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by Al Featherston

Okay, the celebration is over.

Mike Krzyzewski has his 903 wins in the bag. He's enjoyed nearly a week of admiration and adoration - all well-deserved. He's the winningest Division I men's coach of all time.


Now take down the Kountdown sign in Cameron and move on the next thing - or the "next play" as Coach K likes to say. In the short term, that's developing this year's Duke team into a championship team. In the long term, it's turning his designation as the winningest coach in basketball history into a more significant accolade - the BEST coach in basketball history.

Right now, most objective basketball observers would rate Coach K second all-time to UCLA's late John Wooden. Oh, I know that there are UNC and Kentucky loyalist who would blindly argue for their heroes. K himself might inject Bob Knight into the discussion. And there are plenty of Duke fans who have already vaulted Krzyzewski past Wooden in their personal pantheon.

I understand there is an argument to make. I know about the role Sam Gilbert played in Wooden's success. I realize that it was a different era and his path to the Final Four was a lot easier in the days when the NCAA field was not balanced or seeded.

That still doesn't change the equation. The great majority of unaffiliated fans - the consensus of opinion, if you will - cannot overlook Wooden's astounding 10 NCAA championships, just as no rational non-UNC fan is going to rank Dean Smith with his two national championships, 879 career wins, 11 Final Fours and 13 ACC championships over Coach K's four national championships, 903 (and counting) career wins, 11 Final Fours and 13 ACC championships.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules to this debate. There are those who would downgrade Adolph Rupp as a racist (which is a distortion of the historical record) or elevate Dean Smith as a leader in college basketball's integration (which is also a distortion of history). I've heard UNC fans argue that Smith deserves first on the list because of his character - because he didn't curse, where Knight and Krzyzewski are famous for their blue language. Rupp had the highest winning percentage of the top candidates. Smith smoked like a fiend and guzzled scotch! Coach K is active in the Jimmy V Foundation and other charities …

All those issues are irrelevant.

The one real issue of ranking the greatest college basketball coaches of all time comes down to one thing - winning. Winning individual games is important. Winning championships is more important. NCAA titles are best … but regional championships, conference championships, international championships are all significant. Even in-season championships such as Duke's pursuit of the Maui Invitational title next week are worth winning.

That's not just my opinion. That's the way Coach K sees the college basketball world.

"You want to win a championship with the team that you coach that year," he said earlier this week, before winning No. 903. "Those are the things you remember - championship moments, whether its league championship moments, regular season, ACC … Obviously, the biggest things that you can remember easy are national championships, but championships are things that I look back on because that's a real accomplishment."

So where, he was asked, would becoming the winningest coach in history rank in his personal pantheon?

"Somebody asked me a question about where would [win No. 903] be in a list of things that you feel really good about? I said, 'It's behind every championship' - not just national championships, but league championships."

If Krzyzewski is to become - or already is - the greatest coach of all time, it's going to come down to championships. Take a moment and consider his championship moments:


The first trophies to throw on Krzyzewski's championship scale are his four NCAA titles - all won in the 64-team era against a balanced field:

-- 1991 in Indianapolis. K had to beat an invincible UNLV team in the semifinals, then come back against Roy Williams' first great Kansas team.

-- 1992 in Minneapolis: K had to rally past Bob Knight's last great Indiana team in the semifinals, then smack down the Fab Five in the finals.

-- 2001 in Minneapolis: K had to engineer the greatest rally in Final Four history to get past Maryland (for the third time in four meetings) in the semifinals to set the stage of a championship victory over Lute Olson's most talented Arizona team.

-- 2010 in Indianapolis: The real hurdle was the Elite Eight win over Baylor in hostile Houston before the semifinal victory over Bob Huggins and West Virginia, then the classic championship finale over Brad Stevens' Butler Bulldogs playing in front of another huge hometown crowd.

I would add two equivalent titles in this category - the 2008 Olympic Championship in Beijing and the 2010 World Championship in Istanbul.

Those titles, won with NBA all-star teams, don't go on his Duke record, but like the 73 wins he compiled at Army, they certainly go on his personal record. It's easy to denigrate the achievement of winning a gold medal with the likes of Kobe Bryant, LaBron James and company, but it should be noted that in the cycle before Coach K took over the national team, similar NBA all-star teams finished sixth in the 2002 World Championships (held in Indianapolis on US soil) and third in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.


In the old days, to reach the Final Four, you had to become champion of your region. When Dean Smith's Tar Heels earned a trip to the 1967 Final Four, they became Champions of the East. The same for Vic Bubas' three Final Four teams in the mid-1960s. Bubas never won a national title, but he won three East championships.

The NCAA still designates its four brackets into "regionals" although the term no longer has any geographical meaning aside from the sites of the regional semifinals and finals. All Eastern teams don't play in the East. A year ago, Duke played the first two games in the "West Regional" in Charlotte, before flying to Anaheim for the Sweet 16.

But while the balancing of the field has changed the nature of a regional championship, it's actually made it MORE significant. At the time UCLA was winning all those West Regionals under Wooden, the Bruins rarely had to play a significant opponent to reach the Final Four. The vast majority of best teams in those days were in the East and Midwest.

Nowadays, all regions are equally tough - at least they are if the NCAA selection committee does their job right. Obviously, they don't always succeed in balancing the field, but it's a lot closer than it used to be.

All of that is to acknowledge that Krzyzewski's 11 regional championships are each significant accomplishments.

The list includes some of the greatest moments in his pantheon:

-- Billy King's defensive shutdown of Mark Macon as Duke beat No. 1 Temple in the 1988 East title game.

-- Freshman Christian Laettner's coming out party against Alonzo Mourning as Duke knocked off No. 2 Georgetown in the 1989 East title game.

-- Laettner's first memorable game-winner in overtime to beat No. 3 UConn in the 1990 East title game.

-- Laettner's second unforgettable game-winner to beat No. 6 Kentucky in the 1992 East title game - an overtime win that ESPN voted the Game of the Century.

-- Grant Hill's shutdown of national player of the year Glenn Robinson as Duke upset No. 3 Purdue in the 1994 South title game.

Not all the regional championship games were as memorable, but every one of the 11 - from the lopsided victory over David Robinson and Navy in 1986 to the narrow win over Baylor in Houston in 2010, were all meaningful championships.


The debate - and misinformation - about the ACC comes up every year and no amount of explanation ever seems to clear up the confusion.

Allow me to try one more time. The ACC determines its champion in a tournament. Yes, since 1990, the ACC has officially recognized a regular season champion - but ONLY as the ACC regular season champion (and although it was never made explicit, that seems to have been grandfathered into the past retroactively).

But, just to be crystal clear - there is an ACC champion and an ACC regular season champion. To equate the two is incorrect.

Krzyzewski, of course, has plenty of both kinds.

He has won 13 ACC championships, including 10 of the last 13 and the last three in a row.

The list includes some memorable moments - from David Henderson's clutch shot to beat Georgia Tech and win K his first title in 1986 … to Quin Snyder's clutch block to save the '88 championship game against UNC … to freshman J.J. Redick's pyrotechnics in the last 10 minutes 2003 finale versus N.C. State … to the titanic struggle with Georgia Tech in the 2005 finale in Washington, D.C.

But Krzyzewski has won his share of regular season titles too - 12 in all (10 outright, two shared).

He won his first in 1986 - beating North Carolina in the final game in Cameron to clinch Coach K's first significant championship. Five years later, Duke ended the regular season with a win in Chapel Hill to edge the Tar Heels for the regular season title. The 1997 regular season might have been the most amazing - beating heavily favored Wake Forest in Winston-Salem with 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell guarding Tim Duncan down the stretch. The 2001 shared title with UNC might have been the sweetest - to tie the Heels atop the standings, Duke had to upset UNC in Chapel Hill in the game after Chris Boozer's injury supposedly killed the team's title chances.


In my mind, there's a big dropoff between winning a conference championship and winning something like the Maui Classic or the Great Alaskan Shootout.

But I also remember five years ago this month, when a young Duke team - coming off its most disappointing season in more than a decade - went to Maui and beat Princeton, Illinois and No. 11 Marquette to win the team's first championship in more than a year. At the time, the players - and Coach K - regarded it as a significant achievement from a team led by sophomore Jon Scheyer and a freshman named Kyle Singler (who just happened to be tournament MVP). Krzyzewski told us that it was important for that group of kids to win a championship - to learn how. They learned well enough to anchor teams that won a national championship, a regular championship and three ACC championships.

By my count, Duke has won 14 in-season tournaments under Coach K. At least a few of those, such as the 2007-08 Maui Classic noted above, were significant:

-- The 1985-86 Preseason NIT: The first preseason NIT ever played had an amazing field and an all-neutral format. Duke had to beat tough teams from Lamar and UAB in Houston to get to New York, where the Devils were part of an incredible Final Four. Duke, Kansas and Louisville would all reach the real Final Four in Dallas that year. Hometown St. John's would win the Big East and enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.

David Henderson won MVP honors as Duke beat St. John's and Kansas to win the first preseason NIT title. It was the first evidence that the '85-'86 Blue Devils would be a special team.

-- The 1995-96 Great Alaskan Shootout: The first three games of the 1995-96 season after the 13-18 disaster of 1995. Coach K, who missed the last19 games of that season, made his coaching return in Anchorage with a victory over Old Dominion. More significant were the victories that followed over Indiana (and Bobby Knight), then Iowa in the championship game.

The irony is that the trip was arranged to honor Trajan Langdon, a folk hero in Alaska. But the sophomore guard had a knee problem that forced him to miss the games in his hometown (and, indeed, the entire season). To get him back, the event's organizers waved a rule and invited Duke back three years later when Langdon was a fifth-year senior. Coach K took one of his greatest teams in Anchorage, but lost to Cincinnati in the title game - just one of two losses for that team in 1998-99.

The 1995-96 championship vaulted Duke back in the polls for a few weeks. It didn't last (that team finished 18-13 and unranked). But it was a sign that K was on his way back … and more importantly, it was probably the difference between Duke making the NCAA Tournament that year or playing in the NIT.

-- The 1997-98 Maui Classic: Duke proved it was all the way back as a national power by beating No. 1 Arizona - the defending national champs with everybody back - in the title game. The win pushed Duke to No. 1 and probably had a lot to do with Steve Wojciechowski winning the National Defensive Player of the Year Award after he limited Arizona's Henry Bibby to 2-of-10 shooting and forced the All-American into three turnovers.

-- The 2009-10 Preseason NIT: The first championship for a team that would win a lot of them (including a share of the ACC regular season title, the official ACC title, the NCAA South Regional title and, of course, the national title). What was interesting about the triumph in an unusually hostile Madison Square Garden (packed with UConn fans) was that Duke beat No. 13 UConn in the finals despite shooting just 28.4 percent from the floor. But the Devils outrebounded the bigger Huskies 56-43 - giving us a preview of the strength that would drive that team to more championships.


This year's Duke team has given Coach K his record-setting win.

But can they give him his any more championships?

Duke will be the highest ranked team in Maui next week, but the field is imposing, even if 0-2 UCLA doesn't look anywhere near as good as its preseason No. 17 ranking.

The Bruins are in the other bracket anyway. For Duke, the immediate problem is 2-0 Tennessee, followed by either No. 17 Michigan or No. 10 Memphis (the second highest ranked team in the field).

On the other side of the bracket, there is host Chaminade (an NAIA school), disappointing UCLA, No. 12 Kansas and Georgetown.

If the field seems a bit unbalanced, it is. But I also suspect that Coach K isn't complaining. He set up this schedule - his toughest early season schedule in at least a decade - to test and train this team.

"I think we have really good talent, but we don't have a guy who has the experience of being that talent every day," Krzyzewski said before the season. "What it means to be one of those guys who you depend on every practice and every game. Not that you necessarily do well all those days, but you have a responsibility of having that role.

"We have talent. I think the Plumlees are really good. Mason, I think is right there as far as being one of those guys. Seth played really well on numerous occasions last year. Can he step up? Can Andre do that? Can any of our freshmen do that, like Kyrie showed during his first eight games that he was ready to do that?"

I was tempted to type "young" team a moment ago, but that's not really true. The core seven players at the moment include one senior, four juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. In this day and age, that's not especially young - even if the next four players in the rotation include a sophomore and three freshmen.

It's not young, but it's NEW - with new roles and responsibilities for the upperclass players. The first week of the season - which included significant tests from Belmont and Michigan State - indicates both the potential and the problems that confront Coach K as he pursues championships.

The first 10 minutes of the second half in both the Belmont and Michigan State games provides pretty good evidence of this team's potential. And the stretch run in both games demonstrates how much growing up this team has to do.

Duke didn't handle the end-game situation very well against Belmont, aside from the fact that with the game on the line, Mason Plumlee made a huge block and Andre Dawkins drilled a clutch 3-pointer.

But those heroics might not have been necessary if Duke had executed its late-game spread a little more effectively. Both Austin Rivers and Seth Curry both committed turnovers in the final minutes when they tried to attack the basket with 25-plus seconds on the shot clock.

Curry should know better - especially if he's going to be the team's primary point guard. He's got to take ownership of the team. He'll never been a Kyrie Irving type creator, but he can do what Scheyer did … protect the ball and run the team with the kind of situational awareness than wins championships.

Obviously, the most scrutinized Duke player is Rivers, whose ups and downs have been the fodder of message board and talk show hysteria.

There is no question that he's having a tougher transition to the college game that Kyrie Irving did last year, but his early season learning curve is not unusual - just ask UNC's Harrison Barnes … or go back 35 years and ask Phil Ford, who struggled early but concluded his freshman year with an MVP performance in the ACC Tournament.

Rivers has struggled with his decision making and he didn't shoot well against Michigan State (although to be fair, he was nursing a hip injury that forced him to miss practice time).

On the good side, Rivers has demonstrated that he's unselfish (his eight assists after three games are second-best on the team) and willing to work on defense. That's a pretty good foundation to build upon.

Maybe Maui will be his coming out party - as it was for Kyle Singler five years ago. Or maybe he'll take as long to get comfortable in the college game as Barnes took last year.

Coach K understands the process - better than you or me. Better than anybody coaching today, he understands what it takes to built a championship team. The quest starts next week in Maui. After that - win or lose - he'll use the rest of preseason to prepare for the quest for the ACC regular season championship.

But even that goal only sets the stage for the big ones in March - the ACC championship, a regional championship - the national championship.


I said earlier than the national consensus is clearly that Wooden is No. 1 and Krzyzewski No. 2 on the all-time list.

But that doesn't mean that it has to stay that way.

About five years ago, I wrote an article addressing the issue of who was the greatest coach in ACC history - Smith or Krzyzewski? At the time, I argued that Smith had the weight of evidence on his side - even though Krzyzewski had three national titles to Smith's two, Smith had more ACC titles, more regional titles and more overall wins.

I don't know how much it precisely takes to overcome an extra national title, but there's got to be more to it than national titles. That's the single most important thing, yes … but not the only thing.

In my Smith vs. Krzyzewski article, I pointed out that while Smith was No. 1 in my estimation, Coach K was on track to wrest that title from him. In my mind, he did it when he won the 2010 national title. That gave him a 4-2 edge in national championships, tied him in regional championships and cut Smith's lead in ACC championships down to one.

I would have argued at the time that TWO extra national titles outweighed Smith's edge of one ACC title and 11 overall victories. Of course, K has added another ACC championship last year and now has enough overall wins to leave Smith in the dust.

But what's the balance with Wooden?

The former UCLA coach has a 10-4 lead in national championships. He has one more regional championship (12-11) and four more conference championships (17-13).

In K's favor:

-- He also has two major international titles (the 2008 Olympics; the 2010 World Championship). Wooden never coached for USA Basketball and, in fact, famously refused to urge such stars as Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton to represent the United States in the Olympics. An Olympic gold ought to count equally with an NCAA title. Krzyzewski, Knight and Smith have all led the United States to international success - Wooden never did.

-- K has 240 more career wins that Wooden. That margin is going to increase - probably greatly - in the next few years.

Now, I could argue - and I have - that Coach K has coached in a tougher conference than in the old six-team Pacific Coast League, which morphed into the Pac Eight in 1960. I would argue that 13 ACC championships are worth more than 15 Pac 6/8 titles, plus two from the small college Indiana Collegiate Conference that he won at Indiana State (a small college team at the time).

I would argue that the NCAA format in use at the time of his great 12-year run made it easier for Wooden to reach the Final Four than any coach faces today - winning two games against generally inferior Western teams (there were a handful of exceptions) was a lot easier than winning four games in the 64-team NCAA format. Wooden had a few good pre-Final Four wins - No. 3 Santa Clara in 1969; No. 5 UNLV in 1972 - but nothing like the gauntlet of top teams that Krzyzewski had to run between 1986 and 1994, when he won seven regional championships in nine years.

On the other hand, it's only fair to point out that once UCLA faced the tougher Eastern and Midwest competition in the Final Four, his Bruins almost always won. The only exceptions were a consolation game loss to Wake Forest in 1962 and a semifinal loss to N.C. State in 1974.

His record of 10 championships in 12 Final Four appearances is hard to disparage. It's certainly better than Coach K's record of four titles in 11 appearances.

I don't know how to factor in Sam Gilbert's contribution to Wooden's success. I know it has been overblown by some and overlooked by others.

Here's what we know. Gilbert was a Los Angeles building contractor who was later indicted for laundering drug money to finance construction of a casino (he died before coming to trial). He first became involved with the UCLA program when he became a sugar daddy for Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1966-67, when the Hall of Fame center was a sophomore.

It should be noted that Wooden had already won two national titles and recruited Alcindor before Gilbert became involved in his program. But for the rest of Wooden's time in Westwood, "Papa Sam" Gilbert funneled gifts - clothes, cash, airline tickets, cars -- to all of the top Bruin players.

Wooden always claimed that he never knew of a specific violation committed by Gilbert, but thought of him as an unsavory character. He did tell several players to stay away from Gilbert, but never took action to follow up on that warning. Wooden successors Gene Bartow and Larry Brown reportedly struggled to distance the program from Gilbert - Bartow later claimed that his life was threatened by "Papa Sam."

So the question is how much part does Gilbert play in the Wooden vs. Krzyzewski debate? Obviously, Duke fans will say a lot, but I'm not sure if that's totally fair. Wooden's program was already established and rolling before Gilbert latched on - the association did more for Gilbert than for Wooden. I've never seen any evidence that Gilbert had anything to do with buying a UCLA prospect, although I suppose such prospects were told by their future teammates that they'd be taken care of on campus.

So factor in K's extra wins, his tougher regular season competition, his tougher route to the Final Four. I honestly don't know how much of the gap that closes between Wooden's 10 championships and Krzyzewski's six, counting the two major international titles to his credit. Some, but not enough to rate Coach K No. 1.

But I'll add a caveat - as I did five years ago when I compared Krzyzewski and Smith. Coach K is still coaching. He's still adding to his legacy.

Let's see how many more championships he wins before he's through - another gold this summer in London? How many more ACC or regional championships? How about a final victory total of over 1,000 career wins?

And most or all, another national title or two.

I'm not saying that Coach K has to equal Wooden's 10 national titles to take over the top spot, but he does need to close the gap a bit before we can talk about dethroning the Wizard of Westwood and replacing him with the King of Tobacco Road.

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