MLB

Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan among winningest coach-athlete duos in sports history

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Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s all-time winningest coach.

Popovich passed Don Nelson’s NBA record with his 1,336th career coaching victory in the San Antonio Spurs’ 104-102 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday night.

Popovich is currently in his 26th season with the league. After joining the Spurs as an assistant coach in 1988, he spent two seasons on Nelson’s Golden State Warriors’ staff before returning to San Antonio in 1994 as general manager and vice president of basketball operations. Midway through the 1996-97 season he took over as head coach of the Spurs.

A large part of Popovich’s success was achieved alongside eventual Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who was selected by San Antonio as the first overall pick of the 1997 NBA draft. With Popovich at the helm and Duncan on the court, the Spurs won the NBA title in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Duncan retired from the NBA in 2016 after 19 years with the franchise.

As so much of Coach Pop’s success in San Antonio was tied to his partnership with Duncan, his latest feat got us thinking, what are some other wildly successful player-coach duos across sports?


Long-term winningest player and coach duos (10-plus seasons)

  • Ryan Giggs and Alex Ferguson (21 seasons and 13 Premier League titles): If you’ve been knighted by the Queen of England, you’re clearly a sports legend. Sir Alex Ferguson racked up one heck of a resume throughout his 26-year tenure with Manchester United, winning a total of 38 trophies — including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions League titles. During those 26 years, Ferguson had star midfielder Giggs on his squad, who spent his entire professional career in sheer dominance with the Red Devils (1990-2014).

  • Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (20 seasons and six Super Bowls): Do we even need to remind you of these two? They spent 20 seasons together and won six Super Bowls before Brady left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fans of the New England Patriots hoped that the newly retired QB and Belichick (67) would never say goodbye to football — or each other.

  • Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre (12 seasons and four World Series): Arguably one of the best MLB managers of all time, Torre led the New York Yankees to glory, winning four World Series in five seasons: 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Having Jeter — aka « Mr. Clutch » — at shortstop and Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history who was just inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, didn’t hurt either.

  • Franco Harris and Chuck Noll (12 seasons and four Super Bowls): The Steelers brought glory to Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and running back Harris was a huge part of that, winning four Super Bowls in six years (1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980). The late Noll spent his entire head-coaching career — 23 years — at the helm of the Steelers, and his four Super Bowl victories rank second behind Belichick’s six for most by an NFL head coach.

  • Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll (14 seasons and four Super Bowls): Noll also was lucky to have an all-time great quarterback on his team during the Steelers’ run. In his 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Bradshaw helped the team win four Super Bowl titles.

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  • Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson (11 seasons and five NBA championships): The favorite son of the Los Angeles Lakers (and LA sports in general) is undoubtedly the late, great Kobe Bryant. He spent all 20 years of his basketball career with LA and helped the Lakers win five NBA championships. The last NBA team to three-peat? The Lakers, in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Bryant, still with head coach Jackson, also won titles in 2009 and 2010.

  • Joe Montana and Bill Walsh (10 seasons and three Super Bowls): « Joe Cool » set quite a few records during his 14 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. With Walsh as the head coach for 10 of them, Montana won four Super Bowls (1982, 1985, 1989 and 1990) and was named Super Bowl MVP three times. After Super Bowl XIX in 1985, in which Montana defeated Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, Walsh (rightly so) declared: « Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback today, maybe the greatest quarterback of all time. »

  • Otto Graham and Paul Brown (10 seasons and seven NFL championships): Brown not only founded the Cleveland Browns, but he had a coaching career that spanned 25 seasons with them. Before the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, the team won four All-America Football Conference championships. Then, Brown and Graham won three NFL championships together, in 1950, 1954 and 1955.

  • Bill Russell and Red Auerbach (10 seasons and nine NBA championships): The paring of Russell and Auerbach helped create what could be called professional sports’ greatest dynasty, combining to win nine NBA titles with the Boston Celtics, first in 1957 and then every year from 1959 to 1966. Russell — who also won two titles as a player-coach after Auerbach retired — was so dominant that the NBA renamed the NBA Finals MVP trophy after him in 2009.


Short-term winningest player and coach duos (five or fewer seasons)

  • Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Van Chancellor (five seasons and four WNBA titles): Widely considered one of the best women’s basketball players ever, Cooper-Dyke won four straight WNBA titles while with the Houston Comets, from 1997, when the league was created, to 2000. The 1998 Comets had a record of 27-3 (.900 ) with Chancellor as coach, giving them the highest winning percentage of any team in the history of both the WNBA and the NBA.

  • LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra (four seasons and two NBA championships): These three best friends also came incredibly close to three-peating, but regardless, James, Wade and Bosh changed the NBA forever when they joined forces on the Miami Heat to start the trend of creating superteams. James has since moved on to the Lakers, where he won a title after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and both Wade and Bosh have retired. But under Spo — who is still with Miami — they won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 before being stopped in 2014. James was crowned league MVP and NBA Finals MVP in both 2012 and 2013.

  • Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Jimmy Johnson (four seasons and two Super Bowls): Dubbed « The Triplets, » these three offensive juggernauts absolutely dominated the 1990s for the Cowboys. Smith, Aikman and Irvin won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, including two back-to-back in 1993 and 1994 with the legendary Johnson as their head coach.


Duos too good to leave out but didn’t fit in either category

  • Wayne Gretzky and Glen Sather (nine seasons and four Stanley Cups): Sather brought Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, and a glorious hockey dynasty was born. « The Great One » and Sather helped lead the Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships (1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988) and forever changed the face of hockey.

  • Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Steve Kerr (eight seasons and three NBA championships): There will arguably never be a better backcourt than the Splash Brothers. Curry and Thompson put the San Francisco Bay Area on the hoops map when they started racking up titles with the Golden State Warriors, winning three NBA championships (2015, 2017 and 2018) in five years. The two guards came close to three-peating in 2019, but the Toronto Raptors put a stop to that. Despite changes to the Warriors’ lineup and injuries to Thompson, the team is still one of the most dangerous in the league. The two shooters would be nowhere without their genius of a coach, Kerr, who also won five titles as an NBA player before becoming a coach.

  • Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi (nine seasons, six NFL championships and two Super Bowls): If the trophy you get when you win a Super Bowl is named after you, there is a clear reason why. Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to six NFL Championships (1956, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967). The team also won the first two Super Bowls ever, in 1967 and 1968, with Starr at the helm. Starr was not selected by the Packers until the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft, but he clearly was a success with the team, playing with them until he retired after the 1971 season.

  • Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson (eight seasons and six NBA championships): How can you talk about greatness without referencing MJ and Phil? With Jackson as head coach, the Chicago Bulls made the playoffs every season from 1987 to 1998, winning the NBA championship with Jordan six times (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998). Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, also won the NBA Finals MVP every year the Bulls won it all.

  • Joe DiMaggio and Joe McCarthy (eight seasons and five World Series): As general manager, McCarthy led DiMaggio and the « Bronx Bombers » to seven World Series championships (1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941 and 1943). And for someone who spent his entire 13-year career with the same team, center fielder DiMaggio is sure glad he did so with the Yankees. DiMaggio ended up winning nine World Series (1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951) with the Yankees, but he served in World War II, causing him to miss the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons.

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