Commentary: Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest? Only since John Wooden retired

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UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, center, talks to his players during a time out against Notre Dame.
UCLA basketball coach John Wooden talks to his players during a time-out against Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974, in South Bend, Ind. (Associated Press)

There’s an obvious four-word rebuttal for anyone who says that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, as great as he's been, is the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

Goodness gracious sakes alive!

The folksy, homespun John Wooden would hate this greatness debate, but it’s 2021 and that means every pundit on ESPN and random fan on Twitter has weighed in since Krzyzewski announced his retirement this month following a farewell season.

Most of them have it wrong.

Call it East Coast bias, call it recency bias or call it the world going to the Cameron Crazies, but it seems as if Wooden’s unmatched UCLA run has largely been ignored in all the deserving tributes to Coach K.

Yes, Krzyzewski has 1,170 wins, most of any college basketball coach. Yes, Krzyzewski’s five national championships rank second only to Wooden’s 10. Yes, Krzyzewski guided the U.S. men’s national team to three gold medals in the Olympics.

No, those accomplishments are not enough to say Krzyzewski is better than the man who may be more widely revered than any other coach in any sport.

The case for Wooden starts with where he often finished — on top. Championships are the whole point of playing, right? Wooden won twice as many titles as Krzyzewski, which should end the debate right there. For more compelling context, consider that Wooden’s hardware haul matched the total of the legendary Adolph Rupp, Roy Williams and Bobby Knight … combined.

Some say that college basketball was a lesser sport in Wooden’s days, beset by meager resources and fewer schools dedicated to winning. That’s poppycock. That Wooden once had to sweep the floor in the musty campus gym known as the “B.O. Barn” makes his sustained success all the more impressive.

Equally ludicrous is the claim that the Bruins didn’t beat anybody of consequence on the way to all those titles. That would be news to opponents Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore, Cazzie Russell, Rick Mount and Jeff Mullins, among many others.

The Bruins went to 12 Final Fours under Wooden and came home unhappy only twice, losing in the semifinals in 1962 and 1974.

Krzyzewski’s 12 Final Fours were littered with disappointments, particularly early in his career. The Blue Devils lost in the championship game in 1986 and 1990 and in the semifinals in 1988 and 1989 before breaking through for their first title in 1991.

An exultant Mike Krzyzewski congratulates a player in 2009
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski congratulates Jon Scheyer late in the second half of a 2009 game against Wake Forest. (Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

Of course, this is like complaining about a burned-out lightbulb in a hilltop mansion, but any imperfection is sharply contrasted by UCLA teams under Wooden that might as well have resided on Mt. Olympus.

The Bruins’ dominance under Wooden bordered on mythology. They logged four unbeaten seasons, once winning a record 88 games in a row. Add it all up and Wooden finished his UCLA career with a winning percentage of .808, better than Krzyzewski’s .784 at Duke.

Many tout Krzyzewski’s victory total as evidence of his preeminence, but it’s partially a function of schedule inflation. During Wooden’s era, seasons didn’t start until after Thanksgiving and involved a maximum of three or four games (not including consolations) in the NCAA tournament until his final season, in 1974-75. The Bruins played 31 games that season, eight fewer than Duke did during Krzyzewski’s last national title season in 2014-15.

It’s true that Krzyzewski’s teams had to win six games in the NCAA tournament, but just getting in isn’t the heavy chore today that it was for Wooden’s teams. Only conference champions were invited to the NCAA tournament for the bulk of Wooden’s career; had that model been in place for Krzyzewski, who has won 12 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships and 15 conference tournament titles in 41 seasons at Duke, his teams often would have been left out of March Madness.

There’s also been talk of Krzyzewski's success coming amid the pressure-cooker of the social media age and flighty one-and-done stars. How’s this for pressure? In the moments after Wooden won his last championship in 1975, beating Kentucky for his 10th title in 12 years, one UCLA alumnus reportedly told Wooden, “We did it, we did it, we did it. You let us down last year [with a semifinal loss to North Carolina State], but we got ’em this year.”

Krzyzewski has had more players selected in the first round of the NBA draft than any other coach, but Wooden mentored four eventual Naismith Hall of Famers (Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes) to Krzyzewski’s one (Grant Hill).

Both men were giants off the court. Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and inspirational messages are among his greatest legacies. Krzyzewski has helped raise millions of dollars for cancer research and founded a community center named for his mother, among other wonderful endeavors.

They’re both great. But only one can be greatest.

When weighing all the factors in anointing the best, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.