ESPN's Mt. Rushmore of College Basketball

Two sports posts in one day? They're going to revoke my membership in the Association of Intellectuals. But hey, college basketball is one of my great passions. ESPN has been discussing and debating who would go on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball for both coaches and players during the ESPN era (which began with the 1979-80 season, which means Larry Bird and Magic Johnson just miss out on being included). I'm going to give my thoughts on both the coaches list and the players list.

Doug Gottlieb offers up his list of the 4 players who would go on Mt. Rushmore since 1980. They are Larry Johnson (UNLV), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Ralph Sampson (Virginia) and Waymon Tisdale (Oklahoma). My opinion: not even close. Larry Johnson had a great two year run a UNLV, but spent the first two years at a junior college. Great player, no doubt, but he doesn't belong on this list. And Waymon Tisdale? Yes, he put up gaudy numbers for Oklahoma and was a three time all-American, but he never got anywhere near the final four. He didn't have the sort of defining career that should be a requirement for making Mt. Rushmore. Patrick Ewing certainly belongs on this list, and I'll even give Sampson the okay, despite the fact that he never made the final four, because he was the national player of the year 3 straight times. But who would I add to the list? The first one is so obvious that I can't believe Gottlieb would leave him off the list: Christian Laettner.

He may be arguably the most hated player in NCAA history, but he also had a college career that is nothing short of amazing. The only players in college basketball history who can make a case for an equal or better career are truly legendary names - Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton, possibly David Thompson. The career accomplishments are staggering. The only man ever to go to four straight final fours. Two national championships. Two time national player of the year. And to top it off, perhaps the most amazing performance in college basketball history in the greatest game ever played, against Kentucky in the 1992 regional final. Laettner went 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the free throw line, including The Shot. You know The Shot. You've seen it replayed a thousand times. It's only the most famous play in the history of the college game and it won the greatest game I've ever seen in any sport. You simply cannot leave Laettner off any list of the greatest college basketball careers, not for the last 25 years or for the last 100 years.

The other player I would put on the list, in place of Larry Johnson, is Hakeem Olajuwon (known as Akeem in college). He was the 800 pound gorilla at the center of Phi Slamma Jamma. His Houston team made the NCAA championship game two straight years, 83 and 84, losing to North Carolina State on the miracle putback by Lorenzo Charles in 83 and to Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas in 84. But Olajuwan was a joy to watch play. One of the most graceful and nimble big men the game has ever seen, his Dream Shake moves are still the stuff of legend. He belongs on this list.

As far as coaches go, Andy Katz has ESPN's list of the Mt. Rushmore coaches and they are: Dean Smith, John Thompson, Coach K and Bobby Knight. Two of those 4 are no-brainers - Dean Smith and Coach K. And while Bobby Knight certainly belongs in any discussion of the greatest coaches of all time, his two greatest seasons were prior to 1980 (the 75 and 76 teams were incredible, the last one being the last team to go undefeated). I'm not sure Knight belongs on this list counting just post-1980 success. He did win championships in 1981 and 1987, of course, but much of the rest of the time his teams at Indiana and now at Texas Tech were average or just above it.

And John Thompson? Well, he's a very good coach. He certainly belongs in this discussion. But he only really had a dominant run for 3 years in the 80s. That run is no better than short runs made by several other coaches, from Roy Williams to Nolan Richardson to Jerry Tarkanian. Tom Izzo has accomplished at least as much - four final fours and a national championship - in a decade at Michigan State as Thompson did in his whole career at Georgetown. I suspect Thompson got on Katz' list more for his towering personality and influence on the game as for his actual career accomplishments. He's a guy I really admire, but I'm not sure he really belongs on Mt. Rushmore.

So who would I replace those two with? First, with Jim Calhoun of UConn. Starting in 1983, he took over a terrible basketball program at a university in the middle of absolutely nothing (UConn is in Storrs, CT). In 3 years, he had them nationally ranked. Since then, he has two national championships and is a perennial contender for the NCAA championship. This is almost unheard of in college basketball, to take over a program with no history at all and make it a powerhouse. As great as Coach K is, Duke was in the final four just two years before he got there and had great teams under previous coaches. Dean Smith took over for the great Frank McGuire at North Carolina, who won a national championship the year before he hired Smith as an assistant coach. But Calhoun built a program from scratch in a place you shouldn't be able to recruit. I think that puts him on the mountain.

My fourth choice: Pat Summit. I don't care whether it's coaching men or women, Summit belongs in any discussion of the greatest coaches in college basketball. The Tennessee women's coach has won more games than any coach, male or female, in college basketball history. She's led Tennessee to 13 final fours and an incredible 6 national championships. She's won an astounding 84% of the games she's coached. Put the lady on the mountain next to Dean and Coach K. She belongs there.


More like this

If you're going to argue that Pat Summit should be included in the Coach's list (which I completely agree with you), shouldn't Diana Taurasi be included with the Player's list?

Possibly. I don't cover women's basketball enough to know how her career would have stacked up to the ones I named.

Ralph Sampson and Virginia made the final four in 1981.

Big surprise that the Dukie fails to bring up Michael Jordan. Sure he was surrounded by great talent, but he won a National Championship and a player of the year award. And he's Michael "Freakin" Jordan. Unlike the other guys mentioned (aside from Hakeem) his pro carreer overshadowed what he did in college (and even Hakeem was no where close to the NBA star that Jordan was).

Ah, Chris is right. They did make the final four in 1981, losing to North Carolina by 13. But they missed the final four his junior and senior years. Ironically, they made it again in 1984, after Sampson graduated. Still, I'd keep him on this list just for his three straight national player of the year awards.


I considered putting Jordan on the list, but this list is limited to college careers. He had a terrific college career, but not quite enough to put him on this list. He won a championship as a freshman, and yes he did hit the game winning shot, but that was also a team loaded with talent and experience other than him. And they may well not have won that championship without Fred Brown's monumentally bad play when he threw the ball to James Worthy. And he was player of the year his junior year, then left for the NBA. I put him just a small step below the others on this list for college players. If we're looking at NBA careers, or even basketball players in general, there's no doubt he's at the very top of a short list. For college careers, he's in the top 20 but not quite on this team.

Ralph Sampson, Pete Maravich, Danny Manning, and Christian Laettner (are we excluding Larry Bird and Magic Johnson because they ended up having even better pro careers?)

Enjoy your blog a lot, but just wondering, what do games (such as basketball) have to do with the culture wars?


Maravich can't be included because this list is just from the 1979-80 season on. Same with Bird and Johnson. I wouldn't put Manning on the list because he really only had one big season, and even though they ended up winning the championship their season was actually pretty mediocre. They just went on a huge run at the end when he carried them through the tournament. Great player, no doubt, but not enough to put him on the mountain.

FrakaFDR wrote:

Enjoy your blog a lot, but just wondering, what do games (such as basketball) have to do with the culture wars?

Not a thing. But college basketball is one of my passions, so I write about it from time to time. I also write about music and BBQ at times, neither of which has anything to do with the culture wars.

As a Tarheel, I have to agree that Jordan's college career was not remarkable (or long) enough to make it to Rushmore. However, I have to object to Laettner. Can't base the objection on stats or anything, but I would choose Grant Hill over Laettner for any position doing anything at any time.

Of course the list is modern-heavy. I'd not discount Magic Johnson so easily. My choice for a guaranteed spot: Alcinder (Jabar). Fill the rest with whom you will.

Also, good on you for adding Summit! (I'm a Vol as well.)

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 27 Apr 2006 #permalink

I also write about music and BBQ at times, neither of which has anything to do with the culture wars.

As long as you recognize the superiority of Memphis (BBQ certainly, music arguably) uber alles! :-)

(And oops, I didn't read the dates on the BB season.)

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 27 Apr 2006 #permalink

If the list went back prior to 1980, it would be very difficult to leave out Alcindor (3 straight championships), Bill Walton (3-time player of the year, 2 time champion), Bill Russell (2 consecutive championships), or Oscar Robertson (2 consecutive championships). For that matter, it would be hard to leave off Pete Maravich, Scott May or David Thompson. Magic and Bird would actually be a little tougher to put on the list. Magic only played two years in college. Bird probably has a better argument, with two straight first team all-American mentions, national player of the year, and leading Indiana State, of all teams, to the final game.

As far as Laettner is concerned, I know Grant Hill is a lot easier to like. And he had an amazing career himself - 3 final fours in 4 years, two national championships, national defensive player of the year twice, national player of the year once. That's pretty stellar. If not for Laettner on the team, he might well be on it. But Laetter's stats are just so off the charts that it's impossible to leave him off. 4 straight final fours, two NPOY awards and a perfect game in the greatest game ever played just can't be topped.

Mark Price ...

By wildlifer (not verified) on 28 Apr 2006 #permalink