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Former Duke Coach Bill Foster Dies At 86

Duke owes Bill Foster a great deal. Our deepest sympathies to his family.

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Coach K has been at Duke since 1980 and he has come to dominate the public perception of Duke like no one ever has. Even the Blue Devil logo has come to look like him. A lot of people have never known Duke basketball without Mike Krzyzewski, and given his longevity here, that's understandable.

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Coach K came to Duke only two years after the Blue Devils made the Final Four for the first time since Vic Bubas got there in 1966.

Bill Foster did that, putting together one of Duke's most remarkable teams, one that John Feinstein dubbed Forever's Team.

It featured junior Jim Spanarkel, sophomore Mike Gminski,  sophomore (we think) John Harrell, who transferred from NCCU to Duke and a pair of exuberant freshmen forwards in Kenny Dennard and Gene Banks.

It became an iconic team, a sort of basketball answer to the spirit that also showed up on Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run: young, wildly gifted and, naturally, born to run.

It caught the nation's fancy in a big way as Duke caught fire and sprinted to the national championship game, only to lose to Kentucky.

Yet Foster only arrived in Durham in 1975, and when he did Duke was, frankly, a mess. Bubas had left in 1969, just as campus unrest and integration really accelerated.

Bucky Waters took over and while he had and still has many fine qualities, Bucky came across as too militant. His time came to an unhappy end just before the 1974 season and Neil McGeachy took over on an interim basis.

By the spring, A.D. Carl James was looking for a replacement and in one of the most bizarre episodes in Duke athletic history, hired former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.

Well, nearly hired him anyway. Rupp, who many suspected to be senile was in any case 72 and had a bad reputation, fair or not, as a racist.

Fortunately for all concerned, Rupp called James to tell him that he wouldn't be coming: he lost a key man at his farm and didn't feel he could leave.

So eventually James called Foster, who took the job.

He came to Duke from Utah, where he'd just led the Utes to the NIT title, which still meant a lot then, and when he came, things started to change.

In 1974, State, Maryland and most of all UNC dominated the ACC. Wake Forest had some nifty pieces and even Clemson was powerful. Terry Holland was newly arrived at Virginia. Duke was at the absolute bottom of the ACC.

Recruiting wasn't easy, but Foster found an underappreciated gem in Spanarkel, a 6-5 pigeon-toed guard out of Jersey. The following year he picked up 6-11 Gminski, a brilliant student who was eligible to graduate a year early and who came to Duke at the age of 16. The year after that, he had Banks and Dennard and the transfer Harrell, and then Duke was back in business.

All of those guys were to an extent under the radar other than Banks, who was a stunning recruit for Duke at the time. He was ranked higher than Magic Johnson and no one could believe Duke got him.

The Blue Devils really came together late in the year, developing an exquisite chemistry, and the run through the NCAA Tournament was for the ages. It was a young, fearless exuberant team, and it played with tremendous flair.

That team is still one of the best passing teams anyone has ever seen.

In 1979, things started to go wrong.

Foster was a brilliant program builder but not necessarily a sustainer. Duke was pre-season #1 and even then, before ESPN and social media, the pressure was immense and it got to him.

He taped the windows in Cameron to keep everyone away from practice, and the tension eventually swept the team up. Duke had huge talent but tension and unhappiness on the team took a toll. It's probably fair to say that no one was happy, least of all Foster. It culminated in 1979 when Duke and UNC both lost in Reynolds in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on what came to be known as Black Friday.

For all his brilliance, Foster was a restless man. Losing ate at him and the pressure he felt - much of it self-imposed - must have been maddening.

And the Fosters never felt entirely comfortable at Duke. His wife, Shirley, later said that she felt like people looked down on them at times because they attended Elizabethtown State.

So Foster began to plan his next move, and after Duke bowed out in the Elite Eight, he was off to South Carolina, lured by the independent status of the Gamecocks and also by some distance from ACC rivals, specifically UNC's Dean Smith.

His coaching career never really recovered. At South Carolina, Foster got the Gamecocks to the NIT in his third season for his final career post-season appearance. The whole independence thing turned out to be a disaster for everyone who tried it.

From Columbia he went to Northwestern where he finished 9th in his first year and 10th for the next six years.

This was when the Big Ten had ten teams mind you.

Foster's time as a coach ended in Evanston, where so many others have ended. But the way his career wound down doesn't diminish his brilliance. He was as good a program builder as anyone has ever been. Unlike many coaches of his era, he really understood the business side of things, partly because he had been in business too, running summer camps with Temple legend Harry Latwick.

And Foster had a special genius at promotion. He really knew how to get people in the seats.

When he left Duke, there was a real sense that Duke would slide back into mediocrity. This seemed much more likely after A.D. Tom Butters hired a nobody who just had a losing year at Army with a name so challenging that he opened his first press conference with an explanation of how to spell it and the suggestion that people not worry about it and just call him Coach K.

Krzyzewski inherited Banks and Dennard and a few other players, but after his seniors graduated Krzyzewski was starting from scratch.

Well at least when it came to players. Duke had the glow of 1978 for a long time. People knew it could happen at Duke. When Krzyzewski said he saw Duke as a regular top five team, people had seen Duke at that level recently. It was no longer a stretch, thanks to Foster.

Aside from his accomplishments, Foster was - there's only one way to put it - he was a nice guy. Sometimes you had to deal with his complexities, but in his profession, not everyone is a nice guy.

Norm Sloan was pretty specifically not a nice guy, by his own admission, Lefty Driesell could be very obstinate and difficult, and at Clemson anyway, Tates Locke cheated wildly. And while Smith was always extraordinarily kind to his own players, his intensely competitive nature periodically led him to situations which he no doubt regretted. Think of his "Mr. Choke" comment on the radio or his pounding the scoreboard at Duke for quick examples.

For his part, Foster's competitive nature and his inability to handle a glaring spotlight seemed to turn inward. He took long drives after losses and when 1979 fell apart, it must have chewed him up inside.

But he always retained a fundamentally decent nature. He was well-loved by his family and his former players. He took his responsibilities seriously and produced not just basketball players but solid, educated citizens.

In short, Foster was a good man who did a lot of good things for a lot of people. He certainly did a lot of good for Duke. He left with a certain amount of unhappiness on both sides, but that's long since healed. There's nothing named for him here that we're aware of, no big honors, but maybe there should be. Duke is and always will be in his debt.