Coach K: The Duke of March Madness

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By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network

The impact that coaching has on the foundation and culture of sports, whether it's positive or negative, cannot be stated enough. Coaching can often times be the difference between a team failing to meet expectations and a team exceeding expectations. Not only through coaching can a team ultimately encounter success or failure inside the lines, but coaching has an even more important obligation to instruct others on how to develop themselves into well-rounded people in life.

When it comes to college basketball, no one has embodied more of what it means to be a truly great coach over the last 25 years than Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Whether it's putting together championship-caliber teams year after year built upon strong teamwork and talent or preparing young men to succeed in the real world after basketball, Coach K is the standard-bearer for great coaching in all of sports.

Coach K learned at West Point from one of the best in Bob Knight, who has three national championships of his own. Through Knight, Krzyzewski learned the importance of discipline and focus to the game of basketball. Much of Coach K's success comes from applying many of Knight's concepts to his own philosophy of basketball over the last 40 years.

On Monday, Coach K captured his and the school's fifth national championship, after Duke rallied to knock off the Wisconsin Badgers 68-63 in Indianapolis. By winning his fifth championship, Coach K now only trails the legendary John Wooden for most NCAA titles of any coach. Of his five championships, three have been won in Indianapolis. I think it's safe to say Coach K and the Dukies enjoy playing tournament games in the Hoosier State.

Both Wooden and Krzyzewski are the foundations for making each of their programs become the powerhouses they are now in college basketball. While Wooden's 10 national championships in 12 years at UCLA is in a class of its own and will not be repeated again, Coach K may be more than just our generation's Wooden. With all due respect to the Wizard of Westwood who preached many of the same basketball principles that Krzyzewski does now, I'm willing to step out and say that Coach K is the greatest college basketball coach of all-time.

First and foremost, Coach K has unquestionably coached in a more competitive and volatile era(s) of college basketball than Wooden ever did. Wooden never coached during the three-point or shot clock era, nor did he face the current "One-and-Done" predicament in college basketball. In Wooden's era, the goal for players was to play in college, contend for a championship, and maybe get a shot at the pros. Now, players see the NBA as the be-all and end-all to their basketball careers. Simply put, the game was less competitive and much simpler during the time Wooden coached than what it is now.

This claim is a similar one used in the debate over who the greatest NBA coach of all-time is. Even before he was surpassed by Phil Jackson for the most championships of any NBA coach, legendary Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach's nine championships are neglected in many respects because they came at a time when the game was still developing and not nearly at the competitive level it was when coaches like Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich were winning championship after championship. It's not Auerbach's or Wooden's fault for having two of the greatest sports dynasties of all-time when both of their leagues were still in their younger years, but it's a point that will always be mentioned when people debate about the best.

Secondly, the style of play and the players' training regiment are more advanced than they were many moons ago. In Wooden's era, the role of strength training and conditioning outside of basketball was minimally influential. In today's game, players are more athletic and physical than ever before because there truly isn't an offseason anymore. And again, I'm on the record saying this is no disrespect at all to Wooden. He's one of my favorite coaches of all-time in any sport.

My third, yet very minor point, is that Wooden only coached for 30 years. Yes, I know only needs to be taken with a grain of salt because in today's game some coaches are lucky to get five years. However, Coach K is now pushing on 40 years of coaching and seems to have no plans of quitting anytime soon thanks to his teams' success on the court, good health, and never-ending family support from this wife, children, and grandchildren. Coach K has no reason to hang it up just yet at age 68. Not quite yet.

A fourth point for my belief that Coach K is the greatest is the all-time wins category. While Coach K holds the record and seems to be safe with it for the foreseeable future, Wooden does not even rank in the top 20 in all-time wins. I know that regular season wins are meaningless compared to championships, but that's a huge difference that should be noted. And yes, Wooden's UCLA Bruins did not play nearly as many games back in the day as does Krzyzewski's Duke teams play now, but being the first coach to 1,000 wins has to mean something in the always-changing college basketball world.

Both hold the record for most Final Four appearances (12) and are two of the five coaches who know what it means to win back-to-back NCAA titles. But most of Wooden's Final Four appearances and championships came in a much smaller bracket compared to the modern-day 64-team and 68-team brackets we have today. The level of competition is simply more spread out and can come from anywhere in today's game.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Coach K's ability to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of college basketball and still be able to effectively connect to the players and fans after 40 years of coaching is truly remarkable. As stated before, Wooden never faced the upheaval and catastrophic changes to the college game that Coach K has overseen. Like Coach K, Wooden is famous for being not just a great coach on the floor but also off the floor in preparing players for the game that is life.

However, Coach K's opportunity to work closely with the USA Basketball program is what has helped him adapt to the changing times of the game better than most. Through coaching the very best basketball players on the face of the planet with Team USA, Coach K has recognized the importance that superior talent has in today's game.

Hence why Coach K and Duke's recruiting philosophy has greatly evolved since he first started in Durham. The Blue Devils program is known for bringing in good players and turning them into great players over the course of four years, with maybe the opportunity to play in the NBA afterwards. But getting a strong education and playing four years of high-level college basketball had been Duke's calling card for years.

Now in the "One-and-Done" era that Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari is the father of, Coach K realized he had to adapt to the times once again. In today's game, it oftentimes takes more than great teamwork to win a championship. It takes great talent that can carry your team in a close game and make the difference on both ends of the floor. As a result, Coach K has become a participant (possibly reluctantly and against his wishes) in the "One-and-Done" era. Since his last title in 2010 which featured mostly players who were at Duke for four years, Coach K began bringing in players like Kyrie Irving and Jabari Parker who played incredible basketball for one season and bolted for the NBA the very next.

Of course, the criticism for Krzyzewski will be that he gave in to the pressures of today's game rather than stand by what he's done for the last 40 years. Just ask Bo Ryan what he said after the loss Monday night. But if the best high school players in the country want to come play for your school and it gives you the best chance to win a championship, then so be it. You're going to tell me with a straight face that you would turn them away?!?! Give me a break.

In addition, if programs become complacent and refuse to look for ways to grow and improve, then success will not come as frequently as you think. I've said it many times before that I'm not a big fan of the "One-and-Done" era, but I respect Coach K for recognizing that, in many respects, this is what it takes to win now in college basketball. If this were a decade ago, he would have been disgusted with a player who left early.

And that's what brings us to this Duke team. The four best players on the Blue Devils will probably not be back next season, and three of them are freshmen. Big man Jahlil Okafor and forward Justise Winslow are sure to be NBA lottery picks, while point guard Tyus Jones is more likely to leave now too after his heroic national title game performance. While Coach K would rather not see them go, he now understands the current state of basketball. And of course, senior guard Quinn Cook goes out on top a champion.

Despite winning the title, Duke has and will continue to receive its fair share of criticism. First off, the fact that the Blue Devils received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament without winning the ACC regular season or tournament title still has many people scratching their heads. Of course, the refereeing performance in the championship game was pitiful to say the least and many believe it was clearly in Duke's favor. And in many respects, Duke's road to the national championship was easier than Wisconsin's.

But none of these are fair to take away from the national champion. Duke won it, Duke earned it. But of course, it's Duke. Everybody hates Duke.

With the fifth championship in school history, Duke is now tied with Indiana and archrival North Carolina for third on the all-time list for national titles by school. Only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (8) have more than the Blue Devils.

Next season, Duke's team should and probably will look very different. Another national title game hero, freshman guard Grayson Allen, will return as well as junior forward Amile Jefferson, junior center Marshall Plumlee, and sophomore guard Matt Jones. Duke's recruiting class next year has the potential to be very good, but not quite at the same level of this year's Okafor-Winslow-Jones trio. But with championship experience from the aforementioned four guys returning, you can never count out Duke.

Some way or another, Coach K will have next year's team in contention despite the slight drop off in talent. Why, you ask? Because he is the greatest coach in college basketball history.

Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He covers Villanova Athletics for his school newspaper The Villanovan and school TV station VillanovaTV. He also has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph
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