College Basketball

When Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski ruled the world

UNC coach Dean Smith cuts the net after the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown for the NCAA title in 1982.
UNC coach Dean Smith cuts the net after the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown for the NCAA title in 1982. AP

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has said repeatedly that the mid-1980s marked the competitive apex of ACC men’s basketball, an assertion he repeats in John Feinstein’s new book, “The Legends Club.” While there’s merit to the assertion, for Triangle basketball it’s a bit narrow to capture the achievements and tensions generated at a time when elbows were extra-sharp and the stakes uncommonly high.

Krzyzewski believes ACC ball was best 30 years ago because most superior players, rather than go pro early, stayed to become veterans. That assured continuity and a wealth of experience and team cohesion. Yet as late as 1994, when Duke advanced to the national championship game at Charlotte, his squad started three upperclassmen, most notably senior All-America Grant Hill. Of the 15 members of the ‘94 All-ACC squads, 13 were juniors and seniors.

In fact, the conference, and especially Triangle teams, began an ascent to new prominence in 1980-81 that was sustained through the mid-90s. That season Krzyzewski took over at Duke, Jim Valvano arrived at N.C. State, and Dean Smith led North Carolina to the national championship game. The ACC retained its preeminence, thanks especially to those schools, at least through the ‘94 season when the Blue Devils made their seventh Final Four appearance in a nine-year span.

The prowess of the Triangle trio was unmatched for an extended period. Their teams averaged an NCAA title nearly every other year for a dozen seasons – UNC in 1982 and 1993, N.C. State in 1983, and Duke in 1991 and 1992. Between 1981 and 1994 they shared 12 Final Four appearances, 10 ACC titles, nine advances to an NCAA title game, and 33 NCAA tournament berths.

As for depth of talent, during those 14 years the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack produced three consensus national players of the year (UNC’s Michael Jordan in 1984 and Duke’s Danny Ferry in 1989 and Christian Laettner in 1992), six ACC players of the year, 13 consensus All-Americans and 23 NBA first-round draft picks. Nine times during that stretch the majority of the All-ACC first team played in the Triangle.

Outsiders take over

The achievements and standout players depended upon the work and will of three remarkable coaches, whose clashes amplified the unique competitive pressures still shaping basketball in our neighborhood.

Smith was 49 and the ACC’s dominant presence when Krzyzewski and Valvano arrived from the outskirts of New York. Both were in their mid-30s.

Krzyzewski, an unknown coming off a losing season at Army, was pigeonholed as a strategic and temperamental disciple of Indiana’s volatile Bob Knight. Valvano, glib and high-strung, was trailed by a whiff of scandal at Iona, a program he built from obscurity to NCAA participation. “Coach V,” a New Yorker of Italian descent, and “Coach K,” from a Polish family in Chicago, immediately turned to self-deprecating ethnic humor to disarm residents of ingrown North Carolina, where in 1980 approximately 74 percent of adult residents had been born in the state.

Today about half the residents were born elsewhere, according to Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC. Smith, a Kansan, took over at Chapel Hill in 1961 as an obscure 30-year-old assistant with no college head coaching experience. “I really didn’t want the job,” he told me in a late-1970s interview. He similarly played the reluctant maiden when the school sought to name its brand-new basketball palace in his honor when it opened in January 1986. Denial of ego was Smith’s preferred form of self-effacement.

With five Final Four visits but no NCAA titles, Smith’s highly effective, meticulously calibrated program was criticized as too mechanical. “We’re not going to change the way we play, even though some of you think we should,” he told the media in the run-up to winning the ’82 national championship. With a jester’s flourish, Valvano hit the crux of the matter with a hilarious imitation of Tar Heels woodenly hopping up and down on defense.

Smith had a brilliant, mathematically-oriented mind that saw and manipulated the game as a chessmaster might. His teams’ late-game escapes merited a special section in North Carolina’s media guide. Much as we admire Roy Williams, surely it crossed many minds last week that his mentor would have handled under-manned Duke.

Technical fouls

Smith struggled early in his tenure, with Carolina students twice hanging him in effigy. Krzyzewski’s start was even less successful, with two losing seasons in his first three at Duke. Over his initial five seasons he was the only ACC coach with a losing home record.

Krzyzewski’s fight to establish his program was neither subtle nor always disciplined. Driven to win, he barked profanely at officials during games to the point of distraction, and started chewing sugarless Bubble Yum gum to otherwise occupy his mouth. He averaged three technical fouls per year over his first six seasons, second only to Virginia’s Terry Holland.

Now among the most gracious of men in victory or defeat, at the 1985 ACC tournament Krzyzewski blasted ACC officiating as “a disgrace to our conference” after losing to Georgia Tech and Bobby Cremins, a coaching friend. The preceding year, following a home loss against Carolina, I was in the press room at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Krzyzewski angrily and somewhat accurately decried “a double standard” in officiating that benefited UNC. By the start of the ‘90s and ever since, opponents more or less felt the same when facing the Blue Devils.

Krzyzewski was single-mindedly committed to an aggressive, hands-on, man-to-man defensive style. Acceptance of that physical approach eventually helped the ACC shed its reputation as a touch-foul league, and contributed to its – and Duke’s – surge in NCAA success. Valvano facetiously confided that officials didn’t know what to call because the Devils simultaneously fouled all five opposing players.

During his decade in Raleigh, Valvano’s squads won more than they lost against the Blue Devils. That vexed Krzyzewski, knowing Valvano was casual in his devotion to teaching, about owing a debt to the game, and other traditional values. The crafty Valvano took the Wolfpack to rare heights, including a school-best five consecutive NCAA appearances from 1985 through 1989. But he was forced out in 1990 and died painfully of cancer three years later.

Blemishes long-forgotten

Valvano, a raconteur with countless and sometimes conflicting ambitions, could be stunningly unguarded, privately confessing to me his aspiration to become a millionaire at a time when such earnings were rare for a coach. Lack of compunction about capitalizing on his popularity stood in sharp contrast to his neighbors. Smith preferred opacity, shunning both celebrity and commercial exploitation of his status as a public figure. Krzyzewski didn’t become particularly marketable, even if he cared, until he completed his quest to win an NCAA championship in 1991.

Valvano’s relentless hucksterism was charming to some and exploitative to others. Shortly after the Wolfpack won in ’83 critics began challenging his priorities and the appropriateness of using his public position for private gain.

Those blemishes are long-forgotten, overshadowed by Valvano’s valiant fight against his disease. In memory Jimmy V enjoys a saintly reputation, a situation the English major at Rutgers would surely find ironic.

The much-venerated Smith retired in 1997, worn by the demands of the job. By then Krzyzewski was getting his second wind. He’s since surpassed Smith for the most wins by a male coach in major-college ball. Krzyzewski added NCAA championships in 2001, 2010 and in 2015, the year Smith died. Now he is the elder against whom all others are measured.