Legacies at stake for Final Four coaches Calipari, Donovan, Ollie and Ryan
Should Billy Donovan lead Florida to a national title on Monday night, it will be the third time he's hoisted the trophy. It will tie him for third place on the list of coaches with multiple championships, and at just 48 years old, Donovan will have plenty of opportunity to climb even higher.
His contemporaries at this weekend's Final Four have their own chances to re-write, establish or enhance their legacies. Kentucky's John Calipari can join Donovan in that exclusive multiple-championships club. Connecticut's Kevin Ollie can step out, for good, from the shadow of his Hall of Fame mentor. And Wisconsin's Bo Ryan can validate a career that already includes the ultimate triumph at the no-so-ultimate level.
Here's an alphabetical look at each coach, where he stands now and what two more wins would do for how they are perceived:
John Calipari, Kentucky
Career record: 554-172
Final Fours: 5 (1996, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014)
National championships: 1 (2012)
Asked Monday for his secret in recruiting, about how he's been able to collect McDonald's All-Americans like so many restaurant matchbooks, Calipari cut off the inquiry.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said. “When I was at (Massachusetts), we had one McDonald's All-American, Donte Bright. When I was at Memphis, we may have had three over my years there. We weren't getting top 50 players at (Massachusetts). We were wining, we were a terrific team. I had to coach guys four years. I was ecstatic. At Memphis I was coaching them for three to four years. We were becoming a good team.”
It's the standard Calipari fact-check, intended to remind everyone that he had plenty of success even before falling into a rhythm of forever young and gifted teams with Kentucky. That he had his two pre-UK Final Fours vacated is nearly beside the point; he still had to coach his team to get there.
This year Calipari took a team that went from preseason No. 1 to a No. 8 seed to the Final Four by virtue of beating three of the Midwest region's top four seeds. Now he is one win away from coaching in his third national championship game in seven years and two wins from his second title in three seasons. It may not convince anyone that Calipari is among the all-time coaching greats just yet, but it will put the exclamation point on this year's remarkable in-season turnaround. And it will prove that his approach works at the highest level, and with a fair amount of consistency.
Billy Donovan, Florida
Final Fours: 4 (2000, 2006, 2007, 2014)
National championships: 2 (2005, 2006)
In one way at least, Florida enters the Final Four facing the most pressure of any team still standing. While merely getting there was something of a surprise for every other team, for the Gators the entire 2013-14 campaign has essentially been title-or-bust.
Donovan's resume, however, needs no such affirmation. He long ago validated his place among the sport's best by winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and '07. Reaching three straight Elite Eights before this season was a fine retort to any uncertainty about whether those titles -- which were followed by back-to-back NIT seasons -- were an anomaly. In North Texas he will have the opportunity to join a rarefied group of coaches who have at least three championships: Jim Calhoun (3), Bobby Knight (3), Adolph Rupp (4), Mike Krzyzewski (4) and John Wooden (10).
No one will match Wooden's magical total. So second place becomes almost a second first-place, a more realistic measure of greatness. With one more title added to his record, Donovan moves one step closer to Krzyzewski and Rupp and would be just one station down from the peak actually accessible by humans. That is rare air indeed, a chance at a legacy of tremendous magnitude that none of the other three coaches this weekend can yet fathom.
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Final Fours: 1 (2014)
National championships: 0
Calhoun is the clause that has been added to any discussion of Ollie during his two seasons as UConn's head coach: Kevin Ollie, who took over for Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, and so forth. A national championship might provide sweet relief from that attachment for the 41-year-old Ollie. Publicly, though, he does not seem overeager to distance himself from the man who coached him, mentored him and pushed for him to take over in Storrs just two and a half years after his NBA playing career ended.
“I embrace Coach,” Ollie said Monday. “He embraced the change. He wanted the change to take place. He wanted to keep the coaching tree in the family of the University of Connecticut. He vouched for me. I'm glad the AD and the president believed in me also, but he was the first one to believe in me. I owe him a lot.”
Winning a title would certainly be a signature achievement for Ollie, but otherwise it is too soon for legacy talk. The direction of the program and what it achieves over the next several years will be a better indication of how Ollie will be remembered. A surprising run to a national championship will enhance his ability to maintain an elite level of performance and to ensure that Final Four runs are more expectation than accident. It will be one heck of a start, but it's still just a start.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Final Fours: 1 (2014)
National championships: 0
The Ryan coaching record cited above represents his results at the Division I level. Include his 15 seasons at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, however, and the numbers swell to 704 career wins and three national titles. That is truly the proper context for the legacy discussion: No one denies that Ryan possesses one of the best basketball minds in the nation, but he hadn't possessed the sparkling results to pair with it. There was just one Elite Eight venture at Wisconsin before this, and there was no small amount of pressure to take perhaps his best Badgers team to some unprecedented heights. To many observers, this team already resembles those championship Platteville squads.
“I've heard that from more people, my former players and people that have seen us play, that this team reminds them of those teams more than any team we've had here,” Ryan said Monday. “I'll let people have their opinion. That's fine with me . . . But I think this group, sharing the ball, the extra pass, the shooting percentage, the points per possession offensively, I think it's pretty well-documented this has been our best team while I've been here.”
Surely there is nothing easy about winning a national championship at any level. But a Division III title is not a Division I title. By coaching in his first Final Four, Ryan has already made one breakthrough that in its own way solidifies his legacy. But winning a championship on Monday night would fjord the gap between the Platteville titles and this one, and allow them to be tied together. Ryan will be referred to as a four-time national champion coach, no asterisk applied, and that's as big a deal as it sounds like.
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