Photo: John Wooden (left) and Mike Krzyzrewski. Below, Coach Krzyzrewski with his Army players.
No matter how you add up the numbers or inflate college basketball today at the expense of the past, it’s hard to make an all-around case that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has caught up to UCLA’s immortal John Wooden.
Coach K won’t even dare try, even though his 12th Final Four his year matched Wooden’s record in what some argue is a more competitive era.
“Coach Wooden will go down as the greatest winner, greatest coach of all time,” said Krzyzewski in one of his NCAA press conferences during the tournament. “No one will ever match the amount of titles he has.”
To discount Wooden's Final Four record is to overlook that in his day only the conference champion advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In 1971, USC stayed home with a 24-2 record and No. 5 national ranking because both losses were to UCLA. That prompted the 1975 change to allow more than one team per conference to gain a bid.
But consider one aspect of coaching where the Wizard of Westwood’s own words support Coach K’s unique stature.
UCLA’s 1975 Final Four was Wooden’s 12th and turned out to be his last with his surprise announcement following the semifinal victory over Louisville that he would retire after the championship game. He was seven months shy of 65 two nights later when the Bruins beat Kentucky for their 10th NCAA title in 12 years.
Wooden explained coaching was no longer as enjoyable for him. He later told a story that illustrated his thoughts. After UCLA beat Kentucky in the championship game, a booster told him the 1975 title made up for the Bruins losing in the 1974 Final Four semifinal – his only career Final Four loss.
And that aspect is where Coach K has surpassed Wooden. His career as a head coach was just beginning in the fall of the 1975-76 season at West Point at age 28, but he appears as much or more at ease at age 68.
“Well, my wife and daughters want me to keep coaching for a long time,” Krzyzewki said. “The main reason is because they've seen how much I've enjoyed this year, how much I love this group. Not that I was going to give it up if they weren't that way. But we get kids like this, then you love to do this every day.”
Coach K is in his 35th year as a head coach Duke and 40th overall. Wooden was UCLA’s head coach 28 years and a head coach, including three at Indiana State, for 31 overall.
Krzyzewski has heard boosters say he’s distracted by his USA Basketball team after first-round NCAA losses in 2012 and 2014 in the era of social media, but his enjoyment of X's and O's and his leadership of young players blocks it out. He’d have to announce a surprise Wooden-like retirement to suggest otherwise.
Is 68 is the new 58?
Coach K explained he has adapted. But Wooden worked at that, too. In the volatile 1970s Vietnam War protests, Wooden once bailed out of jail his dissenting All-American center, Bill Walton. In those days, Wooden, ever the teacher, sat in on UCLA psychology classes to learn about student attitudes and thoughts.
“I believe in constantly adapting to the development of my players, not having my players adapt to the system that I put in,” Coach K said. “There's tremendous room for growth when you do it that way. That's what this team has done. It's incredibly exciting. It's not a little exciting; it's incredibly exciting. Now they've got a chance to play for a national championship. Damn, how exciting is that? I mean, it's great. It's just great. I’m so happy for them.”
Krzyzewski has even shown the ability to adjust in the middle of the season. The Blue Devils improved in one of those addition-by-subtraction equations when Semi Ojeleye decided in December to leave the program as a transfer and Rasheed Suliamon was dismissed in late-January. It was the first time Coach K kicked off a player from his team.
Coach K successfully kept the focus of the season on the team’s improvement. That wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t groomed a leader such as senior point guard Quinn Cook that was willing to acquiesce to three lottery-pick freshmen, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow.
“We haven't had a tough year because we had one kid transfer and we had a dismissal,” Krzyzrewski said. “Our kids have been great. I haven't even had a tough year. It's been a great year. But we've had to adjust to the numbers that we have. I think you just need to adapt. But these kids have been really good to coach the whole year long.”
Maybe another reason Coach K is still enjoying the moment with youthful coaching enthusiasm is he’s instructed his players so well, he’s able to step back and watch them coach themselves in the moment on the floor.
“We keep getting better,” he said. “It's because our guys are paying attention, they want to learn. A big thing is that they've become smarter together. In other words, they talk about the game more while the game is going on, in preparation, than they did earlier in the year. They understood, but they weren't using it together as much. Now they are. When we go through our game plan, defense, guys are talking, giving instruction. When one guy's out, they're saying, ‘Remember, you got to do this.’ They've been focused on basketball. They've been really good kids to coach.”
And that was never more evident during the season when the Duke regrouped from Michigan State’s sizzling 14-6 start Saturday night to win the game 81-61 and earn a date in Monday’s final.
“They were sensational in the last 36 minutes,” Coach K said. “In this stage, in this game, for them to be like that after getting down 14-6, I'm really proud of them, really proud of them.”
Wooden was no doubt equally proud of his team following the comeback win over Louisville. But with Wooden about to turn 65 the following fall, something told him the 1975 season was his last.
"One of the main things is how to handle any level of success you had," Krzyzrewski said. "I always thought (Wooden) handled it with great dignity. I always thought that his players loved playing for him. They played like a cohesive unit. I also saw in his teams the ability to adapt.”
And he’s still applying those lessons while pushing 70. Can he win six more NCAA titles to tie Wooden? Can he live to 100?Wooden, after all, was even one of the best in pursuit of Father Time. He was only four months shy of 100 when he passed away in 2010.