Coach K after more, Ryan wants his first title

ByDana O'Neil via ESPN logo
Monday, April 6, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS -- They were born 10 months apart, one on Feb. 13, 1947, the son of Polish immigrants in Chicago, the other on Dec. 20 of the same year, the son of a World War II vet in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Each loved basketball, loved even more to have the ball in their hands, and spent their childhoods on the playgrounds and streets, trying to find games.

Both gave their time to the military, one as a graduate of West Point, the other drafted into the Army, where he counseled soldiers who had gone AWOL to recommit themselves to their service.

They started their basketball coaching careers two years apart. Some 40 years later, they're still at it and enjoying great success: One who recently passed the 1,000-win mark and has a court named after him in Durham, North Carolina, and the other with more than 700 wins and a court in his name in Platteville, Wisconsin.

And yet when Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan shake hands before Monday's national championship game between Duke and Wisconsin, the two couldn't be at more disparate points in their careers.

Krzyzewski is the gold standard, a Hall of Famer who would only burnish his reputation as his generation's John Wooden with another title, his fifth.

Ryan, widely respected, reportedly missed on his first-ballot chance to enter the Hall of Fame, and is still seeking the validation of his first championship.

"He could definitely be compared to, and hopefully we won't let this happen, to the great NBA players that make the Hall of Fame but their backlash is that they never won a championship,'' Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes said of his coach. "I think he's in that boat right now, where the world knows he's a great coach but he hasn't won it all yet, so until he does that he won't be put up in that class, with guys like Coach K.''

And so this game will all be about legacies, except, that is, to the two guys whose legacies are being discussed.

Maybe it's because of age or possibly even job security, but both Krzyzewski and Ryan are beyond worrying about any self-aggrandizement.

At 68 and 67, respectively, they remain incredibly competitive and motivated, but different than they were years ago.

It's obvious in how they behave. Krzyzewski is a kindler, gentler version of himself, waxing almost poetic about his relationship with Quinn Cook during this Final Four run, more giddily animated than angrily sneering on the sidelines.

"My wife and daughters want me to keep coaching for a long time. The main reason is because they've seen how much I've enjoyed this year, how much I love this group,'' Krzyzewski said.

And once seen as prickly or at least, curmudgeonly, Ryan is coaching a group of goofballs and loving it.

Hayes, who has spent this entire NCAA tournament trying to stump the news conference stenographers, offered up logorrhea as his word of the day on Sunday, using it to describe the verbose Ryan, or as he referred to him, Pops.

Pops just shook his head and smiled.

"The problem with these guys is they're too tense,'' he said. "Can't you tell?''

The nature of the college beast is so much of it becomes about the coach. The players are too fluid, staying at most for four years -- the good ones, of course, for only one.

And so we look to the adults for the records and the big numbers, even sometimes the deeper meanings.

Krzyzewski spent the early part of the season pursuing his 1,000th victory, hating pretty much every minute of it. He hated the pressure it put on his players, disliked even more the attention it paid to him.

It's the same with this game. A win would be about him, because it's been five years since the last one, because he's had to adjust so much (the man even played zone), because his best players aren't likely to be back next season to offer any real context.

At least he doesn't need to secure his place in some sort of imaginary coaching hierarchy. They've already carved his place on Mount Rushmore.

Ryan does.

He has been to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments as the Badgers' coach, is the all-time winningest coach at Wisconsin and is just one of nine active Division I coaches to have more than 700 career wins.

Yet he needs a national championship to prove his worth.

Even though he's already won four.

That's the real irony, of course. Ryan technically matches Krzyzewski in national crowns, too. His four titles just came while he was at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, which isn't quite the same as Division I Wisconsin.

"Training meal was hot dogs,'' Ryan said when asked to describe the difference between this national championship experience and his first, at Platteville in 1991. "The morning of the game, I had a cream doughnut and a diet pop. Now we have the best: French toast, pancakes, eggs, omelets. We have people cooking omelets. ... So you ask me what it was like? It wasn't like this.''

Nor is the worth of all those titles quite the same, at least to outsiders.

Mike Krzyzewski is a great coach, his success backed up by 12 Final Fours, by his work with USA Basketball, but mostly by four trophies that sit in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Bo Ryan is a great coach, too.

He's just needs the trophy to prove it.

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