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In The 1960s, Vic Bubas Kicks Duke Basketball Into Overdrive

The Bubas era was Duke’s first Golden Age of basketball

Vic Bubas Speaking to Press
Vic Bubas brought Duke to greatness in the 1960s

There’s no question that Vic Bubas is the second-most successful coach in Duke men’s basketball history. Eddie Cameron won a few more game but he also coached four more seasons. Bubas was the first Duke coach to win an ACC Tournament, the first to win an NCAA Tournament game, the first to reach the Final Four, the first to have a top-ranked team. Only UCLA and Cincinnati won more games in the 1960s.

Looking back in hindsight, it all appears inevitable. Bubas had come down from Gary, Indiana to be one of Everett Case’s Hoosier Hotshots, with the express intention of having Case show him how to become a college coach. Bubas was a heady playmaker-the proverbial coach on the floor- for some of NC State’s best teams. He then became Case’s right-hand man. Bubas was smart, organized, motivated and knew everything there was to know about college basketball.

But it wasn’t that clear in the spring of 1959, when Bubas replaced Harold Bradley. Bradley wasn’t exactly run out of Duke. He went 165-78 at Duke and his 1954 and 1958 teams finished first in the ACC. But Texas offered Bradley more money and a full complement of scholarships, which Duke did not.

Yes, Harold Bradley thought he had a better chance of winning at Texas than he did at Duke.

Duke was a football school in 1959. Bubas actually took a pay cut to leave State and only agreed to come after Eddie Cameron told him he could keep some of the revenue from summer camps to augment his base salary.

Bubas was 32 when he came to Duke. He had never been a head coach at any level of basketball and had only coached at a state-supported school much different from the private school that just hired him. State had been put on NCAA probation twice during the 1950s. Some faculty openly resented hiring Bubas.

It was not a sure thing.

Bubas would eventually gain a reputation as an elite recruiter. But that wouldn’t help him in his first year, when freshmen were still ineligible.

Fortunately, Bradley did not leave him a bare cupboard.

Bradley’s 1958 team finished first in the ACC but did so by starting five seniors. When they left he relied on a core group of sophomores to go 13-12 in 1959. Bubas inherited them for their junior years, five returning starters.

Duke’s big three in 1960 was burly 6- 6 center Carroll Youngkin, lanky 6-9 forward Doug Kistler and versatile 6-3 wing Howard Hurt. John Frye was a ball-handler. Fred Kast was a forward but lost his starting job to sophomore Jack Mullen, a Navy veteran.

There wasn’t a single senior in the rotation.

Bubas would eventually field some of the most exciting up-tempo teams in Duke history. But not in 1960. He didn’t think his team was ready for that and dialed it down. Duke would average only 64 points per game in 1960, while allowing 63.

Bubas lost his first game, 59-49 to Georgia Tech. Yes, Vic Bubas opened his Duke career with a team that scored 49 points.

It was a hit-and-miss kind of season. The hits included a win over Bill “The Hill” McGill and Utah in the Dixie Classic, wins over Navy and Alabama in something called The Birmingham Classic and sweeps over Virginia, Clemson and South Carolina in ACC play.

Utah would end the season ranked sixth in the AP poll and Duke actually hit the AP poll for a couple of weeks in mid-December.

But some of the misses were staggering.

The ACC was top-heavy in 1960, with Wake Forest and North Carolina ruling the roost.

Bones McKinney helmed the Deacons and he had a loaded team that included senior forward Dave Budd, sophomore center Len Chappell and sophomore guard Billy Packer.

The Tar Heels were coached by Frank McGuire and were only three years removed from an undefeated season that ended with an epic, triple-overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the NCAA title game.

McGuire’s team was led by 6-7 senior forward Lee Shaffer, the 1960 ACC Player of the Year and a future NBA all-star. Sharp-shooting guard York Larese and future ABA star Doug Moe augmented Shaffer.

Wake and Carolina would tie for first in the regular season, at 12-2. North Carolina also lost to South Carolina, Wake to NC State. The Deacons defeated UNC 53-50 in the title game of the Dixie Classic.

Packer was MVP of the Dixie Classic.

Yes, Packer really could play.

Maryland finished third in the ACC at 9-5, with Duke at 7-7 and South Carolina at 6-8. NC State, Virginia and Clemson brought up the rear, NC State’s 5-9 mark suggestive of how much Case missed Bubas.

About those misses. Duke wasn’t even remotely competitive against Wake Forest or North Carolina. The Deacs pounded Duke 80-63 in Winston-Salem and 83-64 in Durham, although Duke only trailed 36-32 at the half at home.

But that was nothing compared to the hurting that Duke absorbed at the hands of North Carolina.

The day after Duke took down Utah, the Blue Devils squared off against North Carolina in the Dixie Classic semifinals. The Tar Heels led 32-18 at the half and never let up. By “never let up,” I mean Larese went to the foul line 21 times and made all 21.

Larese ended with 37 points. Youngkin led Duke with 10. The final was 75-53.

Duke played Dayton the next night for third place and lost 71-63, in three overtimes.

Duke lost in Chapel Hill 84-57. It was 36-20 at the half. Five Tar Heels scored in double figures, led by Ray Stanley’s 16 points. Kast led Duke with 14. Combined with that 80-63 loss to Wake Forest and a subsequent loss to NC State, this loss was Duke’s third straight ACC loss, the first time that had ever happened.

Surely Duke would do better against Carolina in the friendly confines of Duke Indoor Stadium, in the regular-season finale.

Think again. This time it was 35-15 at the half. At the time this was the third largest halftime deficit in Duke history.

The final this time was 75-50. Shaffer (26 points) and Moe (19) led the Tar Heels, while Kistler led Duke with 17.

Duke ended the regular season 5-4 at Duke Indoor Stadium. That’s still the fewest Duke wins in that now venerable facility.

Old momentum was definitely not on Duke’s side going into the ACC Tournament.