Coach K deserves his spot on coaching’s Mount Rushmore 

INDIANAPOLIS — We’re big on comparisons. Could Muhammad Ali have beaten Joe Louis — or Rocky Marciano? Could Tiger Woods have defeated Jack Nicklaus? And, as if subjectivity doesn’t enter into the equations, who is the greatest college men’s basketball coach of all time?

Up front, I’ll tell you: I’m a UCLA grad, and I knew John Wooden. So, yes, I’m biased. But if you insist, take Mike Krzyzewski, who tonight has Duke in another NCAA final. Or Adolph Rupp. Or Bobby Knight. Or Dean Smith. Or the man who veritably invented the game and mentored Smith, Phog Allen. Then you have an argument.

Wooden once told me winning was more difficult than losing because once you win, the fans, alumni and critics expect you to win again and again — and by larger and larger margins. Krzyzewski understands.

He was down a year ago. His brother, Bill, had died. Then Duke lost to 14th-seeded Mercer (Mercer!) in the first round of the tournament. His energy level was low. Yet, now, at age 68, one game from a fifth championship with a résumé that’s unmatchable, Krzyzewski is remarkably upbeat.

Giddy, those close to him say.

And the Duke people are equally excited that Coach K — a perfect nickname for the only man who has 1,000 victories — goes on and on. He has coached the Blue Devils to the Final Four 12 times. He coached the U.S. men’s national team to two Olympic gold medals, teaming with a fellow native Chicagoan, Jerry Colangelo, in resurrecting a national program in crisis.

In college, it’s primarily about recruiting. And the freshmen he brought in last fall — Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones — have been spectacular enough to get Duke to the ultimate game and probably to leave early become first-round NBA picks.

In the international game, it’s about persuading superstars — Magic Johnson, Larry Bird,

LeBron James, many others — to subjugate their individual brilliance for the good of the team, Before Krzyzewski agreed to become part of the program, the Americans were losing to Puerto Rico, to Spain, settling for Olympic bronze medals. Not any more.

His 1991 Duke team stunned unbeaten UNLV in the NCAA semifinal, and now 24 years later in the final game, Duke faces Wisconsin, which Saturday night upset unbeaten Kentucky in the NCAA semis. The years go on, and so does the Krzyzewski success.

“We don’t have unrealistic expectations,” said a man unafraid of telling the truth. “In other words, we know we’re a good team. But we’re one of many good teams.”

Now, they’re only one of only two good teams remaining, a tribute to Krzyzewski. If any of the favorites went down along the way, it figured to be Duke. Instead, it was Kentucky. And there was Coach K trying to diffuse praise and counter Wooden by saying there haven’t been expectations, only satisfaction.

“I certainly have not felt any pressure,” he said. “We’ve really been in our moment.”

Krzyzewski’s moments keep coming. Not many coaches reach the title game over a span of a quarter-century. In 1992. Duke ousted the Fab Five Michigan squad. He figures a way to overcome people such as Larry Johnson of UNLV or Chris Webber of Michigan.

“You keep learning about the game,” he said. “It’s not just the title game. It’s what you learn about coaching. You’re constantly learning.

“I’m a better coach now than I was in ’86 or ’91 or ’92. Just to be in the moment. It’s more what you learn about this game. The Final Four is a different animal when you come in. There’s so much time between that Saturday or Sunday [regional final] and the Saturday [of the Final Four]. So handling is what you learn the most, not so much about it title game.” The little details, the big men such as Okafor, the tough losses, the enthralling wins. Krzyzewski is candid about his involvement, particularly when asked what a win tonight would mean.

“We have our spot,” he said. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said the pronoun is reserved for monarchs, editors and people with worms?

“I know I’m one of the really good coaches,” he went on. “I know we’re one of the really good programs. Monday night is about [the players]. They shouldn’t think of anything else. It has nothing to do with Duke historically or me.”

On the contrary, when a man coaches more than 1,000 wins, when he repeatedly brings in top athletes and gets to the final game, when he repairs America’s broken Olympic program, it has everything to do with him. Mike Krzyzewski is no less than the second-best coach of all time. We’ll let it do at that.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on Email him at

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Art Spander

Art Spander

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and Email him at
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