Appalachian State returned home with an upset victory. Mike Krzyzewski had the Mountaineers to thank for an unexpected recruiting assist.
Krzyzewski, 69, can pick up the 1,049th win in his record-setting career as a college coach when No. 6 Duke (5-1) plays Appalachian (2-2) at noon in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Thirty-five years ago, Krzyzewski was seeking just his 19th victory with the Blue Devils when first-year App State head coach Kevin Cantwell brought an experienced team to Durham.
Cantwell was promoted following the departure of Bobby Cremins, who had led Appalachian State to a 20-9 record and berth in the Southern Conference tournament final earlier in 1981. Krzyzewski, the little-known Army coach with the hard-to-pronounce last name, had gone 17-13 in his first season at Duke.
He faced pressure to quickly rebuild a tradition-rich ACC program. The 1-2 record that resulted from a 75-70 home loss to App State on Dec. 5, 1981, angered many Duke fans but appeased the coaches recruiting against Krzyzewski. One called a home in southern California the following morning and shared the score with the mother of a 6-foot-8 prospect.
"The assistant asked if my mom had ever heard of App State," Jay Bilas recalled earlier this week. "She said 'No.' The assistant then said, 'Well, they just beat Duke last night.' He told her, if I went to Duke, it'd be a long slog, and Duke might not win.
"Being an arrogant, clueless kid, I told my mom if I went there, there's no question we'd win."
Being an arrogant, clueless kid, I told my mom if I went there, there's no question we'd win.
The rest is two-sided history – a noteworthy milestone for one program, a largely forgotten anomaly for the other.
Bilas’ reaction to the negative recruiting did show the level of belief that some people already had in Krzyzewski, regardless of how much his early teams struggled. Bilas joined Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and David Henderson as members of a class that arrived a year later, reached the NCAA tournament final as seniors and established the foundation for a coach who could win his sixth national title this season.
For Appalachian State, the upset in front of a less-than-capacity crowd in Cameron served as the high point in an 11-15 season. It stands as the only time Duke didn’t win by at least a dozen points in its eight Durham-based meetings with the Mountaineers, whose victory against N.C. State in 1939 contributes to a 2-44 record against North Carolina’s four ACC programs. Cantwell posted a 61-78 mark over five seasons before rejoining Cremins’ staff at Georgia Tech in 1986.
As Appalachian returns to Durham to play Duke for the first time since 1988, third-year coach Jim Fox is facing many of the same challenges that made it difficult for Cantwell and others to succeed at a program with only two NCAA tournament berths in its history. Paced by sophomore guard Ronshad Shabazz’s 28 points Wednesday, the Mountaineers did lead by as many as 18 points before holding off Hartford in a nonconference road victory.
“I was happy with the win but not thrilled with the way we played,” Fox said. “If we want to get to where we want to get, we have to be better than that.”