We kind of hinted at this in our Wake Forest preview but only obliquely because it would have been presumptuous and also because we know that at times, stuff from this site has ended up in offices around the ACC and we really don’t want to give people bulletin board material.
This happened twice just with April Fool’s pranks. The first time we ran a gag a couple of years after Dean Smith retired, saying that he was coming back to coach UNC. That joke made it as far as radio news in the state of Kansas before people figured it out. We were told later that someone took it in to Bill Guthridge, who looked at it and dryly said “well, I guess this is goodbye.” We always loved him for that.
The second time was during a major stress point of realignment and we ran a story saying that Duke and UNC had decided to join the Big Ten together. We got a couple of polite but urgent requests to clarify that that was an April Fool’s joke and to do so quickly.
Imagine if a prank had blown the ACC apart. Our spot in history would have been something else. Sure, people would have hounded us to the hottest hinges of hell, but we’d have had a great story to tell when we got there. It would almost have been worth it.
Anyway, we try to be careful about stuff like that, so we didn’t want to say this but it’s what we thought: poor Wake. Duke’s going to rip their head off in this one.
Because we’ve paid a lot of attention to Mike Krzyzewski over the years. We’ve read the public stories. Remember the one where he went nuclear after Dean Smith pounded on the scoreboard, ran the score up 20 points, and didn’t get a T?
We remember the off-the-bus practice that saw Grant Hill’s nose pay the price.
In 1992, Duke scheduled Michigan for a December rematch after the 1992 title game and they came to Cameron woofing that Duke “stole” their championship.
Remember the 43-point loss to Ralph Sampson’s Virginia team in the 1983 ACC Tournament and Sampson complaining that Duke was “dirty?”
It was years before Virginia beat Duke again.
Obviously Steve Forbes and Wake Forest didn't pour fuel on Duke Wednesday night. The motivation didn’t come from the opponent. We believe it came from Jalen Johnson’s departure and how Duke reacted to it.
We want to emphasize here how little we know about what happened between Duke and Johnson’s “camp,” and we want to say again that it’s his life and his decision and we’re fine with it. And he said, and Coach K said, that everyone was in agreement that it was the right way forward. And his former teammates said kind things about him when asked after the Wake Forest game.
But anyone who has watched Krzyzewski over the years knows this: the man practically burns with competitive fire. This is a man who once told his team that he'd rather die than lose.
He’s commented more than once about his team being “soft” this year and after the Miami game called it “sad” that it had played so passively.
When Johnson walked away, publicly Coach K was gracious, and we’re sure he’ll be generous when it comes to helping him advance his career.
Internally though? Privately?
We can’t imagine someone who spent four years playing for Bob Knight, much less someone who went through the crucible that is West Point, liked the idea of someone walking away. You don’t have to like Mike Krzyzewski to understand that those were two very difficult commitments and both came with immense stress - and at the same time, too.
So while we didn't want to say it directly, we were pretty sure that Coach K’s private comments to his team were very different than those he made in public. We’re not saying that he ripped the kid to the team. That doesn’t seem productive.
But we are sure that this was the kind of moment that former Blue Devil Jeff Capel alluded to recently when he said the most important quality of Duke basketball was that “[n]othing is given. You have to earn it. People forget, that’s what (Duke) is based on, fighting.”
That’s what happened after Grant Hill’s nose was broken: Coach K told the team that they weren't to feel sorry for themselves. They would fight.
That's what happened after Smith pounded the scoreboard. Duke lost in Chapel Hill but beat UNC in the ACC Tournament when the Tar Heels were near their highest point with Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith and, most of all, Michael Jordan.
It’s what happened to Virginia for several years after Sampson left and it’s what happened to Michigan when the Fab Five came to Cameron and woofed about that “stolen” championship.
And we were pretty sure that’s what was going to happen to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem last night.
Coach K has treated Johnson generously and honorably and we have no doubt that he’ll help him as much as he can.
But given his life experiences and his immensely competitive nature, there was only one response to Johnson’s departure, and that’s what we saw last night.