"Best (something) never to win it all" is never a title you really want to have the honor of carrying around, but sometimes that's just the way it works out. Karl Malone, for example, is probably the best NBA player never to win a NBA championship. And Dan Marino, while unquestionably being one of the best NFL quarterbacks in history, never won a Super Bowl. Michelle Kwan never won an Olympic gold medal... Ted Williams, Greg Norman, Johan Cruyff... the list goes on and on.
And now, officially joining that prestigious, yet unenviable group: Andy Landers, who is the best women's college basketball coach in history to never win a national championship.
I hate to start out with a partially negative statement, but it's unquestionably going to be the single biggest flaw in Landers' otherwise pristine legacy at the University of Georgia. And make no mistake: Andy Landers, who announced his retirement on Monday, leaves behind a truly massive legacy at the University of Georgia. His career has been one of great individuals, great achievements, and a great impact both on his players, the university, and the community around him.
First, let's look at the simple numbers, which speak for themselves in terms of on-court impact:
- 5 Final Fours (1983, '85, '95, '96, '99)
- 6 additional Elite Eights (1984, '91, '97, 2000, '04, '13)
- 9 additional Sweet Sixteens (1986, '87, '88, 2003, '05, '06, '07, '10, '11)
- 7 SEC regular season championships (1983, '84, '86, '91, '96, 2000, '01)
- 4 SEC tournament championships (1983, '84, '86, 2001)
- 522 Weeks ranked in the AP poll (2nd all-time)
- 19 seasons finishing in the AP Top 10
- 31 NCAA Tournament Appearances (2nd all-time)
- One of only 3 programs to never have a losing season since the NCAA began sponsoring women's basketball in 1981
- 4-time National Coach of the Year (1986, '87, '96, 2000)
- Only the 8th college basketball (men's or women's) coach to win 850+ games at a single school (Summitt, Auriemma, Boeheim, Krzyzewski, Smith, Rupp)
- Mortal enemy of Pat Summitt
Ok, I added that last one. But that is one of the most important facts to note here... all of these achievements are impressive, and he accomplished them all, including the SEC championships, while coaching against Pat Summitt (the greatest women's basketball coach ever) in her prime. In fact, Pat Summitt and Andy Landers are the same age (62). In the same way that Karl Malone had the bad luck to be in his prime at the same time as a guy named Michael Jordan, Andy Landers had to face off against Pat Summitt every year in order to win a championship.
That was no more literally true than in 1996, which will always remain, in my mind, the best Lady Dogs team that we ever had. That Georgia team, led by Naismith Player of the Year Saudia Roundtree, was a 2 seed in the tournament, but they plowed through their Midwest Regional, winning every game by at least 14 points. They even destroyed the legendary Leon Barmore's #1-seed Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters in the Regional Final. And in the Final Four, they plowed through #1 seed Stanford, as well, winning by 10 points. But then we had to face those (expletive deleted) Tennessee Volunteers and (expletive deleted) Pat Summitt in the national championship game. If we had been playing literally anybody else, I sincerely believe that Andy Landers would have gotten his elusive ring. But we just never could really figure out the Lady Vols, so a UGA team that had plowed through the rest of the field lost the title game by 18 points.
There were many other great teams, of course, and the next-best would easily be the national runner-up 1985 squad, with future Hall-of-Famers Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain leading the (again, #2-seed) Lady Dogs to the very brink, falling to the (then) juggernaut Old Dominion Lady Monarchs by only 5 points. Both Edwards and McClain would go on to win multiple gold medals for USA Women's Basketball team in the Olympics, with Edwards playing alongside USC coach Dawn Staley in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.
The years with the Miller twins (Kelly and Coco) particularly stand out, as well, with 2 regular season SEC championships, 1 SEC tournament championship, and a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance in that time.
In the last decade of his career, through, Landers gathered his fair share of critics, who chiefly argued that the women's game had passed him by, and that he refused to adapt with the times. There's no question that recruiting relative to other elite teams suffered, and though I don't think he suddenly forgot how to coach, that talent differential pretty clearly showed on the court. Everything is relative, though, and the fact that Landers had so many critics over his last decade while still making 1 Regional Final and 5 Sweet Sixteens speaks to the high level to which he had previously brought the Lady Dogs. When the fans expect you to be "elite," merely being "very good" isn't going to cut it anymore. (A fact quite a number of other Georgia coaches found out during Landers' tenure in Athens. /Glances at Jay Clark, David Perno, and Jim Donnan)
At least as equal to Andy Landers' contributions on the court, however, are the differences he makes in the lives of the players he coached. Coach Landers is famous for keeping in touch with a huge number of his former players, and you can't speak to a former Lady Dog without hearing them gush about how much they love Andy Landers and how much he pushed them to be successful in life after basketball. The most recent example I've personally experienced is with Maria Taylor, the SEC Network personality who hosts SEC Now and serves as the sideline reporter on Brent Musberger's SEC Network announcing crew. I had the opportunity to interview Maria back in August, and... well, I'll let her words speak for themselves:
Coach Landers! That's my boy! I love him. I called him when I was first offered this job and figuring out what I wanted to do. He's one of the guys that I still call because he's an advisor to me. He's like my second dad. He knows everything by now about the SEC Network... probably more than he wants to know! But, he still has to be able to keep giving me advice!
[His lifelong friendship/mentorship with his former players] is the best thing about him. He'll stay in touch... he'll check up on me. Just call out of the blue to see how I'm doing.
And this is a woman who only played for Coach Landers one year. (Her primary sport was volleyball, where she was a 4-year starter and All-SEC player for UGA.) I've heard stories from other former players as well, and they all follow this template. Coach Landers is a man who cares passionately about his players and works to help them succeed both in basketball and in life even after their playing days are over, and that's a commodity that seems to be becoming more and more rare at the elite levels of sport.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment in Andy Landers' career, however, has come in the classroom. Coach Landers can lay claim to the fact that 100% of the players that were 4-year lettermen in his program (67 players over his career) graduated from the University. A 100% graduation rate. Even in women's basketball, where a professional career wasn't an option that would pay your bills for most of Landers' career, that record is impressive.
Was it time for Andy Landers to retire? Yeah, probably. In fact, some of us would have liked to see him bow out "near the top" when his 2013 team reached the Elite Eight for the first time in nearly a decade. Instead, he bows out in a year where his team has missed the NCAA tournament for only the 3rd time in 36 years. In addition, it appears that UGA declined an invitation to the WNIT, so Andy Landers' coaching career is officially over. And you could say that it ended in a very thematically-appropriate way: losing to Tennessee in a postseason tournament (the SEC Tournament). But when you're the man who literally built the Georgia women's basketball program from nothing (and who has been the only full-time head women's basketball coach ever employed by the University), you get a bit of leeway as to when you choose to take the gold watch and the retirement pension. Andy Landers has earned it.
Too many fans and pundits in the modern-day world look at sports as an end-sum game. In their minds, if you ever win a national championship, you're a great coach, no matter what other circumstances surrounded your tenure. Andy Landers is the archetypal counter-argument to these people. Coach Landers built up great players and great women over a 36-year career, and the effects of his coaching and mentoring largesse will be felt in Athens for many, many years to come.