When Mike Krzyzewski won his last national title (before, even), the headlines lauded him as potentially the best college basketball coach ever. Jason Keidel of CBS asked, “Is Coach K The Best College Basketball Coach Ever?” Reid Forgrave of FOX Sports argued, “Forget numbers, 5th title makes Coach K greater than Wooden.” Chris Chase of USA Today contended, “Like it or not, Mike Krzyzewski is the best coach in college basketball history.” And of course the indomitable Gregg Doyel weighed in, “Coach K is the best now, but Wooden is best ever.”
As a UNC fan, even I have to admit that Coach K’s credentials place him, at a minimum, among the elite college basketball coaches of all time, perhaps even among the elite college coaches in any sport of all time. And, yet, if that is the case, then Roy Williams is not too far behind him, no matter if his peers think he is overrated. This post lays out that case.
Coach K was the first men’s college basketball coach to crest 1,000 wins (Pat Summit was the first in college basketball), and currently is in first place among men’s coaches with 1,071. Williams is not far behind at 7th with 816 wins. But, to Williams’s credit, he’s averaged more wins per season (28.1 vs. K’s 25.5) and owns a higher winning percentage (79.1 vs. 76.4).
The biggest argument in K’s favor revolves around his 5 national titles (second only to John Wooden’s 10). After his most recent title this year, Williams is at 3, which is tied for fourth all-time among men’s college coaches. If you consider conference titles (regular season and tournament combined), K leads Williams by only a slim margin—26 to 24 (however it took K 42 total seasons but Williams only 29). K has been national coach of the year 6 different years, and Williams 4 different years (he won two different NCOY awards one year). Williams, however, has been his conference coach of the year 9 times to K’s 5.
Apart from the national titles, it is a bit more difficult to adjudicate between their tournament successes. While K does have the 5 titles and 12 Final Fours, Williams is not far behind with 3 and 9. Even though he has coached more than a decade longer, K has only led teams to one more Elite 8 than Williams (14 to 13). To his credit, Williams has never lost a first-round NCAA tournament matchup, while K has lost 4 (including some historic upsets as the 3 seed in 2014 to 14 seed Mercer and as the 2 seed in 2012 to 15 seed Lehigh). But, while Williams has won at least 2/3rds of his career games in each round, that is not as impressive as K’s 85% (to Williams’s 69%) Elite 8 winning percentage or K’s 75% (to Williams’s 66.7%) Final Four winning percentage.
If you compare these laudable achievements of both coaches to their expectations, Williams grades out well against Krzyzewski. K’s teams have often been ranked more highly in the preseason polls, polling preseason no. one 7 times (to Williams’s 4), in the top ten 27 total times (to Williams’s 20), and in the top twenty-five 31 total times (to Williams’s 25). Compared to preseason expectations, Williams has done as much or more than Coach K. And Coach K has arguably had more talented teams, having had 19 consensus All-Americans to Williams’s 11. (Of course, it is a college coach’s job to recruit.)
It would be very fair to point out that Coach K started his career at Army, an independent school where he had no chance to win a conference title and essentially no chance at making the NCAA tournament. In his 5 seasons as Army coach, K went 73-59 with one NIT appearance (he lost in the first round). And, K had a losing record in his first three seasons as coach at Duke, his best finish among those being his first year when his team went 17-13 and lost in the third round of the NIT. For clarity, in the three seasons before Krzyzewski became head coach, Duke won a combined 73 games and lost in the NCAA title game, lost in the round of 32, and lost in the Elite 8.
Williams, of course, began his career taking over a Kansas program on probation, but, as many will point out, competed in the comparatively weak Big 8/12 (as compared to the ACC). That did not stop Williams from having fairly immediate postseason success, making the NCAA tournament every year Kansas was not on probation, going to 2 Final Fours in his first 5 eligible years at Kansas (in 1991 he lost to Krzyzewski in the national championship game; K has an overall 18-12 record against Williams).
All that said, the point is not to say that Roy Williams has career accomplishments equal to or better than Mike Krzyzewski. That is a difficult argument to make. But, when you look at their entire careers, there just is not as much separating the two coaches as one might think. Considering he has coached for thirteen more years than Williams, Coach K simply SHOULD have more career accomplishments. In almost every per-season statistic, however, Williams is better than or equal to Krzyzewski. What does that mean?
If Coach K is arguably the best college coach of all time, then Roy Williams is not far behind him and should be included in that discussion.