Whenever a great coach or manager retires from his respective sport, it seemingly becomes our job to try to put his greatness into categorical perspective.
How we define greatness in sports—specifically for the men and women who lead those teams from the sidelines—is by victories and championships.
Sir Alex Ferguson will retire from the helm of Manchester United after 27 illustrious years in charge, after leading United through yet another championship season in England's top flight of football.
This year's crown makes 13 Premier League titles in Ferguson's 27 seasons—a number that looks even better after considering the Premier League, as it's currently structured, has only been in existence for 21 years. Ferguson has won 49 trophies in his career as a football manager, most of which came in the last quarter century at Old Trafford.
There is little doubt that Sir Alex is one of the greats of the football managerial world, a certain face on the coaching Mount Rushmore, if you pardon the American sports expression. With his retirement officially announced, the question can be asked:
Is Ferguson the greatest manager or coach in any sport…ever?
That, of course, is an impossible debate for anyone to win, which is why it's one of the great bar-room conversations that are so much fun to have. For the purposes of this debate, let's keep the list to major team sports. Yes, the list of comparables seems heavily weighted with Americans (more on that in a bit).
So…is Alex Ferguson the best manager ever? Whether you think he is or not, who should be on the managerial Mount Rushmore with him?
A Special One
First, let's consider the world of international football. Jose Mourinho is certainly not at the level of Sir Alex Ferguson, but given time, he could be. Remember, Ferguson is retiring at age 71. Mourinho is only 50, which gives him 21 more years in the game to amass the kind of hardware Ferguson has earned.
Granted, Mourinho doesn't strike anyone as the type to stay in one place too long, so The Special One staying in coaching for the next 21 years is highly unlikely. Still, at some point, Mourinho could be in the conversation more seriously than he already is today.
That Trophy Guy
Whenever Americans think of great coaches, the first name that pops up is Vince Lombardi. The coach was so great in his day that his league eventually named its championship trophy after him. (Should the EPL name its trophy after Sir Alex? Another topic for another day.)
As great as Lombardi was—he is third all-time in winning percentage for a professional football coach and won five championships, losing just one playoff game in his career—he was a head coach for just 10 years.
Ferguson is probably more reasonably compared to the likes of George Halas and Paul Brown. Halas coached nearly 500 games over 40 seasons—that spanned from 1920-1967—winning 318 times and hoisting six championship trophies. Brown coached 25 seasons—from 1946-1975—and won seven titles in his time, the most of any professional American football coach in history.
No list of great American football coaches would be complete without mentioning Don Shula, who has the most wins in NFL history with 328 in 490 games coached. Shula won two Super Bowls in his career and boasts the most games over .500 in his coaching career.
The Zen Master and Red
There are only two professional basketball coaches who would be in the same category as Ferguson: Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach.
Jackson was a contemporary of Ferguson, dealing with the modern-day athletes and their egos more than Auerbach had to in his time.
Jackson won 11 titles in his 20 years as a coach in the NBA with the Bulls and Lakers, and he also boasts the best regular-season winning percentage of any coach at .704. His playoff winning percentage of .688 is understandably tops in history as well.
Auerbach, however, may be more similar to Ferguson than Jackson. Red won all his titles with the same team—he won nine titles from 1957-1966 with the Boston Celtics—and shared a certain roughness to his personality with Ferguson that Jackson never seemed to have.
If there is a coach in history who may best parallel Ferguson, it's Auerbach. I can almost picture Fergie lighting up a celebratory cigar right now.
If Manchester United under Ferguson were considered the Yankees of world football, then it only makes sense to compare the managerial great to past New York Yankees managers.
Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel each won seven World Series in their managerial careers, the most of any managers in history. McCarthy won his titles between 1932 and 1943, all with the Yankees, while Stengel won his between 1949 and 1958, also with New York.
From a contemporary standpoint, Ferguson's career mirrors that of Joe Torre in a similar way to Jackson, handling the egos of the world's richest and most famous club (and players) while maintaining an elite level of excellence for decades.
If we were looking for a non-Yankee manager—hard to find on the list of multiple World Series champions—Tony La Russa would be the first name on that list, as the former Cardinals and A's skipper won three titles over 33 years as manager.
The College Ranks
College sports are a different animal in that schools don't have to worry about paying players, so it's hard to compare a college football or basketball coach to any professional coach in terms of success. (Note: Some may say it's harder to win in college than in the pros. Some...not me.)
Clearly, names like John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden would be on any short list of coaches when comparing greats of any generation in any sport. Nick Saban would be on that list too, though something about Saban seems to flash more Special One than Sir Alex to me.
Is Sir Alex the Greatest?
Even after running through this list, it's hard to decide if Sir Alex is the greatest coach of all time in any sport. Part of any success of a great manager is having great players, and all those on this list could boast rosters full of talent.
Of course, Sir Alex deserves the credit for molding his rosters to fit his style of play.
Of course, it didn't hurt that his owners would get him whatever he needed to win—case in point: Robin van Persie this season.
Still, like Jackson or Torre or any of the names on this list, greatness around him should not diminish his own greatness.
So, to answer the question: Can't we just admit that the debate in and of itself is more entertaining than finding an actual answer? He is certainly on the list—definitely getting his face carved on the mountain—when compared to some of the world's other great coaches.
And yes, I know this list is predominantly American coaches in American sports. We have a tendency to compare greats to what we know, and being an American writing for an American website to a predominantly American audience has admittedly narrowed my focus a bit.
In a way, that—of everything he's done as a coach—might say the most about Sir Alex.
He raised the level of success at Manchester United so much that the club became an international brand name unlike any the world had seen.
Manchester United is almost as American as the teams that actually play here, at least in terms of accessibility and interest. Perhaps that, with all the trophies included, is Sir Alex's greatest victory.