Two sports posts in one day? They’re going to revoke my membership in the Association of Intellectuals. But hey, college basketball is one of my great passions. ESPN has been discussing and debating who would go on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball for both coaches and players during the ESPN era (which began with the 1979-80 season, which means Larry Bird and Magic Johnson just miss out on being included). I’m going to give my thoughts on both the coaches list and the players list.
Doug Gottlieb offers up his list of the 4 players who would go on Mt. Rushmore since 1980. They are Larry Johnson (UNLV), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Ralph Sampson (Virginia) and Waymon Tisdale (Oklahoma). My opinion: not even close. Larry Johnson had a great two year run a UNLV, but spent the first two years at a junior college. Great player, no doubt, but he doesn’t belong on this list. And Waymon Tisdale? Yes, he put up gaudy numbers for Oklahoma and was a three time all-American, but he never got anywhere near the final four. He didn’t have the sort of defining career that should be a requirement for making Mt. Rushmore. Patrick Ewing certainly belongs on this list, and I’ll even give Sampson the okay, despite the fact that he never made the final four, because he was the national player of the year 3 straight times. But who would I add to the list? The first one is so obvious that I can’t believe Gottlieb would leave him off the list: Christian Laettner.
He may be arguably the most hated player in NCAA history, but he also had a college career that is nothing short of amazing. The only players in college basketball history who can make a case for an equal or better career are truly legendary names – Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton, possibly David Thompson. The career accomplishments are staggering. The only man ever to go to four straight final fours. Two national championships. Two time national player of the year. And to top it off, perhaps the most amazing performance in college basketball history in the greatest game ever played, against Kentucky in the 1992 regional final. Laettner went 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the free throw line, including The Shot. You know The Shot. You’ve seen it replayed a thousand times. It’s only the most famous play in the history of the college game and it won the greatest game I’ve ever seen in any sport. You simply cannot leave Laettner off any list of the greatest college basketball careers, not for the last 25 years or for the last 100 years.
The other player I would put on the list, in place of Larry Johnson, is Hakeem Olajuwon (known as Akeem in college). He was the 800 pound gorilla at the center of Phi Slamma Jamma. His Houston team made the NCAA championship game two straight years, 83 and 84, losing to North Carolina State on the miracle putback by Lorenzo Charles in 83 and to Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in 84. But Olajuwan was a joy to watch play. One of the most graceful and nimble big men the game has ever seen, his Dream Shake moves are still the stuff of legend. He belongs on this list.
As far as coaches go, Andy Katz has ESPN’s list of the Mt. Rushmore coaches and they are: Dean Smith, John Thompson, Coach K and Bobby Knight. Two of those 4 are no-brainers – Dean Smith and Coach K. And while Bobby Knight certainly belongs in any discussion of the greatest coaches of all time, his two greatest seasons were prior to 1980 (the 75 and 76 teams were incredible, the last one being the last team to go undefeated). I’m not sure Knight belongs on this list counting just post-1980 success. He did win championships in 1981 and 1987, of course, but much of the rest of the time his teams at Indiana and now at Texas Tech were average or just above it.
And John Thompson? Well, he’s a very good coach. He certainly belongs in this discussion. But he only really had a dominant run for 3 years in the 80s. That run is no better than short runs made by several other coaches, from Roy Williams to Nolan Richardson to Jerry Tarkanian. Tom Izzo has accomplished at least as much – four final fours and a national championship – in a decade at Michigan State as Thompson did in his whole career at Georgetown. I suspect Thompson got on Katz’ list more for his towering personality and influence on the game as for his actual career accomplishments. He’s a guy I really admire, but I’m not sure he really belongs on Mt. Rushmore.
So who would I replace those two with? First, with Jim Calhoun of UConn. Starting in 1983, he took over a terrible basketball program at a university in the middle of absolutely nothing (UConn is in Storrs, CT). In 3 years, he had them nationally ranked. Since then, he has two national championships and is a perennial contender for the NCAA championship. This is almost unheard of in college basketball, to take over a program with no history at all and make it a powerhouse. As great as Coach K is, Duke was in the final four just two years before he got there and had great teams under previous coaches. Dean Smith took over for the great Frank McGuire at North Carolina, who won a national championship the year before he hired Smith as an assistant coach. But Calhoun built a program from scratch in a place you shouldn’t be able to recruit. I think that puts him on the mountain.
My fourth choice: Pat Summit. I don’t care whether it’s coaching men or women, Summit belongs in any discussion of the greatest coaches in college basketball. The Tennessee women’s coach has won more games than any coach, male or female, in college basketball history. She’s led Tennessee to 13 final fours and an incredible 6 national championships. She’s won an astounding 84% of the games she’s coached. Put the lady on the mountain next to Dean and Coach K. She belongs there.