Retro Replay Diary: Coach K College Basketball

April 9, 2012 at 1:12 am | Posted in Features | 4 Comments
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In the mid ’90s EA Sports hit their stride.  Their ongoing NHL Hockey and Madden franchises were winners, they struck gold with NBA Live ’95, and FIFA Soccer was a big hit.  College Football brought in money with the Bill Walsh College Football series of games, which then spun off from the (then) Stanford coach’s license and became College Football USA.  On the hardwood, college basketball wasn’t a yearly lay-up for the guys at Electronic Arts.  In 1995, they wisely took their incredibly successful NBA Live engine and created a college basketball counterpart.  Coach K College Basketball was a one-time unique enigma in the 16-bit sports universe as the game came out for just one console and had no yearly follow-ups.  With the white cover branding of EA titles of that gaming generation, Coach K College Basketball had real universities (32 teams plus 8 classic squads) and real college players (just with numbers instead of names – similar still to restrictions today).  This was the first attempt at any type of college basketball simulation that didn’t have generic state-named teams with made up players and EA delivered the complete NCAA basketball experience on its initial try.  When the game was first released, I was ecstatic that one of my favorite teams, Villanova, was in the game.  I knew all the player’s real names and played through a full season before being shockingly bounced out of the tournament by #1 ranked Arkansas in the Regional Final (Elite 8).  While I played the game for years after that stunning loss, I never played another season nor took my beloved Wildcats through another tournament run.  My thirst for nostalgic revenge was the motivation for this Retro Replay Diary.  It was time to dust off Kerry Kittles and friends and make another run at the college basketball championship.

Coach K College Basketball has all the familiar staples of NBA Live basketball on the Sega Genesis.  The isometric camera angle, the slow motion dunks and the dreaded CPU Assist feature, which would keep any game close (Thankfully the latter two could be turned off).  The game featured alley-oops, three pointers while being pushed out-of-bounds, and the ability to break the backboard.  The game was by no means flawless and had many quirks that rear their head while replaying the game.  The sound effects and AI can be underwhelming at times but add a bit to the charm of the trailblazing game.  Most impressive was the detail put into each team and all the players.  The 32 included teams can be found here, in order of how they are ranked in the game.  There are two notable university exceptions that did not participate.  Both North Carolina and Georgetown are absent, robbing players of the chance to play as Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and a freshman Allen Iverson.  The rumor was they did not want to be associated due to Duke University’s head coach having his likeness plastered all over the game.  From a rivalry standpoint, this makes some business sense looking back on it, but at the time it was heart breaking to have two powerhouses missing.  Each player was rated on categories like offensive and defensive awareness, field goal shooting, three pointers, rebounding and even dunking.  You had mega-studs like future #1 overall pick Joe Smith from Maryland and fabulous freshman like Felipe Lopez of St. Johns.  You had Tyus Edney and the O’Bannon brothers from UCLA, Marcus Camby and Tim Duncan manning the middle for UMass and Wake Forrest respectively, and the monster front line of Raef Lafrentz, Scott Pollard and Greg Ostertag at Kansas.  These were the “One Shining Moment” heroes of college basketball at the time, and they were playable on your very own Sega Genesis.

Villanova, the 20th ranked team in Coach K College Basketball, won the NIT tournament in 1994 and returned all five starters the following season.  Led by superstar Kerry Kittles at shooting guard, the Wildcats also boasted a steady senior point guard in Jonathan Haynes and a rock-solid center in Jason Lawson.  Streaky shooting Eric Eberz was the small forward and the bench was highlighted with future NBA’er Alvin Williams and tough guy Chuck Kornegay.  From a balance standpoint, Villanova had the pieces to make a video game title run.  In real life, the team took that continuity from 1994 and built on it by winning the Big East Championship and being a #3 seed in the 1995 NCAA Tournament.  The results of that tournament appearance haunt ‘Nova fans today as the team lost in triple OT to Old Dominion.  Today, that Old Dominion team would be a 10 or 12 seed but back in the mid-nineties mid-major teams were relatively unknown.  Old Dominion deserved to win, but they were not a 14 seed talent-wise by any means.

Before we start on our retro replay path, some quick housekeeping notes on settings.  Everything below is played with Simulation rules (Arcade, Simulation or Custom are your 1995 options) for fouls and that also includes no CPU catch-up assist (A blatant inclusion to mimic NBA Jam’s comeback AI in my opinion).  The difficulty is set at All-American, which is the highest level, and games are played with 10 minute halves.  It is important to note that fatigue settings adjust to whatever length of period your game is so you will see stamina drain quicker with smaller time frames and go slower when playing longer contests.  Bottom line, your bench is important and I was making manual substitutions through all of the games.  With all that said, lets hit the lay-up line and get ready for some Villanova retribution.

Southeast First Round vs. Wisconsin (#13)

When you create a custom tournament you can have 4, 8, 16 or all 32 teams involved.  You can also change the entire bracket to whatever makes you happy, including putting the same team in multiple times (The game does note them as a duplicate so you can catch a mistake).  The stock 32-team tournament bracket is always the same and cannot randomized unfortunately.  With this said, Villanova always faces Wisconsin first.  Wisconsin is led by future Dallas Maverick and San Antonio Spur, Michael Finley at small forward and he can be a bear to handle.  I sputtered along in the first half, trailing 23-20 at one point before ripping off an 8-0 run to end the first ten minutes after going to a three guard lineup with Kerry Kittles sliding to small forward (He is technically a G/F in the game anyway).  This adjustment led to the most enlightening moment of the replay for me.  I caught myself broadcasting out loud as I explained the benefits of going small and ratcheting up the pressure to make a run at the end of the half.  That moment where you find yourself flashing back to 16 years ago is retro sports gaming at its finest!  I cruised with a 30-13 second half edge and a 38-13 run in the last eleven minutes.  Chuck Kornegay even got to shatter the backboard with a late thunderous dunk.  Villanova 58 Wisconsin 36

Regional Semifinal vs. Kentucky (#4)

Regional Semifinal is the fancy translation for a Sweet 16 contest.  One of the most athletic teams in the game, the #4 overall ranked Wildcats (Yes, Cats vs. Cats here) are a tough draw.  Tony Delk is arguably the best point guard in the game (88 in offensive awareness and 88 in speed) and the Kentucky defense (which also features Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker) constantly stuffed Kerry Kittles and crew.  When you’re getting smothered by a stingy defense some of my favorite Coach K intricacies occur.  First, blocked shots automatically reset the shot clock.  I have no idea in what universe that made sense from a programming standpoint.  The game is also notorious for blocking jumpers where the opposing team essentially rips the ball out of the player’s hand mid-shot.  Like that isn’t a foul, yo.  I went four and a half minutes without a bucket in this one, and trailed at half 20-18.  My starting back court of Haynes and Kittles went 3-19 from the field for the game, with most of those being blocks (which count as field goal attempts in Coach K).  A back and forth affair down the stretch, once I took the lead 35-33, I didn’t look back.  To seal the deal, my favorite lovable wart in the game occurred with the CPU pushing their own player out-of-bounds after an inbounds pass.  Villanova 42 Kentucky 40

Regional Final vs. Indiana (#12)

This was the round where Arkansas previous eliminated me after playing through an entire season.  More Coach K quirkiness – when one guy is programmed to try three pointers the entire game.  It doesn’t matter where he is on the court as he will dribble out past the three-point line and heave up a shot.  Brian Evans (#34 at small forward and a 85 rating on three pointers) on Indiana takes 27 three pointers here, making 13(!), despite being pushed back and blocked numerous times.  He finished with 39 points.  My favorite defense is when I would push him back five feet in the air (no foul) and he still drains the three, despite being nearly in the crowd.   Indiana was also guilty of some pretty physical play.  In Coach K, most second halves (especially when you’re ahead) feature the computer AI pretty much assaulting whomever has the ball.  It becomes a game of keep away as you’re hoping to avoid getting turbo-shoved out-of-the-way without a whistle, leading to a turnover.  There are a lot of fouls called also, which leads to plenty of free throws and drawn-out blowouts.  Despite Indiana having a good defense, this aggressive play led to a lot of extra passes and easy baskets for me.  Eric Eberz and Kerry Kittles had 23 and 22 points respectively and we move to the Final Four.  Villanova 73 Indiana 54

National Semifinal vs. Syracuse (#6)

Featuring Lawrence Moten and also John Wallace (who would take Syracuse to the title game in 1996), Syracuse and I shot blanks at each other with a 21-21 first half.  My starting point guard, Haynes, was knocked out due to injury six minutes into this game, leaving me to rely more on my bench and also lose my best ball handler.  Steals and blocks are pretty plentiful in Coach K so your point guard is extremely important.  This game featured another notorious Coach K glitch; the goaltending call when the basket still goes in, thus giving your opponent four points.  That can be a bit of a game changer when you’re struggling for hoops.  After trailing 30-27, Kerry Kittles finally came alive and a bucket followed up with a steal and two-handed dunk helped me pull away.  After the win, the entire team celebrated at mid-court, with everybody jumping around and doing post-dunk taunts at each other.  It was glorious.  Villanova 51 Syracuse 39

Meanwhile, in the other National Semifinal, two Coach K College Basketball juggernauts squared off.  Arkansas upended #2 UCLA 96-79.  The rematch sixteen years in the making was going to actually happen.

National Final vs. Arkansas (#1)

Arkansas epitomizes everything that a final boss in a sports game should be.  They were the defending champions from ’94 and team-wise were maxed out in each category as the team comparison shows.  The hogs featured Corliss Williamson at power forward (95 in field goals), Scotty Thurman at small forward, and Corey Beck at point guard.  They started three defenders with a 90+ rating in steals and Beck is a 90 in defensive awareness and a 92 in passing.  Their real-life Nolan Richardson (the head coach) mantra of “Forty minutes of hell” applies in the video game realm as well.  Jump shots were blocked left and right and my Wildcats, maybe due to fatigue, were being chased down on fast breaks and having more shots blocked (The dreaded “I’m trying to get the lay-up animation to start so I’ll shoot a little early and instead I put up a sissy jumper” sequence).  I stay in this one early thanks to stifling defense of my own.  Shading Williamson with double teams and forcing him to put it in less productive hands, I managed to only be down three points at half after a four-point play by Eric Eberz made it 23-20.  The “and one” theatrics and physics in Coach K are really amusing.  In this case, Eberz is smeared and the shot looks off but the ball magically goes from rolling off the rim to spinning back in.  I start the second half on a bit of a run but Arkansas quickly takes momentum back and leads 35-30 with a couple of minutes left.  I didn’t help myself either in this game as my guys missed four alley-oops (bricks off the rim) and another wide open blown dunk.  Jonathan Haynes fouled out of this game too, no thanks to an over aggressive CPU trying to contain Beck while I manned the middle.  Thurman is 8 for 8 from the field and Williamson has 15 points of his own.  As things look bleak down 45-40 with just a minute left, I catch my biggest break of the tournament.  After Kittles is swatted twice trying to a get a three pointer off, Eric Eberz picks up the ball and gets smeared chucking up a jumper.  The shot swished and the subsequent free throw makes it a 45-43 game.  My full court press manages a swipe and I get the ball inside to Jason Lawson for a short banked jumper to tie the game up with just 21 seconds left.  I am marking out at this point as my previous Arkansas encounter was a humbling blowout.  I’ve rallied and have a chance to hold for overtime now.  Arkansas brings the ball up and we settle into a half court possession with a heavy emphasis from me on nothing easy from the paint.  Arkansas senior shooting guard Clint McDaniel holds the ball as the clock ticks down.  I’m guarding but making sure there won’t be a whistle.  Part of me wonders if the CPU will mess up and not take a final shot.  With nowhere else to pass, McDaniel glides in and up for a mid-range jumper, which he double pumps and absolutely drains with one second left.  There is no miracle counter to this dagger and there is no joy in Villanova-ville again.  Arkansas 47 Villanova 45

After Coach K College Basketball, EA didn’t make another college game until March Madness ’98 for the Sony PlayStation.  I would hypothesize that sales were poor at the time and EA was focused on the next generation of systems so resources were not allocated for another 16-bit offering.  Despite being a one-year wonder, Coach K lives on with sports gamers today.  The game recently made an Operation Sports tournament to crown the greatest sports game of all-time (and advanced a round) and there is an underground movement to resurrect the game with updated teams and rosters that Retro Sports Gamer World is (hopefully) a part of.  In Coach K College Basketball’s one shining moment, an indelible mark was left on sports gaming history.


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  1. Alas poor Eric Eberz, I knew him..getting no love with the extra t. Great write up. I went to high school with Eric, so I had to get that in.

    • I’m glad you caught that Rob. Not sure what I was thinking there as all my notes have it Eberz without the “t”. All corrected. Thanks!

      • Love your site, thanks for taking it the right way. You never know on the interwebs…

  2. Wanted to post this in the comments instead of the article but I stumbled upon a great resource that has all the rosters and ratings for Coach K.

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