should be 10-10, given that Krzyzewski won three Olympic gold medals and two world championships as head coach of Team USA. Though it’s one of the great basketball crimes of the 20th century that Wooden was never hired to lead the U.S. Olympic team, that’s not Coach K’s fault. And if you believe that Krzyzewski shouldn’t get much credit for winning those international competitions with NBA stars, remember how that worked out for Larry Brown in Athens (third place, 2004 Olympics) and for George Karl in Indianapolis (sixth place, 2002 worlds). Coach K suffered the most devastating defeat of his life in the 2006 worlds, falling to Greece in the semis, yet went 88-1 as the national team coach, including 24-0 in the Olympics.
But if keeping it strictly an NCAA comparison, UCLA won nine NCAA Tournaments from 1964 through 1973 — including an absurd seven in a row — when fields consisted of 23 or 25 teams, forcing the Bruins to survive only four games. (They needed to win five in the 32-team field in 1975.) Krzyzewski had to win six sudden-death games in each of his five championship seasons at a time when all the powerful high-majors got invited to the tournament; UCLA dodged some dangerous heavyweights in an era when only conference tournament champs were eligible to compete.
Wooden never worried about losing centerpiece underclassmen to the NBA (freshmen were not NCAA eligible until 1972). He got six varsity seasons and five national titles combined out of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton, who would have either turned pro out of high school or played a maximum of one college season during much of Coach K’s time. Krzyzewski won championships with traditional upperclassmen teams and, in 2015, with three one-and-dones in his starting lineup.
Coach K had to manage the migraine of constant roster turnover. He started losing underclassmen to the NBA in 1999, when sophomores Elton Brand and Will Avery and freshman Corey Maggette left a 37-2 NCAA finalist. Over the past two decades and change, Krzyzewski surely lost some titles because players who would’ve otherwise remained in school in the Wooden era jumped to the NBA. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that Duke wouldn’t have gotten a championship out of Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett had they stayed together through this season, their would-be senior years.
Beyond the tumultuous change in college basketball, Krzyzewski has coached in a time of greater parity than in Wooden’s time, when national TV appearances were reserved for the precious few. The proliferation of cable channels and the instant, multi-platform access of the internet age have given more and more programs the visibility needed to attract talent, making it tougher for one to dominate.
Not that every current coach and/or Krzyzewski supporter sees these circumstances as difference-makers in the Coach K-Wooden argument. While researching an upcoming book on Coach K’s life, I asked one of his closest friends, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, to reveal his own scorecard.
“John Wooden is in a class by himself,” Boeheim said. “You can’t argue that.” Told that teams had easier paths to championships then, the Syracuse coach responded, “I don’t care. It is tougher now, a lot tougher, but [Wooden] still won 10. … Mike is by far the best in his very competitive era.”
Coach K and Wooden are tied with 12 Final Fours apiece, but with 1,170 career Division I victories, Krzyzewski has 506 more than Wooden had. Five hundred and six. Coach K has more NCAA Tournament victories (a record 97) than Wooden and Bob Knight combined.
Longevity matters in these debates. On his end, Coach K has said that Wooden is “separate from everybody” and that his legacy is “really something that’s not going to be topped.”
Krzyzewski will likely make the same declaration if he wins his sixth ring in April. Either way, Coach K has already won more college games than any man (or woman) dead or alive.
For that, he should be sitting atop Wooden’s Pyramid of Success when the final horn is blown.