RTC’s Mount Rushmore – Top Four (And More) Most Significant People in College Basketball History

Posted by EJacoby on February 20th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. 

As we celebrate President’s Day on this Monday, it’s a good time to reflect back on the significant accomplishments of George Washington and the other great leaders of our country’s 236-year history. That got us to thinking: Who are the most significant people in the history of college basketball? The game is not quite as old as the United States of America, but there are many options to choose from in a sport that’s over 100 years old, from prodigious coaches to superstar players. In the end, we determined that no single player, in a maximum of four years of eligibility, has had as much impact on the sport as any of the four coaching legends that we selected. Head coaches are responsible for shaping the lives of hundreds of players during their tenure and thus have a greater opportunity to impact the game than anyone else. Here’s a look at the accomplishments of four of the all-time great coaches in college basketball history that compose our RTC Mount Rushmore (these are in no particular order):

Mike Krzyzewski – You may not be able to spell or pronounce his full last name, but ‘Coach K’ is one of the first names that comes to mind when discussing the greatest coaches in basketball history. Krzyzewski became the all-time winningest Division I men’s basketball coach when he recorded his 903rd victory to surpass his former coach at Army, Bobby Knight, earlier this season. Coach K has been at Duke since 1980 and has led the Blue Devils to four National Championships, 11 Final Fours, and 12 ACC regular season titles. He also coached the USA Olympic ‘Redeem Team’ in 2008 to a gold medal. Mike Krzyzewski was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, still remains the head coach of one of the top contenders in the country every year, and doesn’t appear to be calling it quits anytime soon.

Adolph Rupp - A man known for his obsession with winning, Adolph Rupp is perhaps the single most successful head coach in NCAA history, statistically speaking. Rupp is fifth on the all-time men’s coaching wins list (876 victories), and he did it with the second-best winning percentage of all time, at 82.2%. Rupp spent his entire 41-year coaching career at Kentucky, where he guided the Wildcats to six Final Fours and four National Championships. His tournament records could have been even more impressive if it wasn’t for his team’s two-year hiatus from the postseason in the 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons. Rupp also led UK to 27 SEC regular season titles in 41 years and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame while still coaching in 1969. Shortly after he retired, Big Blue Nation named their home court after him, and Rupp Arena remains one of the historic landmarks in college basketball today.

Dean Smith - Spending his entire 36-year coaching career at North Carolina, Dean Smith led his team to 11 Final Fours during his tenure, two of which ended in National Championships. He retired with the most victories in Division I history in 1997, though he has since been surpassed by three men and remains fourth on the wins list. Smith coached Michael Jordan as well as fellow future pros James Worthy and Sam Perkins during UNC’s first National Championship in 1982. Smith is also well known as one of the good guys in the sport, preaching social equality and recruiting the school’s first African-America scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in 1967, amongst many other notable accomplishments. Today, the Tar Heels play in the Dean E. Smith Center that honors the legendary head coach.

John Wooden

John Wooden Built a Dynasty at UCLA as the Game's Greatest Coach (Getty Images/R. Clarkson)

Simply put, John Wooden is the most important coach in college basketball history, and is on the short list of the greatest coaches of all time  in any sport. Wooden coached UCLA for 27 seasons that included a 12-year run of domination that no team has ever come close to repeating. The Bruins won 10 National Championships from 1964 until 1975, including seven in a row from the ’67 to ’73 seasons, and included an overall 88-game winning streak during that span. The Wizard of Westwood is revered just as much for his well-known life lessons as a teacher as much as he’s known for winning. Wooden created the ‘Pyramid of Success’ that taught his players lessons for success in life, mainly off the basketball court, and quotes from his teachings are recognized throughout the world. It’s no surprise that Wooden lived for 99 years before passing away in 2010. The most coveted college basketball award for individual performance is named the John R. Wooden Award to recognize the coach, who was inducted to the Hall of Fame as both a player (at Purdue) and coach.

Conference Mount Rushmores:

Honorable Mention:

  • Bob Knight – He just misses the cut on our Mount Rushmore, but Knight’s face would certainly be on there if there were room for a fifth. The General ranks second on the all-time wins list behind Coach K, and he won three National Championships at Indiana from 1971 through 2000. However, unlike the four members on our list, Knight was a controversial coach for several acts of verbal and, occasionally, physical violence towards players and media members, the most infamous coming when he choked a player during practice in 1997. He wound up getting fired from Indiana in 2000 and finished his career at Texas Tech where he retired with 902 victories.
  • Henry Iba – If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Iba, you should get to know him, a two-time National Champion head coach for Oklahoma State (then named Oklahoma A&M) in the 1940s. Iba won 751 games in 36 years and also coached the USA Olympic team to gold medals in the ’64 and ’68 games. The Henry Iba Award today recognizes the top college basketball coach of the year as voted by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, in honor of the Hall of Fame head coach.

Honorable Mention, Players/Media:

  • Lew Alcindor – Before changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Lew Alcindor was a superstar at UCLA under John Wooden. He won National Championships in each of his three seasons as a Bruin from 1967 to 1969, was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player each year, and was a multiple National Player of the Year winner through various awards. He averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds per game in his college career and was deemed the greatest college basketball player ever by ESPN in their Top 25 list in 2008.
  • Christian Laettner – Perhaps the biggest superstar in the modern era of the game, Laettner was the leader of the Duke Blue Devils for back-to-back National Championship seasons in 1991 and 1992, during the latter of which he won every major Player of the Year award. It wasn’t Laettner’s compiled statistics (16.6 career scoring average), but instead his clutch performances that made him one of the game’s all-time greats. He’s the only player to start in four Final Fours and he also hit ‘The Shot’ in 1992’s “Greatest Game Ever Played” against Kentucky that remains one of the most iconic moments in the sport’s history.
  • Dick Vitale – We all know Dickie V as the enthusiastic broadcaster and ambassador of the sport for the past 30-plus years, but Vitale also coached at the University of Detroit in the mid-1970s. Now, he’s a beloved icon of the game whose face and voice is perhaps the most recognizable in all of college basketball. What else can we say? He’s just awesome, baby! With a capital ‘A’.

Dickie V Was Once a Coach Before he Became the Entertaining Broadcaster (Detroit Free-Press)

  • Dave Gavitt - Known for his many contributions to the game, Gavitt reached the Final Four at Providence as head coach in 1973 for the first time in that school’s history in addition to his many accomplishments as an administrator afterward. He is perhaps best known as the first commissioner of the Big East Conference in 1979 where he established the league that quickly picked up on the new medium of cable television (ESPN) and became and remains today a juggernaut in the sport. He also created the concept of the USA Olympic Dream Team in 1992 and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

We recognize that picking a college basketball Mount Rushmore is an exercise in subjectivity. Leave us your thoughts on who should have been (or not) selected in the comments.

EJacoby (198 Posts)


Share this story

13 Responses to “RTC’s Mount Rushmore – Top Four (And More) Most Significant People in College Basketball History”

  1. AMurawa says:

    My only complaint about the selections here would be the lack of a player on the monument. Sure, coaches are around longer than players and as a result have a longer impact on the game, but when I think back on years of watching college hoops, it isn’t the coaches that first come to mind, it is the players.

    That said, it is awful hard to decide which of those four coaches should be left aside in order to include Alcindor, for example…

  2. coolinjector says:

    REALLY? i would think a list of the most significant should include coaches who innovated, starting with Naismith. Kryzysewski? Significant for appearing on credit card commercials? Rupp, Knight and Smith changed the game.

    And Laettner is the biggest joke of all. Took him 4 years to go pro and he was always surrounded by better talent. Funniest part is how he was oncluded on the dream team – probably because he was white. To put him ahead of players like Pistol Pete shows that you have no idea.

    Where did you take this survey? Duke university?

  3. nvr1983 says:

    AMurawa–
    Although I wasn’t directly involved with the selections I agree with the choices of the four names listed here. My issue with having a player on the Mount Rushmore and especially on the national level is that the players are only there for four years. How could you possibly put one of those players even a 4-year one, which Alcindor technically was not, ahead of coaches with 25+ years of impact?

    coolinjector–
    We are looking for iconic figures. Naismith’s impact on basketball is on a much more grand scale than college basketball. It is hard to put a man with a losing record in college (the only coach with a losing record in Kansas history) ahead of these four coaching icons. As for Laettner, the same stuff applies. This is about college basketball. Laettner’s post-college career wasn’t spectacular although it was not as bad as many Duke haters make it out to be. If you actually take time to consider Laettner’s play and legacy, you would understand why he merits consideration.

  4. AMurawa says:

    The idea that Laettner wasn’t the best player on his team, which I’ve now seen thrown out there on more than one occasion today, is absurd. Go back and watch those teams. He had good talent around him, but Laettner was clearly the man there.

    And winning trumps all, which is why Pistol Pete doesn’t deserve mention here, IMO.

  5. EJacoby says:

    As author, I just want to say that all discussion about the list is encouraged… Believe me, I had a hard time deciding which people to include on the Honorable Mention lists. There are great arguments for many players/coaches/others.

    That said, I agree with what nvr1983 has said, that the issue is about significance. Iconic players, memorable moments, overall impact on the game. Christian Laettner is probably one of the most hated players in basketball, and often called overrated. We’re not making ANY statements about his talent level as it applies to his NBA career or overall skill set. But his impact on college basketball? It’s undeniable. Four Final Fours, two championships, one of the most memorable shots in the game’s history, a unanimous All-American, National Player of the Year, and a person that was such a superstar in college it was like he was a pro already rather than a student-athlete…. The fact that he wasn’t nearly the most talented player, and still ended up with those career accomplishments, is what makes so many people despite him, in addition to his attitude in college.

    Again, the arguments are endless. Why Lew Alcindor over Bill Walton? It’s a tough call. Why not Maravich, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, or David Thompson instead? It’s so hard to distinguish these all-time great players, and we went with two of the most accomplished and impactful players, rather than simply, “Who was the best?”

  6. eaj9351 says:

    The biggest omission to me is Phog Allen. If you are going to recognize Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp what about their coach? Allen had them both as players on championship teams at KU and Allen deserves credit as essentially the “father” of college basketball coaching. He also won an Olympic gold medal as a coach. Allen also created the NABC which created the NCAA Tournament, so his role is quite significant in what college basketball is today. Pretty hard to justify leaving him off of your list and honorable mentions.

  7. EJacoby says:

    Considered Phog Allen very much…. again, this is a tough exercise. There’s no way to exclude Dean Smith or Adolph Rupp, and my debate came down to Iba and Allen. We could have made 20 more Honorable Mentions for coaches and players that could make cases to be on the list… Look for the Big 12 Mount Rushmore tomorrow to see if Phog makes that list.

  8. You left off Wilt Chamberlain, who so dominated the game that they widened the lane and ( at least for years thereafter ) outlawed the dunk–all because of him.

  9. rtmsf says:

    Great comment, except that it’s incorrect. Lew Alcindor was the reason the NCAA outlawed the dunk, from 1967 to 1976. They even came to call it the “Lew Alcindor Rule.” Wilt, fwiw, played at Kansas from 1955-58. He also won zero national titles, whereas Alcindor won three.

  10. Matt says:

    So you couldn’t just add a third honorable mention for Phog Allen? To leave the father of basketball coaching and the man who taught Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Ralph Miller, et al., off the list entirely is utterly ridiculous. If you look at the coaches and coaching trees that sprouted from Phog Allen it’s debatable that no one had a bigger impact in college basketball history.

  11. EJacoby says:

    I’ve acknowledged your point, and I certainly agree that Allen is one of the all-time greats. But I think you’re failing to realize how difficult it is to trim a list down to 4, and then Honorable Mentions are not supposed to be as long as the actual list. We cut it to 2 Mentions, and Allen just missed the cut. To ‘just add a third’ would then lead to the next person asking why their guy (Naismith, Sutton, Olson) was cut off. I’ve also heard a great argument for Jim Boeheim, as he’s soon going to pass Bob Knight for 2nd in all-time wins with far less losses and no off-court controversies (is the Bernie Fine case, which is still unsettled, really tied to him?)

    So back to the point – there just needs to be a decision that’s made about when to cut it off, and we made it at 2 Honorable Mention coaches. You’ve made your point and I 100% agree that Phog Allen is an all-time great. He just didn’t make the Mount Rushmore, and its’s not a discredit to him but rather proof that this game has such a rich history of coaches. There is no right or wrong answer, and I’d respect that Allen would be on your list.

  12. eaj9351 says:

    I understand why there is only space for 2 honorable mentions, but you still have completely failed to explain why ANY of your choices are more deserving than Phog. Isn’t it a testament to the greatness of Phog that he mentored Smith and Rupp? That you HAVE to include them only strengthens Phog’s profile and historical significance. And really? Iba over Allen? How?

    Also, as the “Father of College Basketball Coaching” all coaches owe something to Phog. By calling this a Mount Rushmore you are automatically referring to the fact that the real Mount Rushmore honors the “fathers” of our country. To leave out the only college basketball figure that is universally thought of as a “father” is a failure to understand what Mount Rushmores are. I am curious how you can justify there being 6 more significant coaches in the history of college basketball than Phog.

  13. EJacoby says:

    eaj – You are quite knowledgeable of Phog Allen and his coaching tree and the overall history of the game. So there should be no reason why you need to ask this question about why ‘ANY’ of my choices are more significant.

    Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Coach K, and John Wooden? Really? Let’s take a quick look:

    Allen had a career record of 746-264, 73.9%. Smith, Rupp, and Krzyzewski all won at least 130 more games AND lost fewer games, except K who has 24 more losses but 177 more wins. An easier look:

    Dean Smith – 879-254, 77.6%
    Adolph Rupp – 876-190, 82.2%
    Coach K – 923-288, 78.8%
    Phog Allen – 746-264, 73.9%

    And it’s not like there are any questions here about ‘strength of schedule’ as it pertains to the records. We’re talking about the coaches at UNC, UK, Duke, and KU. And they all won multiple National Champions. Two of Allen’s three titles were actually named retroactively as there was no NCAA Tournament in 1921 and 1922.

    And the final guy? John Wooden. He only happened to have an 80.4% career winning percentage at 664-162, with 10 National Champions in a 12-year period, and worldwide recognized as the greatest teacher in sports history.

    Phog Allen is an all-time great. He’s the “Father of Basketball Coaching.” He mentored two of the guys on this list and nobody is saying anything negative about him or his legacy. He’s deserving of an Honorable Mention on the Mount Rushmore, and perhaps I should have put him in there over Henry Iba or Bobby Knight. But I hope you now got a reminder of how incredible these 4 Rushmore coaches are. I’d be surprised if any list compiled by any experts didn’t include the same 4 that I noted. Phog Allen is deserving of an Honorable Mention, but I’m not going to put him ahead of Dean Smith, who won 133 more games with 10 less losses and made 11 Final Fours in a more difficult era of the game, just because he coached him for four seasons. I recognize the value in the coaching tree, and everyone has incredible respect for the Phog. He would be proud that Dean Smith went on to become an all-time great, and I’m just not taking Dean Smith off the Mount Rushmore.

Leave a Reply