'Greatest' title now Paterno's
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When UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden died earlier this month at 99, he left behind a legacy that never will be matched in college athletics. Can we all agree he was the greatest coach of all time in any sport? I won't take no for an answer to that question.
Now, who takes the title of Greatest Living Coach?
It's easy to put together a short list. Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick from the NFL. Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox from Major League Baseball. Scotty Bowman from the NHL. Phil Jackson from the NBA. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden from college football. Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski from college basketball.
Picking the greatest from those legendary names is a lot harder. All but Cox has won multiple championships, which explains why he is being left behind as we move this little exercise forward. He won just the 1995 World Series with the Atlanta Braves despite leading them to 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005. Marvelous consistency, to be sure. Just not quite enough big wins.
Shula's credentials are impeccable; he won more games than any NFL coach (347) and led the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in league history. But his heavily favored Baltimore Colts lost Super Bowl III to Joe Namath and the New York Jets and he couldn't win a title with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in Miami. Scratch him from our list.
Belichick led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in four years and would be higher among the coaching legends if the Patriots had beaten the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII and completed a 19-0 season. Or maybe not. Spygate?
Bowden gets dropped from the list here for a similar reason. The NCAA stripped him of 12 wins at Florida State because of a widespread academic cheating scandal. That's too unseemly to call him the greatest living coach.
Anderson and La Russa are the only baseball managers to win the World Series in each league. That's an extraordinary feat, but it's not enough for either to ascend to No. 1 on this prestigious list.
Paring down the great college basketball coaches is the toughest chore for me. How do you separate Smith, Knight and Krzyzewski? I'm throwing out Smith because he couldn't win a national championship in 1984 with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty on his team. I'm also tossing aside Knight because I don't like him. He's a bully. Hey, it's my column!
That leaves Krzyzewski, Noll, Torre, Paterno, Bowman and Jackson as our finalists.
The envelopes, please ...
Our fourth runner-up is a tie between Noll and Jackson. Noll won fourth Super Bowls with the Steelers in the 1970s. Jackson is working toward his fifth NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers -- and his mind-numbing 11th overall -- as you read this. What few critics each has will argue that each won with great players. In Noll's case, it was nine Hall of Famers. In Jackson's, it was Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and is Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. I will argue the most talented teams often are the most difficult to coach.
The third runner-up is Torre. Like Noll and Jackson, he had great players with big egos with the New York Yankees. Unlike those two, though, he had to work for a meddling owner, George Steinbrenner. There probably isn't a more pressure-packed job in sports than being Yankees manager. Torre always handled it with extraordinary grace. And, yes, he won -- four World Series titles and six American League pennants.
Our second runner-up is Krzyzewski. He represents everything that is good and decent about college athletics at a time when conferences are greedily raiding other conferences for their member schools and universities are raiding other universities for their coaches. Never has there been a hint of scandal in Coach K's past, only a lot of winning. Four national championships, the most recent coming last season. Eleven trips to the Final Four. An Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The first runner-up is Bowman. All he did during his Hall of Fame career was win nine Stanley Cups with three different teams -- the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. Often aloof with everybody, including his players, he was known derisively to some as "The Genius." The thing is, that title fit him to perfection. He was an absolute coaching genius.
And your winner is ...
Sorry, Pitt fans.
It's not just his 60 years at Penn State. Or his record 394 wins. Or the two national titles and four other unbeaten seasons. Or the record 36 bowl trips with the record 24 wins. Or the countless millions he has raised for his university by becoming the face of the school. It's all of that.
No coach ever had a bigger impact on an institution of higher learning than Paterno has had on Penn State. The man is 83, still working, still winning, still fundraising and still making a difference in a lot of young people's lives. Here's hoping he keeps the title of Greatest Living Coach for a long, long time.
First Published June 13, 2010 12:00 am