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. 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 in NCAA games 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.
Coach K College Basketball has all the familiar staples of NBA Live basketball on the Sega Genesis. There was 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 when playing the game. The sound effects and AI can be underwhelming at times but add a bit of charm to the trailblazing game. Coach K was highlighted by fabulous game modes outside of your regular exhibition games. There was the ability to play an entire season, including the postseason tournament based on your season’s results. You could also create your own customized 8, 16 or 32 team tournament, manipulating the match-ups to your choosing and giving yourself endless replay value. What was 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 in the game 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.
With so many real-life players and teams to experience and an absolute lack of other college basketball games out at the time, Coach K was a game I regularly played for years after release. The graphics and feel of the college game were just different enough from NBA Live ’96 (also released in 1995) to distinguish the two games, despite having an identical engine. And Coach K College Basketball had an antagonist for the ages also. Arkansas epitomizes everything that a final boss in a sports game should be. They were the defending champions from 1994 and team-wise were maxed out in each category. 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. In both instances of facing Arkansas in the championship game, I lost. Even sixteen years later, I still haven’t forgotten the down feeling of playing an entire season and coming up just short.
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 I hope to be a part of one day. And every year around the NCAA Tournament I break out my copy, mutter play-by-play to myself as if it’s 1996 and take another run at virtual college hoops immortality. In Coach K College Basketball’s one shining moment, an indelible mark was left on sports gaming history.