Catching Coach K: Can anyone match Krzyzewski's stellar record?
With more than 400 career wins and an Elite Eight appearance to his name, Larry Eustachy has had a very successful college coaching career by any measure (see Thursday's column). Chances are, though, whatever he does with the rest of his career, Eustachy won't come within several hundred wins of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who is rolling inexorably toward becoming the first head coach with 1,000 Division I wins.
Eustachy, who has held head coaching jobs at five different schools since landing his first gig at Idaho in the early 1990s, understands both the magnitude of Krzyzewski's achievements and the rare confluence of events that helped enable them.
"I think you have to have opportunity, first of all, to do what he's done. He was fortunate enough to have played for Bob Knight and get a job at an early age," Eustachy said. "He also was fortunate to be in an era where they had patience, so timing is very important.
"I think someone will beat his record at some point, unless the world is destroyed, but it's a different age. Those days are over. Guys staying at one place that long are over."
Assuming the Mayans are indeed proved wrong next week and the Earth remains intact, Krzyzewski has a chance to land in a stratosphere so far beyond today's realistic reach that his record could join the ranks of the unbreakable, similar to baseball pitching marks established a century ago.
We don't yet know when Krzyzewski will stop, but whenever he does, Eustachy's belief will meet a very stringent, long-term test. The math is daunting. Is there anyone who could possibly catch K?
With Duke's 9-0 start this season, Krzyzewski currently has 936 wins. He has won an average of 30.2 games over the past 15 seasons, with only one season of fewer than 27. His average over the last five years is 30.6 wins per season, so that's pretty much the number to work with as a projection.
Assuming Krzyzewski coaches for four more seasons after this one, retiring at age 71 at the end of the 2017-18 season, he'll add 141 more wins to his total (21 more in this season and four more years at 30 each) and finish at 1,077 for his career.
Even with the modern increase in games played per season, that's an incredibly daunting total that will require a huge win rate and extreme longevity to even approach it. There are only a few candidates who even look remotely reasonable as options at this point.
Group 1: Established Big Boys
There are a handful of current coaches who have a sizable number of wins in the bank, but most of them are disqualified from this exercise due to age (not enough time left), status of current program (not enough wins per year available) and/or that some of their wins came at non-Division I programs. The most obvious case is Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, the other remaining active coach from this elite Golden Generation, but for this exercise, the assumption is the 68-year-old will retire before Krzyzewski and/or won't catch him.
That leaves only three even semi-viable candidates in this category with the success rate and possible staying power to make a run at Krzyzewski's assumed end total.
Williams likely will fall short because he spent 15 years as a high school coach and college assistant before landing the Kansas head coaching job in 1988. He currently has 679 wins and is at a program where you easily can win 30 games in a season, but he's already 62 years old and he's running eight outstanding seasons behind Krzyzewski's ever-growing total. Even a great next decade won't get him to 1,000 wins. It seems unlikely he can eventually catch Krzyzewski.
Known as the man who replaced Williams with the Jayhawks and won a national title there, Self had a litany of successful teams as Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois before his arrival in Lawrence. He's been a Division I head coach since the 1993-94 season, so he's racked up 483 career wins and will only turn 50 later this month. If he wants it, he has at least 15 years left at Kansas (or, if for some reason he moves on, another elite program).
Over the past six years at Kansas, he's averaged 32.8 wins a season, so assuming he can win 30 a year over the longer run isn't crazy. In order to pass Krzyzewski's hypothetical 1,077, Self would have to average just about 30 wins a season for 20 more seasons. That's a really hard ask -- to win at that level, to assume Self will coach for two more decades, and to assume that he won't, at some point, look at an NBA job.
A profile similar to Self's, Donovan started as a head coach in 1994-95, spending two seasons at Marshall before heading to Gainesville. He currently has 428 career wins. He's only 47 years old, but is also at a program with a slightly lower annual wins trajectory.
Florida has averaged 25 wins a season over the past five years and only has two seasons with 30 or more wins -- the back-to-back national title years in 2006 and '07. Even if you bump up expectations a bit and give Donovan an average of 27 wins a year over the long run, he would need to coach for 24 more seasons to broach Krzyzewski's assumed end total.
Donovan already had his NBA flirtation, famously changing his mind on a deal with the Orlando Magic, so his NBA flight risk is likely lower than Self's. Donovan always has been a grinder, so the thought of coaching past 70 isn't crazy, but that's a pretty big ask to win at that level for another almost quarter-century, unless he moves up half a step to a truly top-five job at some point.
Group 2: Emerging Young Guns
The next level is young coaches who have established themselves as winners and are targets for (much) bigger jobs in the future. With the possibility of job openings at programs like Duke, North Carolina and UCLA in the not-so-distant future, we'll see how this tier of candidates evolves as they enter the prime of their careers.
Back-to-back national title game appearances makes Stevens the hot name in this category, even as he has insisted multiple times in the past few years that he is happy at Butler. Stevens just turned 36 in October and already has 146 career wins, averaging almost 28 a season in his first five years in charge in Indianapolis. That win rate at Butler is probably too much to expect over the longer-term (10 NCAA tournament wins in two seasons will inflate that), especially with a move this season to the Atlantic 10. Annual win totals in the low-20s as a baseline seem reasonable, though.
Stevens' ending profile will depend heavily on 1) what level he can continue to keep Butler as long as he stays and 2) if he leaves, how soon will it be? There seems to be very little chance Stevens leaves for anything other than an elite-level national job. Assume he stays five more years at Butler (after this one) and then gets hired for a mega-job, where he can average 27 wins a season. He'd have around 275 wins at the age of 42, and then would need practically 30 more seasons to pass Krzyzewski. Stevens is an excellent coach, but that's asking a heck of a lot.
Smart is the other uber-hot name in this category, having taken VCU to a Final Four and establishing the Rams as a strong program. He will only be 37 at the end of this season, when his career win total should be around 110.
Still, that puts him around 50-60 wins behind Stevens when both are basically the same age. If it's going to be extremely difficult for Stevens to approach the estimated record, Smart is two more excellent seasons behind his pace. Both of these guys are highly cerebral and may not want to coach until they're 70 or older, either. They can earn a lot of money and/or fame doing other things.
Group 3: The Really Early Risers
Over the past few years, there have been a handful of coaches hired at ages similar to when Krzyzewski got his start. Earlier this year, Wagner tabbed Bashir Mason at the age of 28. Is there a coach or coaches who got a really early start who can win enough games at a smaller program to eventually land a mega-job and take a run at it? Obviously, this category is even more speculative than the rest of this column, but here are a few guys who at least have laid the groundwork for a potential long-shot run at it.
Remember him? The guy who was successful at VCU and then led Blake Griffin's Oklahoma Sooners to 30 wins and an Elite Eight? The guy who's only going to be 38 years old this February and already has 175 career wins? After the OU program caved in at the end of his tenure, he landed back at Duke (where he played in the mid-1990s) and is in coaching rehab on Krzyzewski's bench.
Eventually, he'll get another head coaching job. He's currently ahead of the pace of either Stevens or Smart, but when and where he lands next will determine whether he has any chance to mimic their projected trajectories.
A similar case to Caple's in that Fife started as a head coach at IPFW when he was 24 years old, and he already has 82 career wins at the age of 33. Like Capel, he's spending some time on the bench of a legendary coach, and he almost certainly will have a head coaching job again soon, if he wants it. If it's a good job, he won't be much behind Capel's pace, and won't have an Oklahoma-style fallout on his resume. Fife did an excellent job building up IPFW's fledgling program.
Toole is representative of a few other guys who got Krzyzewski-esque early starts. He started as head coach at Robert Morris when he was 29 and inherited a solid program. He's racked up 50 wins in two-plus seasons and could conceivably win 20-plus games a year there until he moves on to a bigger job. It's a long, long road, but at least Toole and others like him have time on their side ... for now.
Eustachy said he thought Krzyzewski's eventual surpasser will have to come from a smaller program where a coach could spend decades and win games under less pressure, but the total number of games available at a program like that could end up being limiting. Just winning a few extra NCAA tournament games a season, like you can at a top program, adds up to a couple extra seasons' worth over time.
The road to over 1,000 wins is so dotted with potential pitfalls, you can't afford to take on any more profile risk than necessary. The best bet is going with one of the established guys who is nearing the halfway point on the journey.
Between Self and Donovan, there are numerous reasons to go lean either way. Self is at the better program, but Donovan's at a program that can be nearly at that level. Self is more of a potential flight risk to the NBA than Donovan, who may have burned his only chance at that level. Donovan is more of a grinder who conceivably would coach into his 70s, but can he make up the existing deficit on Self when Self projects to a few more wins per season? Self's consistently relentless winning is a formidable foe.
Opinion among other media members about these two choices was split, but at the end of the day, I think you have to go with the coach with the more wins at the uber-elite program and hope he stays. The pick is Bill Self, although the real choice likely is "none of the above."