As longtime readers know, I am a huge college basketball fan and my two favorite teams are MSU and Duke. And yes, I was a Duke fan before they became a powerhouse, starting in about 1983 when I saw a show about the Cameron Crazies, which were really just getting started at the time.
Yesterday, Coach K got his 880th win as a college basketball coach, passing Dean Smith of North Carolina for second place on the all time wins list. He now trails only his own college coach and mentor, Bobby Knight, who has 902 wins as a coach. He should pass Knight sometime during the NCAA tournament this year, early next year at the latest.
Coach K downplayed the importance of the milestone, saying, “I don’t want to take any of that too seriously, but rather say, ‘I’m one of the guys who’s won a lot of games.’ To share a spotlight with Dean and coach, that’s a great honor.” And that is exactly the right thing for him to say. And it should be the attitude of Duke fans as well, but for many it won’t be.
Smith and K were the ultimate opponents for one another while the former was still coaching at North Carolina. The Duke/Carolina rivalry is easily the most important in college basketball and ranks up there with any rivalry in all of sports. And that rivalry was at its best in the late 80s and early 90s, when both teams were at the top of the sport. Duke won the national championship in 1991 and 1992, then UNC won it in 1993.
But the debate over which one of them is better is pointless. They are both great coaches, both legends in the game who belong on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball. Though a longtime Duke fan I never had anything but respect for Smith, not only for his brilliance on the court but for the class he exhibited off the court.
Dean Smith was more than a coach. He was also a civil rights crusader at a time when being one in North Carolina was actually a dangerous thing. His father was the first coach to have an integrated team in the state of Kansas and Dean followed suit, becoming the first coach to recruit black players to UNC.
When he first became an assistant coach at UNC, he went into a restaurant to eat a meal with his minister, who was black. The restaurant ordinarily was segregated but they served them and this became part of the changing of that city and that state. He marched for civil rights and he fought for civil rights and for that he has my great respect.
Coach K, despite a few testy moments between them, rightly praised Dean Smith when he passed his wins record on Wednesday. But this is his day and it is an extraordinary accomplishment. And he will soon pass his mentor for first place and probably win at least another couple hundred games before he retires.
Some Duke fans questioned K’s decision to coach the US national team in two consecutive olympics and all games in between, thinking it may take away from his recruiting and coaching. If anything, it has recharged him. He’s recruiting better than ever and he has changed his coaching style, becoming more diverse on both ends of the floor and adapting his team’s style to its talent more effectively than ever.
He has a legitimate chance of winning his 5th national championship this year, with an undefeated and #1 ranked team to this point in the season. And with a top 5 recruiting class coming in for next year, he will likely be a contender for the next few years. But let’s not bother talking about which one of the all-time greats is the greatest of all. It doesn’t matter which one you pick, everyone else would be more than happy with one of the others.