Thursday, March 24, 2005

Still the Dean of Coaches

Originally published on AOL Hometown

University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith has seen two of his all-time career records surpassed in the last week. Does this diminish his stature among the great coaches in history? Hardly.

University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt eclipsed Smith’s career record of 879 victories, the most in Division I basketball history, when her Lady Vols advanced in the NCAA Tournament and gave Summitt her 880th career win. Two days earlier, Duke’s Coach K posted his 66th career NCAA tournament victory, eclipsing Smith’s mark of 65. These are both impressive accomplishments.

Summit is the gold standard for coaches in women’s basketball, building Tennessee’s program from scratch years before the NCAA officially sanctioned the sport. She in unquestionably a great coach, one who would likely be successful coaching men or running a business if that is what she chose to do.

Coach K’s record is well known and needs no defense. His three national championships and sustained track record of excellence puts him on any short list of the best basketball coaches of all time. Like Summit however, Coach K’s recent eclipsing of a Dean Smith mark does not yet put him at that level among the all-time coaching greats. Both achievements are due in part to the environment in which they were accomplished.

Coach Summitt’s record is the easiest to put in perspective. While she was accumulating many of those win in the 1970’s and 1980’s, women’s basketball at the collegiate level was still in its neophyte stages. Few schools devoted any resources to the sport, and it took the strict enforcement of Title IX laws to change that. As schools like UConn and Stanford have risen up in recent years to challenge the Lady Vols, Summitt’s stranglehold on NCAA tournament success has loosened. Tennessee is still among the top teams in the nation, but is no longer a dominant program.

Coach K’s mark has unquestionably come against the strongest competition, but he has benefited from changes in the NCAA Tournament itself. When Dean Smith became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 1961-62, only 25 schools were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and only one from each conference. That did not change until the 1974-75 Tournament, which expanded to 32 teams and allowed a second team from a conference to be invited. This structure made it harder for teams to qualify and gave them fewer games to play.

The NCAA tournament gradually expanded over the next ten years to its current format-64 teams and no limits on how many from each conference. This covered only the final 13 of Dean Smith’s 36 year reign as North Carolina head coach. Coach K, who took the helm at Duke before the 1980-81 season, has benefited from this format for most of his career. Many of those additional games have been as a #1 seed crushing a helpless #16 seed in the first round.

I am not seeking to diminish either Coach Summitt’s or Coach K’s recent accomplishments. They are impressive and stamp them as two of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. I just don’t want to hear any more reports of how they have surpassed Dean Smith. Their numbers in these categories may have, but their stature has not.


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