clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jim On Duke’s Most Important All-Time Recruits (Part I)

Kyrie and Ferry and Groat - oh my!

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Duke player and future Pirates infielder Dick Groat
 DURHAM, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Duke player and future Pirates infielder Dick Groat dribbling past Temple players during basketball game.
Photo by Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Who were the most important recruits in Duke basketball history?

I’m going to take a slightly different tack, a bit more subjective, my (hopefully) informed opinion on this topic.

I’m going to go with six important recruits. These aren’t the six best players but rather six successful recruitments that changed the paradigm, that moved the needle, that helped make Duke basketball the program it is today.



Recruiting was a lot different in the 1940s. It was more regional, more recommendation based. Coaches recruited high schools and high-school coaches, not AAU and AAU coaches.

But even in that context Dick Groat was a big deal. He was a big baseball and basketball star at Swissvale High School, in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Groat knew he wanted to play both sports in college. That was nothing unusual in the 1940s. Many top college athletes played two, even three sports. Duke’s best basketball player in the late 1940s was Ed Koffenberger, who also was a lacrosse All-American.

But Groat also wanted a basketball program that could showcase his skills.

Pitt’s H.C. “Doc” Carlson was a very respected basketball coach, a hall-of-famer. He got Pitt into the 1941 Final Four and even got a couple of those Helms national titles.

A no-brainer, right?

Wrong. Carlson was famous for his deliberate “figure-eight” offense. Groat was most effective in a running, fast-break offense. Family and friends warned Groat off Carlson and Pitt.

And Duke baseball was coached by Jack Coombs, the man for whom the stadium is named.

A great combination for Groat.

Groat became Duke’s first great basketball player, the first time Duke had a player equal to the best player at Kentucky or Kansas or Indiana or any of the New York City schools.

But it wasn’t just his skill. Groat was so respected in his native state that he became a pied piper for Pennsylvanians to Duke. I once asked Bernie Janicki about this. Janicki was from Ambridge (Dick DeVenzio’s home town). He told me that if Duke was good enough for Dick Groat, it was good enough for him.

Janicki averaged 11.1 rebounds per game for Duke, third in school history.

Ever heard of Ronnie Mayer? He was from Avalon, Pa. He is one of seven Duke players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds for a full season. The other six are Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins, Mike Lewis, Randy Denton, Mike Gminski and Marvin Bagley. Pretty good company.

Mayer was first-team All-ACC in 1955. Rudy D’Emilio (Philadelphia) was Duke’s first first-team All-ACC selection, in 1954. Philly’s Joe Belmont was first team in 1956. Paul Schmidt (Johnstown) was second-team in 1958.

Eight different Blue Devils made All-ACC during the 1950s. Four of them were natives of Pennsylvania. Perhaps they come to Duke without Groat. Perhaps not.



Corey Maggette was the first Blue Devil to go pro after his freshman season. That was in 1999. Five years later Luol Deng made the same decision.

Duke was surprised both times. After all, this was a program that had gotten four years out of Johnny Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. Surely they could get two out of Corey Maggette.

Deng was on the three-and-gone program that had served Jason Williams so well.

Until he wasn’t.

Times were changing. By the time Kyrie Irving showed up on campus for the 2010-’11 season Duke expected Irving to go pro after one season.

And they were okay with that. Maybe more than okay.

Duke probably didn’t think of Irving as an OAD when they started recruiting him. In fact their preference early on from that class was Floridian Brandon Knight, who would go on to Kentucky and a solid NBA career.

But Irving leaped to the top of the heap during the summer of 2010. We all know about his truncated college career. But Krzyzewski publicly and privately supported his decision to go pro and word got out that Duke was a good place for top-tier talents looking for a one-year landing spot. Since Irving Duke has had 16 OADs.

Some were surprises. Most weren’t. Since Kyrie Irving Duke has been more than comfortable recruiting players they knew would not see their sophomore seasons.



Dean Smith almost always had company at the top of the ACC. Norm Sloan and NC State went 57-1 over a two-year span, winning eight straight over the Tar Heels. Lefty Driesell’s Maryland Terrapins challenged State during those years. Bill Foster (Duke), Terry Holland (Virginia), Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech) and Jim Valvano (NC State) all successfully challenged Smith for ACC primacy.

But none could sustain it. Say what you will about Dean Smith, the man had staying power. His competition did not. Foster and Sloan left for greener pastures. Holland retired. Driesell and Valvano self-destructed.

And then Mike Krzyzewski came to town. And stayed. And stayed some more.

Keep in mind that Valvano came to State the same time Krzyzewski came to Duke and won an NCAA title when Duke was going 11-17. Cremins came to the ACC a year after Krzyzewski but won an ACC title first, in 1985.

It was said about Dean Smith-as it was said about Adolph Rupp, John Wooden and later Krzyzewski--that he didn’t recruit, he selected. That was never strictly true. He always lost some priority targets, Tom McMillen, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson or Danny Manning, to name a few.

But he didn’t lose them to Krzyzewski, not at the beginning. Smith did not target Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie or Tommy Amaker, for example. But Krzyzewski did target Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Buzz Peterson, Steve Hale, Kenny Smith and Joe Wolf. Brad Daugherty was such a strong Tar Heel lean that Krzyzewski didn’t even bother.

Ferry changed that. He was the top prospect in the high-school class of 1985. His father Bob was an NBA player and GM and Danny grew up following the NBA not the college ranks. No favorite college team to beat.

After eliminating such powers as Indiana and Virginia, Ferry narrowed his finalists to Maryland, North Carolina and Duke.

He selected Duke, the first player to select Mike Krzyzewski over Dean Smith.

But not the last. To be sure, Smith still won some recruiting battles against Krzyzewski, Eric Montross, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter, for example. But Krzyzewski won for Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Cherokee Parks and others.

Krzyzewski wasn’t going anywhere. Danny Ferry was vivid proof of that.

If you're going to shop Amazon please start here and help DBR
DBR Auctions|Blue Healer Auctions| Drop us a line