Back in the Golden Age of Newspapers, legendary sportswriter Dick Herbert of the Raleigh News and Observer, got to know Vic Bubas well.
That’s because Bubas, the head basketball coach at Duke at the time, not only allowed him to, but made damn sure he did.
It was a different day, before ESPN, before the internet, before Twitter. It was a day when a coach and the working stiff on the beat could form a relationship that proved beneficial to both.
I consider myself lucky today that the two men did know each other so well. Otherwise I wouldn’t fully understand why the passing of Bubas yesterday at age 91 was such a big deal to anyone who has ever cared about ACC Basketball.
Sure I knew Bubas was one of the half-dozen best coaches to ever pace the ACC sidelines. The aforementioned formula I’m working on ranks him fourth all-time, surpassed by only Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. In his way-too-brief run of 10 seasons as Duke’s head coach, Bubas’ teams won four ACC titles, played in the championship game eight times, finished first in the regular season four times and advanced to the Final four three times.
He was all but unbeatable at Duke Indoor Stadium, where his teams won 87 of 100 games.
Even so, the statistic I found most impressive was Bubas’ 128-38 record against ACC opponents – which told me he beat the coaches he was hired to beat.
I’m sad to say that Bubas retired – at the uncommonly young age of 42 – after the 1968-69 season, which was two seasons before I showed up on the scene as a freshman at North Carolina. I was lucky enough to meet him when I drove to Charlotte to interview him during his time as the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.
I found him to be ever bit as impressive as I had always heard.
But what I know most about Bubas comes from the extensive profile Herbert wrote on him that can be found in ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History – my first go-to source whenever I start researching ACC hoops. Written and compiled by Ron Morris, a fast friend for many, many years, ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History is an overflowing treasure trove for anyone wanting to know what went on over the first 35 seasons.
Published in 1988, you won’t find it in your local bookstore. But you can pick up a copy on Amazon. I know that to be so, because I just checked.
From Herbert’s profile, I learned the following:
Bubas’ father was born in a village outside Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where the family name was pronounced Boo-bosh. The elder Bubas immigrated to the U.S. in 1915 at age 20 with empty pockets, no understanding of English and a sign around his neck telling where he was going.
In time, Bubas’ dad would gravitate to Gary, Ind., where he used his drive, skill and good sense to build a hardware store into one of the most successful businesses in Northern Indiana.
Bubas was an Army veteran when he traveled to Raleigh to play basketball for Everett Case at N.C. State. He chose the Wolfpack over Southern Cal because Case promised him that if he did all he was asked to do, then Case would help him realize his dream of becoming a coach.
Bubas was a good enough player to make All-Southern Conference twice while playing for teams powerful enough to win 111 out of 135 games, capture four conference titles and advance to the 1951 Final Four. His greatest claim to fame as a player, however, might have been scoring the first basket ever in brand-spanking new Reynolds Coliseum against Washington & Lee on Dec. 2, 1949.
But Bubas was born to coach, as Case could plainly see. So Case hired him as an assistant, the position he held from 1955 through 1959, or until Duke hired him as head coach before the 1959-60 season. Bubas replaced Hal Bradley, who left to become head coach at Texas.
Eddie Cameron, the director of athletics, reportedly screened 135 candidates over a six-week period, none of which were Bubas.
“It wasn’t necessary,’’ Cameron explained. “I knew what he could do. I knew he would be a success at anything, and he was.’’
When hired, no contracts were signed. Bubas never signed a contract at Duke, working season to season on a verbal agreement. Can you imagine that happening today?
People who knew him such as Bucky Waters, another player for Case who became Bubas’ assistant (and successor) at Duke, say they never knew a coach so organized.
“Coach Case was well-organized,’’ Waters told Herbert. “But Vic took it to a higher level. He had a total plan. Seldom did he raise his voice. He had a steely set, and you knew what he wanted. He didn’t have to scream and holler. If there was an outburst, it carried more power. Whatever field he would have gone into he would have been a success.’’
But any coach is only as good as his players, and Bubas was off-and-running as soon as he recruited the great Art Heyman out of Long Island. Heyman was one of four players who played for Bubas who ended up in my book, ACC Basketball Book of Fame. The others were Jeff Mullins, Jack Marin and Bob Verga.
Reading the profile by Herbert, I was struck by how much he reminded me of Skip Prosser – in at least one regard. Both men understood so well the value of promoting your program. Bubas was a big fan of another hero of mine, Bill Veeck, and would recommend Veeck’s classic Veeck as in Wreck to people he knew.
To sell himself and his program, Bubas spruced up the women’s restrooms in Duke Indoor Stadium, invited woman to filter out on the court after games to meet the players, upgraded the parking lot outside, and designated end zone seats to be a family section where season tickets could be bought for $10.
There’s an old saying that amateurs borrow and professionals steal. Well Bubas admitted he stole the idea of forming a Duke pep band after encountering the one that accompanied UCLA to the 1964 Final Four.
Rival coaches had to learn from Bubas to survive. What most coaches had to learn was the old days of recruiting were over.
“Vic taught us how to recruit,’’ Dean Smith acknowledged. “We had been starting on prospects in the fall of their senior year, like almost everybody. But Vic was working on them their junior year. For a while all of us were trying to catch up with him.’’
As fate would have it, it was the loss of a transcendent recruit to Smith that helped convince Bubas that his passion for coaching was waning. Bubas went hard after Larry Miller of Catasaugua, Pa., and thought he had him until Miller broke his heart by signing with Smith and North Carolina.
Rubbing salt in the wounds, Miller, as a junior, made 13 of 14 shots and poured in 32 points as North Carolina beat Duke 82-73 in the ACC championship. A new day was dawning, and Duke’s dominance was over.
Waters said the loss of Miller to North Carolina was a blow Bubas never overcame.
“That may have been the death knell as far as his zest for recruiting,’’ Waters told Herbert. “He just got tired. He said `The thought of getting on another airplane to go chase another teenage kid just was overpowering.’ It was a battle to do that.’’
Although his final team faded to 15-13 and 8-6 in ACC play, no one can say Bubas didn’t go out in style. His Blue Devils rose up to smite second-ranked North Carolina 87-81 in early March of 1969, and afterward Bubas was carried off the court by students and thrown into the shower by his players.
I know all this to be true because I learned it from someone who was there, a great sportswriter named Dick Herbert. And I learned it because Bubas allowed Dick Herbert to know who he was and what he was about.
When one of the great coaches of today, say a guy like Tony Bennett of Virginia, passes, will future fans of ACC basketball know about him what I know about Vic Bubas?
Bubas spent his days cultivating the media, to the benefit of both. Media relations people spend their days these days shielding the coaches they work for from the media. Maybe it’s necessary, given the times in which we live.
But it’s one big reason for mourning more than the passing of a great coach named Vic Bubas.