This marks the first preseason in 48 years in which Mike Krzyzewski is not a Division I men’s college basketball head coach. The legendary Duke coach left the game in April after having recorded a rather staggering 1,202 career victories.
Then again, “staggering” doesn’t mean “unreachable.” On the women’s side of the college game, for example, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (with 1,157 career wins) and UConn’s Geno Auriemma (1,149) are both fast approaching Coach K’s mark.
In men’s college hoops, conversely, no one’s quite that close to catching Krzyzewski just yet. Nevertheless, with Coach K now retired at age 75, his coaching peers at least have a stable number to target.
How Coach K did what he did, numerically speaking
Krzyzewski was hired as a 28-year-old head coach at Army in 1975. For the moment, set aside his 40-plus seasons at Duke, where Coach K averaged 27 victories per year. (Ho-hum.)
Note instead that the 73 wins he recorded in five years at West Point alone will keep any would-be pursuer working another two-plus seasons or so above and beyond what would otherwise be required. If you want to set a career mark, it’s vitally important to start young.
This importance is illustrated perfectly by two current head coaches who, as chance would have it, were both born on Dec. 27, 1962. Bill Self (Kansas) and Mark Few (Gonzaga) are both leading lights of the game, both have more than 600 wins under their belts, and they’re the same age almost down to the hour. Wild.
Yes, but Self got a head start. He was named head coach at Oral Roberts as a precocious 30-year-old in 1993 when Few was still toiling as an assistant under Dan Fitzgerald at Gonzaga. Few’s win rate with the Bulldogs has of course been excellent for 23 seasons, but, in effect, he’s been playing catch-up behind Self for his entire head-coaching career.
With that in mind, let’s look at which coaches started the earliest, won the most games and thus have the best chance to equal Coach K’s mark. To project each coach’s win rate over the next decade or more, an average was derived from the past five seasons that were not shortened by the pandemic. In other words, 2019-20 and 2020-21 were not used to arrive at these average win rates.
We’ll start with the leaders in career wins among active coaches. It will become apparent that having the most wins so far isn’t the same thing has having the best chance at this particular record going forward.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse Orange
Official wins: 998
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 20.2
Could reach 1,203 in: 2033-34 at age 88 or 89
At the win rate he’s posted over the past five full-length seasons, the 77-year-old Boeheim will have to work another decade to catch Krzyzewski.
This is where decisions made by the NCAA to vacate wins actually do matter. In 2015, Syracuse and Boeheim were forced to vacate 101 wins because of violations pertaining to academic misconduct and added benefits.
Adding 101 to Boeheim’s current official total brings him all the way up to 1,099 victories. Then you’re looking at something on the order of a five-or-so-season run to 1,203, with confetti potentially dropping from a certain capacious dome in upstate New York, say, at the end of 2026-27.
That sounds a good deal more feasible, but it’s also true that, for the moment, Boeheim doesn’t sound like someone planning to stick around for another five years. We’ll see.
Cliff Ellis, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Official wins: 894
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 18.2
Could reach 1,203: 2038-39 at age 93
Ellis will turn 77 in December, making him the second-oldest active head coach in Division I. He will reach 900 wins this year and join an exclusive club that includes Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Roy Williams. (Bob Huggins? Keep reading.) A very big deal will be made of that occasion, and rightly so. Coach Ellis, we salute you!
Bob Huggins, West Virginia Mountaineers
Official wins: 845
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 22.0
Could reach 1,203 in: 2037-38 at age 84
Define “official wins.” Huggins began his head-coaching career at age 27 at NAIA member Walsh University. In three seasons there, he compiled 71 victories before taking the head job at Akron.
Those 71 wins at Walsh would lift Huggins to 916. Even then it could take another 13 seasons or so to get that number above 1,200.
Note additionally that if we’re counting wins at all levels of collegiate competition, Texas Tech’s Mark Adams would like a word. He’s at 581 on that basis.
John Calipari, Kentucky Wildcats
Official wins: 768
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 30.2
Could reach 1,203 in: 2036-37 at age 77 or 78
While Calipari will take longer to reach Coach K than a hypothetical never-retiring Boeheim, we’re also speaking of someone 14 years younger than the Syracuse legend. Kentucky’s coach figures to have more runway in front of him, so to speak — assuming he chooses to use it and doesn’t go all Jay Wright on us.
Also, did someone mention vacated wins? Over the years, the NCAA has docked Calipari 42 victories for infractions at UMass in 1995-96 and at Memphis in 2007-08. If the NCAA holds a news conference tomorrow and says, “Oops!” — don’t hold your breath — we could then be looking at a potential Calipari rendezvous with 1,203 destiny in 2034-35, when the coach will be 75 or 76.
Bill Self, Kansas Jayhawks
Official wins: 763
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 31.0
Could reach 1,203 in: 2036-37 at age 73 or 74
Although 2036-37 sounds a long way away, no other coach has a plausible path to 1,203 official wins at such a relatively youthful age. Self could conceivably become the all-time leader in career wins before his 75th birthday.
Bear in mind that Coach K himself was 75 when he won his last game. Basically, Calipari has won as many games or more at a younger age than peers such as Rick Barnes (754 at age 68), Dana Altman (710 at 64) and Tom Izzo (666 at 67).
Now, does Self want to stay in coaching for as long as Krzyzewski did? Who knows. But if he does, and if Kansas continues to reel off 30 or so wins a season, Self has a shot — quite possibly the best shot — at getting this job done.
Rick Pitino, Iona Gaels
Official wins: 684
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 26.2
Could reach 1,203: 2042-43 at age 90
Never mind the official Pitino win total shown here. Even if the NCAA hadn’t stripped away a whopping 123 Louisville victories from between 2011 and 2015, catching Coach K still would have been a tall order for Pitino.
Wave a magic wand, give the 70-year-old legend all of his 807 wins, and Iona’s head coach could still require something on the order of 15 more years to record those last 396 victories. Pitino started (very) young as a 25-year-old head coach at Boston University in 1978-79, but he also devoted an entire decade variously to the NBA and the international game over four different tours of duty.
Mark Few, Gonzaga Bulldogs
Official wins: 658
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 31.6
Could reach 1,203 in: 2039-40 at age 76 or 77
Few gave his birthdate soulmate, Self, a 97-win head start before notching his first victory as head coach of the Bulldogs in November 1999.
So much for coaches who are over or at least near 60 years of age. What about the younger group?
Mick Cronin, UCLA Bruins
Official wins: 432
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 27.6
Could reach 1,203 in: 2049-50 at age 78
With 400-plus victories under his belt at age 51, Cronin finds himself ensconced at a blue-chip program that has averaged 22 wins per season while “struggling” since its last national title in 1995.
Scott Drew, Baylor Bears
Official wins: 419
Win rate past five full-length seasons: 23.0
Could reach 1,203 in: It depends.
Going strictly by the numbers from before and after the pandemic era, Drew shouldn’t get near Coach K’s win mark until he’s well into his 80s. Then again, when we do include the pandemic seasons, the Bears have earned two consecutive No. 1 seeds — and very well might have made it three in a row had there been a tournament in 2020.
Naturally, no program’s going to earn a No. 1 seed every year. If it turns out Baylor really has made a transition to consistently being something similar to what we’ve seen the past three years, however, the 52-year-old could conceivably reach 1,200 career wins in his mid-to-late 70s.
Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Official wins: 25
Win rate last season: 25.0
Could reach 1,203 in: 2068-69 at age 77
Finally, we come to the most demographically advantaged Division I head coach of all. Valentine was born in May 1991. If he keeps winning 25 games a year for the next half-century, look out, Coach K.
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