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What If: Red Auerbach Had Stayed At Duke?

The greatest coach in NBA history was nearly the head coach at Duke.

Bill Russell With Red Auerbach
BOSTON - DECEMBER 26: Bill Russell and Celtics coach Red Auerbach.
Photo by Jack O’Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Gerry Gerard took over as head basketball coach at Duke in 1942 under some pretty unusual circumstances. The job became vacant when Eddie Cameron moved over to become head football coach after head football coach Wallace Wade joined the U.S. Army, where he served in the European Theater of Operations.

The U.S. was ramping up its involvement in the war and Duke was transitioning to a Navy V-12 school, most of the male students training to become officers.

And Gerard hardly was an obvious choice to succeed Cameron. Gerard was best-known as Red Grange’s backup at Illinois; Grange was one of college football’s first superstars. Gerard came to Duke to start the intramural program and later started the school’s soccer program.

He also officiated high-school football and basketball to supplement his coaching income.

Different times.

But he knew what he was doing on the hard court. He never had a losing season at Duke, won the 1944 and 1946 Southern Conference tournaments and recruited Dick Groat to Duke. He coached Duke teams to records of 20-6 in 1943, 21-6 in 1946 and 19-8 in 1947.

Then he got sick. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1949.

Which brings us to the subject of this installment of What If?

Arnold (Red) Auerbach coached high-school basketball in the D.C. area and a Navy team in Norfolk during World War II. He was 29 when Mike Uline hired him to coach the Washington Capitals of the fledgling Basketball Association of America. He coached Bob Gantt and Bones McKinney among others to records of 49-11, 28-20 and 38-22.

And lost his job. It’s not clear if he was fired or resigned under fire. But it is clear that he didn’t think all that highly of Uline.

“He was never a basketball guy,” Auerbach wrote in Let Me Tell You a Story (co-authored with John Feinstein). He was a hockey guy. He didn’t understand basketball.”

Gerard had been told that he had months to live. It’s not clear how Cameron and Auerbach came together but Cameron hired Auerbach prior to the 1949-’50 season with the understanding that Auerbach would take over from Gerard when the time came.

But Gerard was a tough old bird and he fought through the cancer longer than anyone thought possible.

Auerbach wasn’t actually an assistant coach. Duke didn’t have any in the early 1950s. Duke parked him in the P.E. department, where he worked with Gerard’s players. Groat has always been complementary of the work Auerbach did with him, teaching him the little nuances of NBA life that would help turn Groat into one of the nation’s best players.

But it was awkward, very awkward.

“I didn’t want to have to get a job that way,” Bill Brill quoted Auerbach in One Hundred Seasons, Duke basketball’s centennial history.

Auerbach left Duke after a few months and took a job with the Tri-City Blackhawks.

That didn’t last long, one 28-29 season with another owner Auerbach didn’t like.

But the following season he took the head-coaching job with the Boston Celtics and the rest is history.

Back at Duke Gerard continued coaching through the end of the 1950 season before stepping down. He died in January 1951.

What if Red Auerbach had stuck around a few more months, the man who won nine NBA titles as a head coach and six more as a GM?

First we have to look at what happened at Duke without Auerbach.

Gerard was replaced by Harold “Hal” Bradley, the head coach at tiny Hartwick College, in upstate New York.

It’s easy to look at the things Bradley didn’t do at Duke. He never won a Southern Conference Tournament, never won an ACC Tournament. Duke did make the 1955 NCAA Tournament when NC State was on probation but they lost their first game, 74-73 to Villanova.

But the assets outweigh the debits by a wide margin. Duke finished first in the ACC regular season in 1954 and 1958. Bradley installed a fast-break offense that pleased both fans and recruits. He coached Duke’s first 100-point game, a 102-45 win over VMI on December 1951. Groat averaged over 25 points per game as a junior and senior, was Duke’s first first-team AP All-America and Duke’s first national player of the year, Helms in 1951.

And that Helms award was the major award at that time.

Bradley’s 1952 team went 24-6, the most wins ever by a Duke team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament. They just couldn’t get past Everett Case. But neither could anyone else at that time, not in the Southern Conference at least.

And Duke won eight straight over North Carolina, still Duke’s longest winning streak against the Tar Heels.

Bradley left Duke with a 165-78 record. His .700 (56-24) percentage in ACC regular-season play ranks sixth in ACC history.

In other words, Auerbach would have had to have been pretty good to have been better than Bradley.

More than a few skeptics have noted that all of Auerbach’s NBA titles as a coach came with Bill Russell at center. Did Russell make Auerbach a great coach? Or did Auerbach make Russell a great player?

Yes.

Still, Auerbach had a sizeable body of work before Russell arrived. He didn’t win any titles. But he coached three different NBA teams to a combined record of 384-263 without Russell.

And he was a pioneer in fast-break basketball in the NBA.

Of course, all that was in the pro ranks. Could he have duplicated that in college?

The Celtics were to NBA integration what the Brooklyn Dodgers were to MLB integration. In 1950 the Celtics made Chuck Cooper the first black player to be drafted by the NBA; Washington picked Earl Lloyd later in that draft and he was the first African American to play in the NBA. Russell, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones all played for Boston in the 1950s when other NBA teams were still whites-only.

There’s no reason to believe that Auerbach wouldn’t have been an excellent college recruiter. But he would not have been able to recruit black players at Duke, at least not during the 1950s. How would he have handled not being able to recruit the most talented players he could find?

And Auerbach had a tendency to butt heads with owners. How would he have worked with a veteran AD like Eddie Cameron who might not have been inclined to give Auerbach the control he demanded at the pro level?

Resources certainly would have been a point of contention. Bradley left Duke for Texas at the height of Darrell Royal’s success because he thought Texas gave him a better chance to succeed. Duke didn’t give the full complement of scholarships permitted by the NCAA, the recruiting budget largely limited Bradley to a handful of eastern states and the coaching salaries were nothing to write home about. In fact Vic Bubas took a pay cut when he left his NC State assistant’s job to take over at Duke, accepting the job offer only when Cameron allowed him to profit from what became highly successful summer camps. And an increase in the recruiting budget.

It’s fascinating to imagine Auerbach squaring off against Everett Case and Frank McGuire in the 1950s. I have no doubt that Auerbach would have won at Duke and won big had he stayed long enough.

But there’s the rub. How comfortable would he have been coaching in the segregated south under an entrenched AD with his own ideas about how to do things?

I suspect Auerbach made the right decision to go back to the NBA.