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What If: Tate Armstrong Had Stayed Healthy In 1977?

Part I of III

July 26, 1976: Tate Armstrong on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.

Bill Foster faced a big rebuilding job when he took over as head coach at Duke in the spring of 1974.

Duke was coming off consecutive seasons of 14-12, 12-14 and 10-16. That 12-14 mark in 1973 was Duke’s first losing season since 1939 and the 16-loss season that followed established a school record for losses in a season.

And Foster moved into a pretty tough neighborhood. In just his first year at Duke the ACC included John Lucas, Mo Howard, and Brad Davis at Maryland; David Thompson, Monte Towe, and Kenny Carr at NC State; Phil Ford, Walter Davis, and Mitch Kupchak at North Carolina; Tree Rollins at Clemson; Skip Brown and Rod Griffin at Wake Forest; and Wally Walker at Virginia.

Duke didn’t have that kind of talent and Foster arrived too late in the recruiting cycle to make much of a dent.

Duke played 19 games against ranked teams in his first two seasons at Duke and lost 17 of them.

Foster made one key decision early. Whatever the consequences, his Duke team was going to run and run some more. Maybe that would bring back the disgruntled fan base, maybe it would prove attractive to recruits. In his first two seasons Foster’s Blue Devils had eight games in which they scored at least 90 points and still lost. One of those was a 122-109 loss to Wake Forest.

Duke went 13-13 in 1975 and 13-14 the following season, 5-19 combined in the ACC. That 1976 team averaged 88.3 points per game, the second-highest average of the pre-shot-clock era. But it also allowed 85.0 points per game, still the worst mark in school history. And that was without a shot clock or 3-point shot. Duke played 11 games decided by five or fewer points and lost eight of them.

It certainly wasn’t Tate Armstrong’s fault. Armstrong was a 6-2 Houston native, more of a lead guard than a pure point guard. He had been a decent ACC player as a freshman and sophomore but simply willed himself into a great player as a junior. After the 1975 season Foster casually mentioned to Armstrong that he would like to see him show up in better shape the following season. Armstrong went home and ran 15-20 miles every day in the Texas heat.

Armstrong’s 1976 season was one of the great unsung seasons in Duke history. He averaged 24.2 points per game, shooting 52.3 percent from the field. And he wasn’t posting people up. He could shoot. Only Dick Groat, Art Heyman, Bob Verga and J.J. Redick have ever averaged more points per game in a Duke season. Armstrong scored 42 points against Clemson, 40 against NC State, 38 against Virginia.

Duke lost all three games, by one, one and four points.

Groat and Redick are the only other Duke players to score 40 or more points at least twice in a season.

Armstrong also found time to lead Duke with 4.4 assists per game.

Duke ended its 1976 season with a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Maryland in the ACC Tournament

Duke entered the 1977 season having gone 62-69 over the previous five seasons, 17-43 in the ACC. Duke had one ACC Tournament win in a seven-year period. Not one per year. One, total. The Blue Devils were 3-9 in the Big Four. Duke had a 26-game ACC road losing streak, a nine-game losing streak to NC State, a 1-13 mark against North Carolina. Duke hadn’t had an AP All-American since 1968 and had only three first-team All-ACC selections between 1969 and 1976.

That 1976 ACC Tournament loss to Maryland ended Duke’s season but it didn’t end Armstrong’s season. He made the U.S. Olympic Team and came back from Montreal with a gold medal.

His teammates included such notables as Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley, North Carolina’s Phil Ford and Indiana’s Scott May.

He liked winning. He wanted more of it.

“I had a chance to be coached by Dean Smith, a great coach who was accustomed to winning. I had a chance to be on a team with guys who were used to winning. It changed my approach. I had a strong feeling we could play with anyone in the ACC and if we could play with anyone in the ACC, then we could play with anyone.”

Could Duke play with anyone?

Part II coming Thursday