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November 16, 2011
Beyond 900
Chasing Coach K

by John Gasaway


As you may have heard, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has overtaken his mentor Bob Knight and set a record for career wins by a Division I head coach. With 903 victories under his belt, Coach K stands alone at No. 1 ... and he's still going. Let's take a moment to celebrate an amazing achievement, the equivalent of recording a 30-win season every season for 30 years.

OK. And now, on to the next moment. Let's ask the obvious but nevertheless intriguing question: Can any coach hope to break Coach K's record?

It won't be easy. Krzyzewski is 64 years old -- a bit younger than standard-issue Big East legends like Jim Calhoun (69) and Jim Boeheim (about to turn 67) -- and he hasn't even hinted at retiring. It's not at all inconceivable that Coach K could reach 1,000 wins before he's done. In fact, if he coaches just four more seasons it's a virtual certainty. Who can possibly match a figure like that?

First, let's rule out some candidates. It takes a particular and rather rare career type to have a realistic shot at this record. For instance, indisputable figureheads of the profession like Tom Izzo and Roy Williams are at a clear disadvantage. I know it seems like Izzo has been to every Final Four over the past 30 years, but would you believe he actually has fewer career wins than Oliver Purnell? True story.

And even though Williams has compiled 645 wins as a head coach, he has the same "problem" as Izzo. Both men spent at least 10 years as assistants to the previous coaching legends at their schools (Jud Heathcote and Dean Smith, respectively). That was time Krzyzewski spent quietly building his win total as a young head coach at Army. Unless Williams wants to make up that lost decade on the back end by coaching into the mid- to late-2020s, any career records are out of his reach.

In other words, if you hope to reach Coach K's win total, it'll help if you've followed more or less the same path as Krzyzewski. Secure your first head-coaching gig when you're 28, average exactly 25 wins per season over 36 years, and bam: 900 wins at age 64.

All of which is much easier said than done, of course. Just look at Boeheim. The Syracuse coach has averaged 24.5 wins per season for 35 years, for a win total of 858. Not good enough! Boeheim is two years and three months older than Krzyzewski. He'll almost certainly rank second in wins before he finishes, but unless he coaches longer than expected or Krzyzewski retires earlier than assumed, it's doubtful Boeheim can catch the man in Durham.

So much for the elimination round. Time to look at four solid candidates, guys who said no to long-term assignments as assistants, started young as head coaches, and have averaged a promising number of wins per season.

Brad Stevens, Butler
Age: 35
Wins: 118
You figured this discussion would get around to Stevens, the coach Krzyzewski defeated for his 2010 national championship ring. The Butler coach is obviously really good, and obviously he's really young. Should be a prime candidate to overtake Coach K someday, right? Here's what it will take for that to happen. Stevens is averaging better than 29 wins a season. If he continues to win at that pace (a rather enormous "if"), he'll get to 900 during the 2040-41 season, by which time he'll be 64 years old. What a coincidence! On one hand, it's folly to assess the career-win potential of someone who's 785 wins behind Krzyzewski. That's a lot of ground to make up. But my point in including Stevens here is merely to note that the Bulldogs' coach is on the "correct" sequence. If you want to have any shot at all, start young and win often. Stevens fits both parts of that description.

John Calipari, Kentucky
Age: 52
Wins: 468
Calipari would definitely be the most promising candidate here had he not spent four years coaching in the NBA. Even so, the Kentucky coach still has a lot of seasons in front of him, and you may have noticed he's fairly good at this whole recruiting thing. His win totals don't dip very far, even in his "down" years. If Calipari stays in Lexington for another 15 years or so, Coach K will start hearing footsteps.

Of course, he'd also have an easier time catching Coach K if the NCAA hadn't vacated 42 of his wins after the fact (four at UMass in 1995-96, and 38 at Memphis in 2007-08).

Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Age: 58
Wins: 621
Boeheim is on the record as saying Huggins has the best shot to catch Coach K. Huggins has 692 total wins as a head coach, but 71 of those victories were recorded at Walsh University in Ohio, now a Division II program. To surpass Krzyzewski on equal terms, Huggins should be regarded as possessing "just" 621 wins. Still, I think Boeheim's basic reasoning on Huggins is correct: "He'll try and coach forever." Indeed, the West Virginia coach hardly strikes me as someone who'll retire soon and sign autographs genially in the stands while watching games played on Bob Huggins Court. Krzyzewski will almost certainly retire before Huggins does, leaving a static number out there that the man in Morgantown can chase.

Huggins will have to chase that number for a while, though. Effectively he's a decade or more "behind" Krzyzewski in wins, and, obviously, Huggins won't start narrowing that gap until Coach K decides to call it a day.

Bill Self, Kansas
Age: 48
Wins: 445
Betting that any one coach will surpass Krzyzewski's career win total is, by definition, a sucker bet, but if someone forced me to put money down I'd go with Self.

He began his head-coaching career at age 30 at Oral Roberts, and he'll turn 49 a few days before New Year's. Krzyzewski got a slightly earlier start to his career, but Self is making up for that by coaching at a blue-chip program in a conference that reliably gives him victories 85 percent of the time or more.

At 445 career wins, Self is more or less halfway to 900, and for the past decade he's averaged about 29 wins a season. If he can keep up that pace he would reach 900 pretty quickly, all things considered, in the 2025-26 season, at age 64. At that point, if he chooses to pursue this particular trophy, Self will at least have the competitive advantage of chasing a fixed number.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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