Having the temerity of claiming I know how Phil Jackson does it would be absurd. Of course, everyone has an opinion. Yet as the 2011 NBA playoffs begin, we should pay homage to Phil Jackson. He will not be as missed as Red Auerbach by many but should be heralded as the best coach of all time. In any sport.
Most, if not the majority, claim he has had the best talent during his coaching years. Is this really true? A look at the teams on which he has played and coached is appropriate—and of course, a review of other sports, for other sports hold some greats of their own.
To begin with, is coaching the NBA as great as coaching other sports?
Great Coaches in Other Sports
So who is in the mix for the best coach of all time? The GOAT in coaching history.
Let's be bold and claim that we need to include coaches from many sports.
But for time and convenience, let's leave aside the more arcane, like lacrosse, which is strangely making a huge national rise, maybe due to the fact that it is a scholarship sport for both women and men. Let's also leave aside coaches below the college level and in the minors.
Finally, despite its at times fateful determination, longevity is essential. There may have been better coaches, but they had to stay in one sport and at one level.
In some sports, the GOAT is pretty obvious.
In women's college basketball, although many of us would prefer to have a woman reign, Geno Auriemma takes the cake and must be in play. Winner of the Naismith Award a record six times. No other men's and women's coach is close.
While the talent has been very good, this year's team told us more about Auriemma than any other. He managed to win despite inferior talent and one great player. Probably his best coaching effort in history.
Women's basketball has changed over the past 10 years, yet Auriemma has changed with it. An immigrant who got his citizenship only in 1994, after living in the US for 33 years, Auriemma is certainly one of the best of all time.
College basketball has several great coaches from the old days, when the NCAA tournament was second to the NIT, and earlier times.
But in comparing apples to apples, we end up with one set of coaches above all others: Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski.
The Naismith College Coach of the Year Award was given to the NCAA champion's coach for its first two years. Knight won the first for this reason. After that, it was awarded by vote. Perhaps this was the Knight rule. Because fewer people through the years wanted Knight as any award winner. Too hyper-competitive. Too ugly. Swore too much. Tore players' jerseys. Threw chairs.
Whatever you want to say, Knight simply does not get in. Horrible for the sport.
The others are questions, but given the issues about the disproportionate amount of talent Wooden got and the claims about how he got it, Wooden does not qualify. He may have been great, but how much of his greatness was just due to the dominant talent obtained under what some say are questionable circumstances?
The next two, who were young and old when they both were in the ACC, are the ones we have to wonder about more carefully. They were great winners, no question.
But there is one thing that makes Dean Smith more special. He was an innovator, with his version of the four corners offense and other coaching masterpieces that were changed by the NCAA instituting new rules.
For anyone who listened to the radio during one of the greatest college games of all time, final score around 28-27—I think it was NC State, but I do not remember. What I do remember, and perhaps because it was available only on radio, is that the tension was immense. Through the entire game. Every point counted. For me, that was one of the greatest games of all times. Radio. Four corners. Dean Smith.
Moving on, the next few are also pretty obvious.
Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Shula and Paul Brown are probably on all lists. I would add Bill Belichick to this list, given his recent success, although his longevity as a head coach is not as significant as those of the other four.
For me here, the nod goes to Shula. Sure, he had talent. But his coaching career still stands as the most significant in a time of far better talent, and more teams, because of its consistency from the very outset. Yet despite this consistency, he failed to win a championship, including the famous loss in the 1969 Super Bowl III when Joe Namath guaranteed the Jets would win the game, until he got to Miami.
In Miami, changing offensive strategies depending on his talent, Shula coached the only team ever to go undefeated in modern-day professional football.
Because of his longevity as head football coach (33 years), his coaching abilities and that undefeated season, Shula takes the prize for me.
I could go on. But this is a pretty good mix for best coach ever. Sorry, hockey and baseball fans. Maybe I include them next time.
Phil Jackson: Best Coach of All Time
Some claim there is no coaching at the NBA level. It's just a scrum every day. Some say college basketball is easier to coach. Others that it requires pure coaching and that these coaches are better.
Still others claim the triangle and one, the offensive system used by Phil Jackson, is not his. So he cannot be the greatest.
They say it is Tex Winter's system, who is still a consultant for the LA Lakers. But Winter got it ironically from another coach in Southern California, Sam Barry, who coached Winter in the 1940s.
The fact is that every system is from someone all the way back to the genesis of basketball. While there are differences in coaches, sports and levels, every coach faces the same game. In fact, if we were able to find out more about coaches, we might find one we thought was better.
Yet Jackson stands out in so many ways that no coach seems to be better, and he seems to stand on top of the heap.
In pro basketball, we have perhaps two other coaches who need to be in the mix with Jackson: Red Auerbach and Pat Riley.
Yet Jackson as NBA coach is the best in history in number of NBA finals, championships won, games won and winning percentage.
As an ambassador of a sport, none is better.
Jackson has contributed to the game with six books, probably a record by any prominent coach. He has also contributed to his players' lives.
Of any coach, none can have a more unusual background. His mother was a Mennonite; his father and mother were Assemblies of God ministers. He assumed he would end up a minister. He led an austere life growing up. No TV. No movies. He saw his first when he was a senior in high school and did not dance until college.
So there is no question but that the spirituality of the game is a place where Jackson excels. Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (1995) shows his thinking. Managing teams and egos is his forte.
But winning games is his best talent.
There is a question this year, once again, about the Lakers. Can they do it? Do they have the talent? What about the games lost at the end of the season?
While he has good talent, few can question that Jackson may not have the most talented team this year and has not for quite some time. But he may be the first to exploit the "injury" and other outs that allow NBA teams to lose games at the end of the season. In this too, he is masterful.
Recognizing that the huge number of games grinds players down mentally and physically, Jackson and some other coaches use the later games to tune their players. My suspicion is that these coaches also lose to position themselves against certain teams.
This may never be admitted and admittedly is speculation. Yet it makes sense.
Pro basketball players always play injured. But since they all have injuries, they can sit out at the end of the season with impunity.
Various players respond better with rest, while others need the constant grind to stay on top.
Jackson knows how to do this to tune his players for the sacred hoops of the playoffs.
In the end, you simply cannot count Jackson out.
I see Jackson above any other coach. He may just prove this again this year, which could be his last.
So enjoy the show, and watch his teams not to see Kobe Bryant or any other player, but to watch the wonder of Jackson's coaching. Do not miss it. This may be your last chance.