After ruling the NBA of the 1990s with Michael Jordan, Jackson masterfully handled the egos of two feuding superstars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, led them to three consecutive NBA titles and then coached Bryant and the Lakers to another in 2009. He's won championships when his best player was a guard and when his best player was a center. He can motivate the biggest star, the 12th man and everyone in between. That he was able to win back Kobe's faith after a falling out speaks to his gifts as a mediator. He's never let the gravity of a moment rattle his confidence. In the 2000s, nobody did it better.
It took him years to find his voice as a head coach, but he has found it and the entire NFL hears it (even if it's a boring monotone.) No team better reflects its coach than the Patriots. Belichick's players are smart, hungry and have great poker faces. And if they are lacking, they are gone. Belichick's defense is his calling card, but he can coach offense and special teams with anyone in the league. Cornerback Shawn Springs once told me, "He's just like a brain walking around on some legs." Belichick is willing to cut popular players before their talent declines if he believes someone better is waiting. He wins -- sometimes at any cost -- and then he wins some more.
All Torre did this decade was make the playoffs every season. He's done it with big payrolls, sure, but he's also done it with an imperious owner in George Steinbrenner, a bloodthirsty New York media market and a Yankees fan base that believes World Series rings are a birthright. Then he switched coasts and turned the Dodgers into winners, too. If Torre churns inside, you never see it on the outside. His expression is the same. From Roger Clemens to Mariano Rivera to Manny Ramirez, Torre has dealt with hundreds of personalities, somehow always molding them into a cohesive unit. His was no Bronx Zoo.
You break an 86-year-old curse by taking four straight from the Yankees (after being down 3-0) and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Then, three years later, you win the World Series again. I still don't know how Francona kept the demons out of the Boston clubhouse after all those years of heartache, but he made the Red Sox believers and then he made them champs. In the most pressure-packed and scrutinized rivalry in sports, Francona has pressed the right buttons for most of the decade. His style seemed to free up his players to perform. The Red Sox responded and liberated all of New England.
He was often underestimated because he was quieter than most, but few coaches left a bigger footprint this decade than Dungy. His Tampa 2 defense is played throughout the league and his coaching protégés dot the landscape. He turned the woebegone Buccaneers into a playoff team and he turned the Indianapolis Colts into Super Bowl champions. His ability to reach players with a soft voice is a strong counterweight to the theory that screaming and yelling leads to victories. When you asked around the league who players wanted to play for, Dungy's name always came up. They knew he would win with class.
Besides having one of sports' best game faces, Popovich is one of the smartest people you will come across. A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Soviet studies, Popovich can handle almost any topic. But turning really good players into great ones might be his biggest strength. Popovich's Spurs teams have never been the most athletic or talented, but they routinely outsmart opponents and win. Watching Popovich's teams in the 2000s was a journey into the heart of fundamental basketball -- boxing out, bounce passes, bank shots. San Antonio won three titles under Popovich this decade, one fewer than Jackson's Lakers.
His teams ruled the decade, winning five titles and reaching the Final Four seven times. Most impressively, UConn went undefeated twice (2002 and 2009), including a 39-0 season in 2001-02 that featured arguably the greatest college team of all time (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Williams). If you want conference dominance, UConn has lost just seven games in the Big East since 2000 and won the league's championship every year this decade except 2007. Auriemma was named Naismith Coach of the Year five times and also served as an assistant coach on the gold-medal-winning 2000 U.S. Olympic team. While rival Pat Summitt owned the '90s, Auriemma has no equal this decade in his sport.
He seemed destined to live out his years as the coach who never won the big one. Now he's won it twice. After so many seasons of tears, Williams's great coaching prowess at Kansas turned into championships at North Carolina. He has won as many titles at Carolina as Dean Smith did, and he won them over a five-season span. (He went to five Final Fours this decade, including two with Kansas.) He succeeded where other Smith successors could not. The most impressive thing Williams did this decade was change the trajectory of an ACC that had been ruled by Mike Krzyzewski and Duke.
His swagger is annoying, especially the TV commercial where he is showing off his championship rings, but that's the thing: His results are undeniable. Despite the mixed-up math of the BCS, Meyer has somehow navigated the craziness to two national titles with identical 13-1 seasons. If that isn't enough, Meyer was 17-6 over two seasons at Bowling Green from 2001-02 and 22-2 over two seasons at Utah in 2003-04. His '04 Utah team went 12-0, blowing out teams with Meyer's spread offense, the same system he installed at Florida. Call it gimmicky, call it whatever you want, the system nets victories.
Part of being a great coach is becoming identified with your region. In lifting Michigan State to prominence, Izzo has won games while becoming immersed in the East Lansing community and in many ways representing the grit and fight of an economically depressed area. Izzo grew up in the state's Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he and his boyhood pal Steve Mariucci, dreamed of being big-time coaches. With the ultimate grinder leading them, the Spartans are always a tough out in the NCAA tournament, winning one national title and reaching four Final Fours this decade. They pound the glass, play clamp-down defense and overachieve year after year.
Honorable Mention:Pete Carroll, USC football; Mike Babcock, Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings; Guus Hiddink, South Korean national soccer team and PSV Eindhoven, among others; Pat Summitt, Tennessee women's basketball; Tony La Russa, St. Louis Cardinals.
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