John Wooden. In college basketball the late UCLA coach is the standard. His 10 titles may never be matched on the men’s side. To rise to the occasion when it’s all on the line is what equates to becoming a legend. To be at the top level and repeat, again and again.
As the season culminated this week two other men reached legendary status, if they weren’t there already. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won his 5th national championship, second all time in the men’s division, when his Blue Devils beat Wisconsin and Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma tied Wooden’s mark of 10 national championships when his Huskies beat Notre Dame. Auriemma has never lost a title game, 10-0.
It is not coincidence that their programs are annually looked at, scrutinized, analyzed, and in general respected to the level of fear from most opponents. What both coaches have done in addition to the obvious trophies in their school’s expanding cases, is set a standard, the bar by which every other coach and team is measured. They don’t win every year, Krzyzewski became a head coach at Army in 1975 before coming to Duke in 1980 and Auriemma took over at UConn in 1985, but they are almost always in the mix.
John Calipari guided Kentucky to an unprecedented 38-0 record entering the Final Four and Bo Ryan led Wisconsin to a record back-to-back national semi-final appearances. That they didn’t win it all shouldn’t diminish spectacular seasons, but 2015 will be remembered for who won it, that will be in bold letters in the record books someone pursues decades from now. After all, how many outside of die hard Duke fans know Coach K has lost in the championship game four times.
Perhaps even he reflects on those losses from time to time. It’s only natural for a coach to feel the pains mixed with the celebrations. They have players that come and go and with the emphasis now on one-and-done, the window of opportunity closes rapidly.
Not that different from MMA coaches. Their fighters almost always have a MUST fight looming. Another step closer to a title shot, or if they are the champ, another defense that if lost can drop them considerably in the rankings they once led.
” I got personally attached to my athletes and wanted to see them all fulfill their dreams. When one falls short after giving everything they have for many years, it hurts. When a fighter fell just short of a title, it was natural for me to second guess myself as a coach and wonder what I could have done different for that particular athlete,” says UFC Hall of Famer Pat Miletich, a champ himself in the octagon who went on to coach fellow Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver to UFC crowns as well as the development of current champ Robbie Lawler.
That’s the thread connecting all coaches of all sports on all levels. The ones that have success are personally involved. It’s not always the money after awhile either, even though all the college Final Four coaches have multi-million dollar contracts. There was genuine hurt evident for Calipari who will lose a handful or more of his young players to the NBA and Ryan who had seen the more traditional route in developing his team during that past three years. The coaches can comeback, but that moment for their athlete is gone, great seasons crashing at the end.
Miletich can relate to that feeling of a coach wanting it more for his athlete than himself, that one moment that could change a young person’s life that somehow even with all the training and preparation just didn’t work out as hoped.
“The most heartbreaking for me was Jeremy Horn not winning UFC gold. He was just 19 and was destroying Frank Shamrock in the middleweight title bout and got caught in a knee bar in the final round. The crowd was chanting “SHAMROCK! SHAMROCK!” at the beginning of the fight, but that changed to “HORN! HORN!” at the midway point of the fight. “Since he was only 19 I assumed we would be back and he would eventually win the title. Jeremy got back to the elimination fight and fell just short again, effectively dashing his hopes of a UFC title due to his managers negotiating tactics. ”
So it went for Horn that night; for Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker of Wisconsin on Monday; for Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky on Saturday. They heard mostly cheers this season, adored by their faithful fan base, heroes to those who never met them. But it didn’t work out at least in cutting down the nets and hoisting the big trophy. A failure? No, not at the highest level. They competed where they proved to be among the very best. Heartache? Definitely that will be felt perhaps forever even as time eases some of the second-guessing and that endless loop now of shots that didn’t fall or that knee bar that couldn’t be avoided keeps fading.
For a winner there has to be loser, which is why they keep score. There is some other layer though that a privileged few can grasp, to consistently be at, or near those moments, with that win forever linking coach and athlete. The high risk and higher reward opportunities.
Miletich experienced them from the cage to the corner and like Coach K and Geno, there is a feeling like no other in that brotherhood.
“The beauty of high level athletes is it’s ability to mimic the stark contrast between success and failure in life. Being the best at your job brings great joy, but being second best can lead to losing your job. ” Miletich sums up the edgy road of shining moments and tarnished dreams.
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