There are two halves to Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke career, not including the first few painful and formative years of his 39-year tenure in Durham, North Carolina. The first half is 1986 through 2001, the second from 2002 to the present day.
In the first half — 16 seasons — Duke and Coach K made nine Final Fours, more than a 50-percent rate of success, including his two health-plagued seasons in the mid-1990s. (One season, 1995, involved Pete Gaudet coaching most of Duke’s games, so one could say this is a 15-season track record, not 16. Your call.)
In the second half — 18 seasons — Duke has made three Final Fours, a 17-percent Final Four rate.
As I wrote here at CBB Today earlier in the week, Coach K has encountered a long and difficult period akin to the first half of John Wooden’s tenure at UCLA. Yes, Coach K’s second half at Duke did involve two national titles — more on that in a little bit. Nevertheless, three Final Fours in 18 seasons and two in the last 15 represent a dry spell which has caught many college basketball fans and even more casual sports fans off guard. A lot of people could not believe it when I tweeted Sunday night — following the loss to Michigan State — that Coach K had made just two Final Fours in the past 15 seasons.
John Wooden, at UCLA, did not make the Final Four in his first 13 seasons at the school. In his last 14 seasons in Westwood, he made 12 Final Fours, missing only in 1963 and 1966. Some details are different, but the larger reality of Coach K and Wooden having a dry half and a fertile half of their storied tenures remains intact.
Naturally, Coach K is still the best coach since Wooden because he has the Final Fours (12) and the national titles (5) which exceed every coach not named Wooden. Even with this relative dry spell, Mike Krzyzewski stands above the crowd. He built up enough of a body of sustained accomplishment that even with his recent swings and misses with Zion Williamson and Marvin Bagley and Kyrie Irving (among others), his overall resume is still right there with Wooden at the top of the college basketball mountain.
21st-century Duke — in its small number of Final Four trips but its possession of multiple national championships (2010 and 2015, plus the 2001 title from the “first half” of Coach K’s reign) — closely resembles another 21st-century program. This comparison invites a larger discussion about the quality of coaches and programs.
Jim Calhoun didn’t make the large number of Final Fours Coach K did — Calhoun made four Final Fours at Connecticut, beginning just before the turn of the century in 1999. If you allow for some overlap and bundle the 1999 national title with his other national crowns in Storrs, and if you also account for the fact that Calhoun guided UConn to the Elite Eight in 1990 (the year of the program’s true national emergence) but needed nine years to chase down a first Final Four berth, that 22-year period at UConn looks a lot like Coach K’s second half at Duke.
UConn, from 1990 through 2011, made four Final Fours but won three national titles.
UConn did not get to the Final Four in large bulk numbers, but when it got there, it won the national title (with the sole exception of 2009).
When I mentioned Sunday that Duke has made just two Final Fours in the past 15 seasons, plenty of people reminded me that Duke won the national title in those two seasons.
Thank you. I knew that, but thank you just the same for making sure I knew.
This Duke-UConn (Krzyzewski-Calhoun) parallel invites a larger question: Is there a point at which large numbers of Final Fours are worth as much as or more than national championships?
This question has meaning and contains intrigue not just in relationship to what fan bases prefer, but also in relationship to how we evaluate coaches. The first half of that statement is easier to resolve, the second one harder.
Fans would want more national titles. We know this. American sports culture — American culture at large — values first place, and second place is the “first loser.” I hate this, but this is reality in American life. Fans would value the rings and the trophies, the bling-bling.
In terms of evaluating coaches, though? This is where a 21st-century Duke or Jim Calhoun UConn trajectory becomes interesting.
Another example similar to Duke and Calhoun-era UConn is Bob Knight at Indiana. He made five Final Fours in a 20-season stretch, which is not chopped liver but also not a period with a wave of Final Fours the way other coaches have had. Knight would have made another Final Four in 1975 had Scott May not gotten injured. Many believe the 1975 Indiana team was better than the 1976 team which is the last team to go unbeaten and win the national title. Knight had a No. 1 seed in 1993, but Calbert Cheaney and Co. lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Indiana was powerful and elite in two separate periods of seasons — 1973 through 1976 and then 1987 through 1993 — but those luminous periods produced only two Final Fours apiece. In the slower middle period between 1976 and 1987, Knight made one Final Four (1981). After the 1993 Elite Eight heartbreak against Kansas, Knight never again earned a top-4 seed or an Elite Eight appearance in any NCAA Tournament he coached — not at IU, not at Texas Tech. Knight also had two long dry spells in his career (1977-1986, then post-1993). His reputation as a coach is built on the back of the fact that when he did make the Final Four at Indiana, he usually won the natty: 3 out of 5.
None of this is meant to diminish Knight, much as none of the above details are meant to diminish Coach K or Calhoun.
This is merely an attempt to have a discussion: When do Final Fours carry more weight than national titles?
Roy Williams (9) and now Tom Izzo, fresh off his eighth Final Four berth, are stacking Final Four berths to separate themselves from the pack in college basketball. They have both lost many more times than they have won at the Final Four, but let’s take note of how different college basketball is from most other sports:
There is no special CULTURAL weight or PROFESSIONAL catharsis found in making the semifinals of the NBA or NHL playoffs. Anything but. Losing one round before the NBA Finals or Stanley Cup Final is in many ways like losing in college basketball in the Elite Eight. A semifinal loss in pro hoops, pro football (in the conference championship game), pro hockey, or in the semis of Wimbledon or another huge tennis tournament, is painful.
Yes, losing in the Final Four national semifinals is painful in its own right, and that pain is not something to ignore or downplay, but coaches and players dream of making the Final Four. Sure, Duke and Carolina and Kentucky dream of titles, not merely Final Fours, but even they value reaching the big stage. Not winning the national title is a failure at those schools, but not making the Final Four is a massive disappointment. Losing in the Final Four is much more palatable. For most college basketball programs — like 98 percent — making the Final Four cannot be viewed as a bad season. No way, no how, not ever.
Coaches who get to the Final Four are seen — rightly, I think — as people who did their jobs really well and achieved their fundamental goal for that season. Winning two more games to claim the national title is incredibly difficult, but when do we assign more weight to 10-year periods than to single seasons which claimed trophies?
Duke, UConn, and Indiana — to varying degrees and at specific points in history — reveal how much weight is assigned to closing the sale at the Final Four and winning a national title. The real comparison of national titles versus Final Fours — especially to someone such as Tom Izzo (1 win in 7 Final Fours, with his eighth coming up this Saturday) or John Calipari (1 win in 6 Final Fours), emerges in coaches whose careers were relatively unremarkable EXCEPT for the national title they won.
The ultimate example: It’s UConn again, with Kevin Ollie in 2014.
Surely the fact that Ollie has a national title doesn’t make him a better coach in a larger historical context than, say, Eddie Sutton (over 800 wins, with 30 years of quality coaching), who lacks a national title.
Surely the fact that Jim Harrick has a national title doesn’t make him a better coach than John Chaney or Gene Keady, who produced several tremendous seasons whereas Harrick generated only a small few.
Surely the fact that Steve Fisher — a very good coach — won a national title on an interim basis and then rode the Fab Five for a few years doesn’t make him a better coach than Lefty Driesell or Gene Bartow, or any of several other coaches who set an extremely high standard for at least a decade in this business.
I don’t mention Duke’s two Final Fours in 15 seasons — or Jim Calhoun’s four Final Fours in a 22-season span at UConn — to knock them or shame them. If anything, I raise those examples, and Bob Knight at Indiana, to make sure that we consider Final Fours, not just national titles, in our larger evaluations of coaches, particularly the coaches such as Tom Izzo who make the Final Four a lot without winning multiple trophies.
Oh, by the way: No pressure, Tom, this weekend in Minneapolis.
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