Auerbach, Wooden, or Lombardi?

The recent exploits of Wisconsin's pro football team notwithstanding, there is one overriding reason why Green Bay is not just another medium-sized U.S. city.

Why it is viewed differently than Appleton or Oshkosh or Sheboygan.

Why people from across the country make summer pilgrimages to an otherwise ordinary town of 100,000 people.

That reason is Vince Lombardi.

When Lombardi came to Green Bay to coach the woeful Packers in 1959, it spawned a stretch in which the NFL's smallest city turned into the nation's sentimental favorite. Because the NFL and television had just linked hands, a pairing that would revolutionize sports, the story of Lombardi's Packers captured the imagination of fans everywhere.

During Lombardi's nine years as coach, Green Bay towered over New York, Chicago and every other metropolis where pro football was played. Starting in 1961, the Packers won an unprecedented five NFL titles in seven years, including the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi never had a losing season and his 98-30-4 record included nine wins in 10 playoff games.

Lombardi's run, though relatively short as dynasties go, was so spectacular that he has been named the coach (or manager) of the century by a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by ESPN, which has a year-long series commemorating the last 100 years of sports in North America.

Lombardi beat out six other finalists -- the Chicago Bears' George Halas (NFL), Alabama's Bear Bryant (college football), the Boston Celtics' Red Auerbach (NBA), the New York Giants' John McGraw (baseball), UCLA's John Wooden (college men's basketball) and North Carolina's Dean Smith (college men's basketball) -- for the honor. However, the announcement, which came Saturday on ABC, shouldn't end the debate. It should start it.

So who was the century's greatest coach?

At the risk of infuriating Packers fans everywhere, it wasn't Lombardi. Put him in the top three if you want, but his dominance didn't last long enough to land him at the head of the class.

Four of the seven finalists are easily eliminated. Halas won six NFL titles and is second in all-time wins, but it took him 40 years to do it. Bryant won six national titles and is the winningest coach in Division 1-A history, but his career spanned 38 years. Smith retired as college basketball's all-time leader in wins, but he coached the Tar Heels for 35 years and won only two NCAA titles. McGraw managed the Giants for 31 years just after the turn of the century, winning 10 pennants but only three World Series.

Those four were scratched because their feats were based in part on their longevity. The coach of the century should be someone who sustained near-complete dominance -- winning world or national titles -- over a period of time. Only Lombardi, Auerbach and Wooden fit the description.

Lombardi would have been a lock for the greatest coach had he been able to finish out his career. He had a 7-5-1 record after taking over the Washington Redskins in 1969 and might have repeated his Green Bay success had he not died of cancer in 1970.

Auerbach won nine NBA titles in his final 10 years with Boston, an unprecedented run that coincided with the drafting of Bill Russell in 1956. In his six years as coach prior to that, Auerbach never won a division title, which suggests that Russell had as much to do with the Celtics' success as Auerbach.

Lombardi and Auerbach constructed their dynasties on the same core group of players. Wooden never had that luxury. Yet, in his final 12 seasons at UCLA, the Bruins won an unheard of 10 NCAA titles.

Sure, Wooden had the two best centers in college basketball history in Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. But he only won five titles with them. He also won two titles before Alcindor arrived, two in between Alcindor and Walton and one after Walton left. That's why Wooden is the greatest coach of the 20th century.


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FLCeltsFan said...

I always say Red was the best. He not only was coach, but equipment manager, chauffeur, and chief cook and bottle washer. He had to put the teams together himself and then coach them and also do everything else on top of it. That, in my book makes Red the best.

FLCeltsFan said...

When you read the books about the early days of the Celtics, you realize that coaching was just a small part of what Red had to do to win. He had to do everything to put those teams together and keep them going. No other coach had all those responsibilities on top of coaching. So, Red's the best.

Lex said...

I like all three.

My dad was a huge lombardi guy.

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