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Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is wacky – a Zen master who believes he makes his players better by imploring them to read novels on road trips. Arrogant, say others who hate his condescending sideline smirk. How about overrated: Sure, he's got the titles, but give me Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and I'll win too.
But by picking up his 10th NBA championship Sunday night, Jackson moved himself into the stratosphere of all-time coaches, no matter the sport. Of the 119 coaches now working in the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball (there are currently three vacancies in the NHL), only 20 have won a title. Of those, only seven have won multiple titles – Jackson and Gregg Popovich in the NBA, Bill Belichick in the NFL and Joe Torre, Terry Francona, Cito Gaston and Tony LaRussa in Major League Baseball.
And get this: The 20 current coaches with rings have won a combined 40 titles in all. That means Jackson owns 25 percent of all the hardware earned by all active coaches in the four North American sports leagues.
The recent five-game victory by the Lakers over the Orlando Magic moves Jackson past NBA icon Red Auerbach, who coached the Boston Celtics to nine titles in the 1950s and '60s. Impressive as it was, Auerbach's run came during the NBA's infancy, an era of eight teams and two playoff rounds. Free agency was years away, making it easy to keep a championship core together.
Jackson, who turns 64 in September, hasn't said whether he plans to coach beyond next season, when his two-year, $24 million extension runs out. But even if he quit now his legacy is secure: 10 championships in an era of 30 NBA teams, four playoff rounds and free-agency induced turnover is otherwise unheard of. No other active coach or manager has more than four.
Today's nonstop coaching carousels don't provide much opportunity to build personal dynasties. Chalk it up to a "win now or else" mentality that drives owners to give the quick hook to coaches who don't produce immediately. Look at the NHL, where 19 current head coaches have been tenured with their clubs for two seasons or less, including four just hired this past spring that will begin their first seasons in 2009-10. No current NHL coach has more than one Stanley Cup championship, making it tough to imagine anyone approaching Scotty Bowman's record of nine Cups with the Canadiens, Penguins and Red Wings.
It's the same in the NFL, which in recent years has purged a slew of Super Bowl coaches from its ranks through retirements or firings, including Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden. When the Steelers' Mike Tomlin raised the Super Bowl trophy after his team's victory over Arizona on Feb. 1, he joined three-time winner Belichick as the only active championship-winning coaches in the league. Follow up a championship or two with a stretch of mediocrity, as Gruden and Shanahan discovered, and you wind up on the unemployment line.
As great as his track record is, Belichick will be hard pressed to surpass the six NFL titles won by the Chicago Bears' George Halas. Why? Halas was the Bears' founder and kept himself on the sidelines for 40 years – through 1967. Unfortunately for Belichick, that's no longer how the business works, no matter how good you are.
It makes Jackson all the more impressive. Yes, he's lucky. Scooping up Jordan with the third pick of the 1984 draft after the Portland Trail Blazers passed was a break. But no one – ever – has done what he has. And given the way coaching is changing, it's likely no one ever will again.
The top five:
1. Phil Jackson (NBA): Slideshow
2. Greg Popovich (NBA): Slideshow
3. Joe Torre (MLB): Slideshow
4. Bill Belichick (NFL): Slideshow
5t. Terry Francona (MLB): Slideshow
5t. Tony LaRussa (MLB): Slideshow
5t. Cito Gaston (MLB): Slideshow
In Pictures: The top championship coaches