It’s not something that we really went into, but for the last couple of years, we’ve kind of made it a point to periodically mention that Duke Basketball existed before Mike Krzyzewski started coaching the Blue Devils.
And we also periodically mentioned that we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that he would always be the best coach Duke ever had. He was beyond brilliant, but there is always someone else who will be better. Why not at Duke?
Over at the Duke Chronicle, Rachael Kaplan touched on some of this in a column this week about the Duke-UNC rivalry before Coach K.
And there was a pretty great history too. There are a few things we’d like to add to her story that she is too young to know.
First, Frank McGuire was an outstanding coach. He was also an enormous hotheaded jerk who cheated at UNC and, later, at South Carolina. Dean Smith had a reputation as a real straight arrow but he worked for this guy. That’s something we never understood.
There’s no way to really relay the glamour of the Bubas era. It was a world or three away from today. Vic Bubas took a nice regional program and almost immediately made it a national power. He revolutionized recruiting, as Krzyzewski would do later - twice, actually (first when Quin Snyder applied business principles to a basketball office and second when Duke began to recruit elite one-and-one talents, surpassing John Calipari, who had been doing so at Kentucky).
He also was the last Duke coach to compete in a segregated ACC. Duke was a powerful program, but the ACC at that time had barely begun to integrate, and that only at the tail end of his decade at Duke. Bubas had one Black player late in his tenure, the talented CB Claiborne, but technically Claiborne was a walk-on who came to Duke on an academic scholarship.
This is not quite correct: “Bucky Waters and Neill McGeachy, his successors, kept the team afloat but neither could manage better than a fourth-place NIT finish.”
McGeachy was a Waters assistant who took over when Waters resigned under pressure shortly before the 1973 season. McGeachy only coached Duke in 1973-74, which, through no fault of his own, was pretty much the low point of Duke Basketball. AD Carl James actually tried to hire retired Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who was 72 at the time and, if not senile as some thought, certainly past his prime. Fortunately for Duke, if not Rupp and certainly not his farm manager and his family, the manager died unexpectedly, which led Rupp to call James and tell him he couldn’t take the job.
McGeachy did the best he could with what he had to work with, but he was an interim coach and wasn’t offered the job after his one season where he was 10-16. Surprisingly though (or maybe not), given the vast difference in talent, Duke gave UNC a two-point game and a four point game and lost to Maryland, a great team at that time behind only David Thompson’s brilliant NC State team and Bill Walton’s UCLA.
In Waters’ defense, in his era a 4th place NIT finish was still impressive. There were only 16 teams in the NCAA tournament then. Imagine that was the case today and only one ACC team - for argument’s sake, Clemson - made the NCAA tournament. The NIT would look pretty good to Duke, UNC, Virginia and whoever else they might offer. Fourth place in the NIT meant you had had a good year.
One last thing. Kaplan’s comment about Bubas playing back video - well, film in that day - of The Fight in 1960 to show that Art Heyman didn’t throw the first punch (Larry Brown did) reminds one very much of Mike Krzyzewski getting really angry when Dean Smith pounded on the scorer’s table and not getting a technical when that actually added points to UNC’s total. Krzyzewski spoke to the press and decried the “double standard” he thought the ACC gave to Smith. This completely infuriated Smith and set the tone for the early years of their rivalry.
Later, Coach K changed his opinion of Smith considerably and spoke of him with reverence. For Smith’s part, we were told by someone who was there that at one Duke-UNC game early in the K era, someone told Smith that Krzyzewski wasn’t a very good coach. “You wait,” Smith said. “He’s going to be great.”
Later still of course, Smith pushed Coach K for the Olympic job. It was wise of him and Krzyzewski was hugely successful, making it once again unimaginable to beat the US in the Olympics. There’s a lot to be said for convincing people they can’t possibly beat you.