Among the lifetime’s worth of lessons I learned from my career as a sportswriter was that greatness doesn’t come in a nice, comfortable, compatible package.
The two greatest coaches I ever encountered – the two who were by far the greatest to ever grace an ACC courtside – were also the most competitive.
And, when confronted with fools they were biologically unequipped to suffer, unfailingly cantankerous.
Covering Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski could be an ordeal. They made sure of it.
When I began this project to identify those coaches for my own personal ACC Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, I harbored no illusions. I knew Krzyzewski and Smith would dwarf the field.
To say Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith were the greatest coaches in ACC Basketball history would be like calling the Beatles the greatest band in Rock and Roll or Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player. Goes without saying.
But to plug their accomplishments into my formula (which will be included at the end of this post) and rank them against all the other 82 men who tried their hand at coaching an ACC basketball team is an eye-opening exercise. K and Dean didn’t just lap the competition, they were in the clubhouse ordering their second round (Krzyzewski his beloved wine and Smith his scotch) before any of the others made the turn.
Barring a cataclysmic announcement no one I know is expecting, Krzyzewski, this fall, will head into his 39th season as Duke’s head coach. Smith coached North Carolina for 36. No other coach in ACC history lasted more than the 22 seasons Gary Williams toughed out at Maryland.
It was an honor and privilege to cover greatness in the form of these two men, but it not always a pleasure. Ask either the wrong question – or sometimes even the right question the wrong way – in a post-game session after a loss or a disappointing win was to invite the most scathing of of retorts.
Neither could take losing, and both were quick to remind that they knew a bit more about basketball and their respective teams than some sportswriter who wouldn’t know a run-and-jump from a pick-and-roll.
They battled each other like Titans from the time Krzyzewski got Duke good enough for the challenge in the mid-80s until Smith coached his last game in 1997. The feud ran as red as the blood trickling down Eric Montross’ face as the made the free throws to beat No. 1 Duke in February of 1992.
That was three seasons after the most contentious ACC Tournament I ever covered, in Atlanta in 1989, when Smith made amends for a mediocre (by his standards) regular season by knocking off Duke for the title. The event will always be remembered for the courtside exchange of Smith telling K not to talk to his players, and K responding with a word that starts with an F and ends with a K that was not – and I shall repeat, was not – firetruck.
The two started life on different paths. Smith was a Kansan raised by educators, K a Chicago native whose parents were as decidedly working class as most immigrants from Eastern Europe. Smith, in political inclination, was a liberal who bravely, and famously, fought for civil rights causes in the 1960s and K, best I can tell, is more of an up-from-his-bootstraps kind of guy.
Being so competitive, they drove each other crazy. After one of the countless sessions in which officials called the two together at mid-court in a desperate attempt to restore order, Krzyzewski returned to his bench and told his assistants “If I ever act like that guy, just shoot me.’’
Yet around adult beverages at the hospitality rooms of ACC Tournaments, we marveled at how completely, over the years, K morphed into Dean.
Both could be bullies.
Both could be so, so petty.
And yet both were far and away better at doing what all the other coaches in the ACC have ever done.
The true test of an individual is the mark they make. Smith and Krzyzewski challenged everyone around them, but they also inspired them and taught them and made them better people.
What they taught one sportswriter was to never ask a question without thinking it through. And they also taught me that greatness doesn’t come in a nice, comfortable, compatible package.
212 points – Gary Williams (Maryland, from 1989-90 through 2010-11).
The first 10 or so seasons Williams was in the conference, I never understood what he was doing still on the bench five minutes into the game. He had already made such a sweating, screaming, cursing spectacle of himself on the sidelines that, in my mind, he should have been tossed.
Yes he was profoundly profane. And yes he was as often as not utterly out of control. But over the years I gained a grudging respect for the guy. He had a biting, irreverent sense of humor that I, in time, warmed to.
People who knew him better than I said “that’s just Gary being Gary.’’ The officials must have felt the same way, or he would have never survived a complete game.
But he was good enough as a coach to last 22 years in the meat-grinder of the ACC. And he was good enough to win it all in 2002.
Yeah, Gary was a load. But show me one great coach who wasn’t.
268 points – Vic Bubas (Duke, 1959-60 through 1968-69).
Dave Odom was 47 when he got his first head coaching job in the ACC. Norm Sloan was 41, Bones McKinney 39.
By the time Bubas was 42, he was through.
Ten years is the blink of an eye in the history of ACC basketball, but what Bubas accomplished in that short span will, hopefully, never be forgotten. In many ways he prodded ACC basketball into the modern era, when the job as head coach became not so much a pursuit as a profession.
Dean Smith said Vic Bubas taught ACC coaches how to recruit. He also taught them much else. For a more comprehensive look at what this remarkable man did, just scroll back to my post of April 17 written a day or two after he died.
482 points – Roy Williams (North Carolina, 2003-04 through present).
A confession rarely if ever made during my 25 seasons spent as Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. Not only did I attend arch-rival North Carolina, so did my older brother Tom. And so did my younger brother Joe. And so did my wife Tybee. And so did my daughter Rebecca. So did two nephews, Ward and T.J. Collins. And so did a first cousin, Ronnie Clements.
And obviously so did so many of my best friends in the world.
None of them really believe that I don’t bleed Carolina blue after every loss. None of them really believe me when go on and on about how a person can be a sportswriter or a fan, but can’t be both.
But all this connection with the Tar Heels fan base does give me a special insight to what the True Blue think and why.
So I admit I had a good chuckle a couple of years ago when Tom and one of my closest friends, Moose Pulley, mentioned that they’re actually starting to warm up to Roy Williams.
Yes Williams, as head coach at Kansas, did once say he didn’t give a whit (only that’s not exactly what he said) about Carolina.
And all it took was three national championships for T.C. and Moose to get over it and — ever so grudgingly — give Roy his due.
1,018 points – Dean Smith (North Carolina, 1961-62 through 1996-97).
I’ve heard it said that the worst reason to hire anyone for anything is because they happen to be next-in-line when the job comes open. Dean Smith proved otherwise.
It was somewhat of a fluke Dean Smith was ever head coach at North Carolina. When Frank McGuire left Chapel Hill for the NBA in 1961, he left the program in a mess with the NCAA. Smith, then head assistant, helped Chancellor William Aycock answer the NCAA’s charges, and the more Aycock was around Smith, the more impressed he became.
Smith was 39 in his 10th season as the Tar Heels head coach when I showed up as a freshman at Chapel Hill in 1970-71. I worked six years at the local paper, where I became sports editor my last season.
And of course I covered him for 20 more seasons when I left Chapel Hill for Winston.
I’ve regaled friends over the years with too many Dean Smith stories to even get started on telling here. But it’s safe to say it was quite a trip dealing with the distinct dichotomy of greatness.
1,193 points – Mike Krzyzewski (Duke, 1980-81 through present).
Ron Wellman relied on his gut when he hired Jeff Bzdelik, a journeyman who had spent much of his career in the NBA, as head basketball coach at Wake. He relied on his gut when he hired Danny Manning, who had been a college head coach for only two seasons.
Not all decisions made from the gut work out. Most don’t.
But Tom Butters, Duke’s director of athletics, had little else to rely on when he made the greatest hire in the history of ACC basketball, if not in the college game itself.
Krzyzewski, when Butters interviewed him for the job, was coming off a 9-17 season at Army, of all places. He was 32 years old.
I’d always heard that he got the Duke job on the recommendation of Bobby Knight, for whom Krzyzewski had played for at Army. Al Featherston, a good friend and expert on all things Duke basketball, set me straight.
Butters contacted Knight only after he had called Krzyzewski back before boarding the outbound flight at the Raleigh-Durham airport and – pushed hard by Steve Vacendak, a former player who was Butters’ assistant – given Krzyzewski the job.
What Knight told Butters was he didn’t recommend Krzyzewski only because he thought there was no way Butters would ever give a 32-year-old coach coming off a 9-17 season at Army any consideration.
Feather also mentioned another juicy what-if from the story. Krzyzewski had already been offered the head job at Iowa State, but didn’t accept because of the remote possibility he might get involved at Duke.
Just think how much different college basketball might have been.
1 point – ACC wins over .500 (including ACC Tournament).
1 point – NIT win (post 1974).
2 points – NIT win (through 1974).
3 points – ACC Coach of the Year.
4 points – NCAA Tournament win.
5 points – Tie for first in ACC regular season.
5 points – NIT Championship (post 1974).
7 points – first in ACC regular season.
7 points – NIT Championship (through 1974).
7 points – National Coach of the Year.
10 points – ACC Championship (post 1974).
12 points – ACC Championship (through 1974).
15 points – Final four (without winning NCAA Championship).
20 points – National Championship.