Men's Basketball

Rupp vs. Krzyzewski: Who’s better?

When Gordon Hayward's half-court bank shot went just long in the NCAA finals Monday against Duke, Butler was not the only one defeated.

Kentucky Wildcats followers were losers, too.

If Hayward's heave had gone in, it would have replaced Christian Laettner's 1992 dagger into the heart of Wildcat-dom as the signature buzzer beater in NCAA Tourney history.

Which would have meant the constant March TV replays of "Now, here's a long pass to Laettner" would have been reduced — and how much retroactive angst would that have relieved for UK backers?

More substantially, if Hayward's bank shot had featured just a bit more touch, it would have prevented Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski from matching Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp with four NCAA titles.

In the days after Coach K tied the iconic Coach UK in national championships, I wondered how those who were stakeholders in Rupp's glory days at Kentucky viewed Krzyzewski's achievement.

Did it bother them to see Rupp tied?

Do they now see Krzyzewski as the coaching equal or the superior to Rupp?

"It didn't bother me at all, really," said Vernon Hatton, star guard on Rupp's final NCAA championship team in 1958. "It didn't bother me that (Krzyzewski) tied Coach Rupp. I think Adolph's success speaks for itself. I don't think anything changes about that because Coach K now has four (NCAA titles), too."

Larry Conley, starting forward on the last Final Four team (1966) Rupp coached, said, "It's an old cliche, but records are made to be broken. I think in the next 15-20 years, we will see other coaches get to four. And Coach K is going to have Bob Knight's all-time wins record real soon, too. Knowing him, I don't think Coach Rupp would have liked being tied, but it's part of sports."

By winning his fourth national title, Krzyzewski has staked his claim as the pre-eminent men's college basketball coach of the post-John Wooden era.

With 869 career victories, the Duke coach needs only 34 more to exceed Knight's Division I men's career coaching wins record of 902.

Add in 11 Final Four trips and the Olympic gold medal the Krzyzewski-coached U.S. men's basketball team won in 2008 and you have a multi-platinum coaching legacy.

"His records speak for themselves," said former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who played for Rupp, worked for him as an assistant and then succeeded him. "When Krzyzewski got that fourth title, it puts him in the most elite level of the coaching fraternity."

Because there is so much more parity in college basketball in the modern era than there was in the day of Rupp or even Wooden, there is an argument being made that Coach K's four NCAA titles are more impressive than Rupp's four and maybe even Wooden's 10.

Says here there is a good bit of merit to that contention.

"I hear that argued, and I understand it," said Hall, who coached UK to its fifth NCAA title in 1978. "But you could argue it the other way. To me, what Coach Rupp did, to be one of the first to really build a dynasty, to do something that really hadn't been done before in basketball, to be an innovator, is really impressive.

"Who's to say that to do that when it hadn't been done before wasn't a more difficult achievement than winning now, even with all the good players there are now?"

Both the beauty and the impossibility of arguing the relative standing of sports figures from different generations is that there really is no way to fairly compare and contrast across eras.

"This is kind of like arguing whether Jack Johnson was a better fighter than Mike Tyson; whether Jack Dempsey was better than Joe Louis," said Hall.

What isn't debatable, even here in Kentucky, is that Krzyzewski is now unquestionably in the first sentence of any discussion about the greatest men's college basketball coach of all time.

"I really believe this year was Mike's best coaching job," said Conley, who did both ACC and SEC games this year as TV analyst for Fox Sports Net. "Early on, his team was not anything close to a national championship team. For him to get his fourth title with a team that so clearly improved as the season went along, I think, is kind of fitting for the kind of coach he's been."

Said Hatton: "Coach K is a tremendous coach."

Pause.

"I really wish Butler had beaten him," the Fiddlin' Five star said with a laugh.

Somewhere in the hereafter, I bet crusty ol' Adolph Rupp wanted Gordon Hayward's half-court shot to go in, too.

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