For some reason Wednesday was one of those days when I couldn’t seem to escape my alma mater.
My relationship with Duke is, to put it in polite terms, an interesting one.
Let’s start with the good: I’ve known Mike Krzyzewski since 1976. I met him when I was a Duke senior and the basketball team played in New York against Connecticut in Madison Square Garden. The day before the game I flew in with then-Duke Coach Bill Foster and then-Duke star guard Tate Armstrong to attend the weekly basketball writer’s lunch at Mamma Leone’s Restaurant. I’d always read about the lunch as a kid so actually getting to go was a thrill.
Foster was kind of a returning hero at the lunch since he had coached at Rutgers. Afterwards, he introduced me to three young New York area coaches I was familiar with: Tom Penders of Columbia; Jim Valvano of Iona and Mike Krzyzewski of Army. He made me do my Dean Smith imitation for them and I told Penders and Krzyzewski how much I’d enjoyed going to games at their schools as a kid and Valvano how vividly I remembered Rutgers’ run (with Foster as the coach) in the 1967 NIT.
Obviously I got to know all three much better as they moved up in the business after I graduated from college. Often, when I talk about what a good guy Krzyzewski is or even what a good coach he is (gee, he’s only won 848 games) people start claiming I’m a “Duke apologist.”
That’s where the story gets funny. You see, even as an undergraduate, I was extremely critical at times of the school and the athletic department. My senior year Athletic Director Carl James only scheduled four home games in order to make the football team into a cash cow—the first three non-conference games were at Tennessee, at South Carolina and at Miami. The next year it was at Tennessee, at Michigan. I wrote a column prior to the first home game in the fall of 1976 (game 4 of the season) in which James flew to Pittsburgh—that was the first home opponent led by Tony Dorsett—to protest the actual playing of a home game. I also had Coach Mike McGee going to the campus police department asking for directions to Wallace Wade Stadium.
The administration loved me for that.
But I was also a big fan of Foster’s and was delighted when he turned the program around and took the team to the national championship game in 1978 after four straight last place finishes in the ACC during my undergraduate years. And I’ve always admired Krzyzewski as a man and a coach. I make no apologies for that.
That said, he and I had a minor falling out and Duke and I had a major falling out when Duke President Nan Keohane named Joe Alleva to succeed Tom Butters as athletic director. I’m not going to go through the details AGAIN but this was one of the all-time stupid decisions made by any college president—which takes in a lot of ground. Anyone and I mean ANYONE who has been around college athletics for more than 15 minutes knew that Tom Mickle should have gotten the job. Keohane didn’t hire Tom for one reason: he had IDEAS, real ideas, about how to fix football and how to fund under-funded non-revenue sports better.
Let me quote Gene Corrigan, the former commissioner of the ACC, also a Duke grad who hired Mickle as his No. 2 man in the conference office: “I was the beneficiary of Tom Mickle’s brilliance. I never met anyone smarter in collegiate athletics.”
Keohane didn’t want Mickle because Mickle was too smart. She wanted Alleva because she knew he’d just ride Krzyzewski’s coattails and never bother her with an idea. She thought sports were too important at Duke and Krzyzewski too powerful. She didn’t want sports to get better, she’d have been happy if they got worse. (Which, amazingly, football did under Alleva’s watch).
I was angry at Krzyzewski in the aftermath of the Alleva hiring because he kept quiet during the hiring process. He played racquetball with Alleva and felt he owed it to Alleva to not line up against him. I’ve always admired Mike’s loyalty but I told him back then: “your loyalty is misplaced here. It should be to DUKE. You owe it to Duke to make Keohane pick the right guy and you know it’s Mickle.”
Years later he finally admitted that of course it should have been Mickle. But by then it was too late. Tom died in 2005 of a heart attack at the age of 55.
To say I was critical of Keohane—who told me in a phone conversation that if she hired a “Duke person,” (the school had hired one of those dopey headhunters that had no interest at all in recommending the best person, just someone it could take a bow for ‘finding.’) it would, “of course be Tom Mickle,” is an understatement. When I publicly called her a liar my relationship with the school sort of went downhill.
As in, I ceased to exist. The alumni office ordered local alumni groups to NOT ask me to speak—in fact it forced the local chapter here in Washington to cancel an appearance I’d been asked to make by (of all people) Tate Armstrong. The President of the club at the time called me to say, “well, um, we can’t get a room the right size.” I told the guy not to worry, I understood, but next time he should come up with a better story.
Keohane mercifully left and was replaced by Richard Brodhead, who appears to be a perfectly nice guy. Unfortunately, Brodhead has the leadership skills of an amoeba. He completely blew the entire lacrosse situation and in spite of one embarrassment after another actually gave Alleva a new contract a couple of years ago. When I sent him an e-mail saying, “WHAT were you thinking?” he wrote back and said, “Joe has some weaknesses, yes, but he also has strengths.”
I replied: “Can you please name ONE for me?”
I’m still waiting on an answer.
The Alleva era finally came to an end when a different dopey headhunter actually recommended him to LSU. Kevin White, a nice guy who seems perfectly competent (but is no Tom Mickle) was hired in his place. I’m still pretty much persona non grata at Duke outside the basketball office perhaps because I keep calling Brodhead, “Mr. Chips,” perhaps because I ripped the football team for failing the basic courtesy test of shutting up while the Navy band played its alma mater after the game in Durham two years ago.
If you think I’m exaggerating pick up a Duke media guide and look under “distinguished journalism alumni.” My classmate, Sean McManus, President of CBS Sports, is listed—as he should be. So is one of my mentors Bill Brill and several other distinguished journalists—Judy Woodruff being another. There’s also a woman who was a finalist on ‘Survivor.’ Seriously. Me? Nowhere to be found. Does that make me laugh? Yes. Does it piss me off? Being honest, of course it does.
All of which brings me (finally) to yesterday. I got a call from a woman on behalf of my friends at the alumni office. Apparently I was invited to some cocktail party in town next week—gee, think they’re asking for money?—and hadn’t RSVP’d. She was hoping I could come. Actually I COULD come but, no thanks, I’ll take a pass. Maybe they could invite the woman from ‘Survivor.’ Did I get a kick out of that?
Then, during my regular radio appearance on WTEM here in town one of the hosts, Andy Pollin, accused Jim Calhoun of “abandoning his team,” because he’s taking a medical leave of absence. I told Pollin that was patently ridiculous and he shouldn’t make a comment like that without knowing any of the facts.
At which point his co-host, Steve Czaban—who comes from the view of a Maryland fan, Krzyzewski is the root of all evil club—asked about the ‘rumors,’ that Krzyzewski had left his team in 1995 because it wasn’t any good and he didn’t want to be saddled with a bunch of losses.
As it happens, I know how sick Krzyzewski was that year and I know his doctors practically had to strap him to a bed to keep him out of the gym and told him if he tried to coach again that season he might not ever coach again. I also know where the ‘rumor,’ started—two North Carolina grads who more or less posed as journalists for a long time who hated Krzyzewski for making Duke good again. So, I did my, “Duke apologist,” thing and defended Krzyzewski.
Then I watched N.C. State blow Duke out later that night and couldn’t help but think—again—what I’ve thought since this summer: Mike shouldn’t be coaching the Olympic team again. He’s won his gold medal, he’s done his bit for the country, he’s proven he can coach NBA players. He needs to hunker down and make his last run at Duke and not have his apologists—not me in this case—running around saying, “30 and 7 and the sweet sixteen is a very good year.”
For a lot of teams, most teams, it is a very good year. It just isn’t up to the standards Mike Krzyzewski set. I remember in 1997 when he was still rebuilding after the ’95 disaster when his team lost a close game at Maryland. A couple days later with Carolina in town, Dick Vitale came into the locker room prior to the game and was giving a Vitale pep talk: “You guys’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ll win your 20, you’ll be in the tournament.”
When Vitale left, Krzyzewski turned to me. (I was there working on my book on the ACC that season). “I don’t care about winning my 20 or being in the tournament. We’ve let the standards slip around here. I want this team and this program to play to MY standards, not anyone else’s.”
During the next seven years, Duke went to three Final Fours and won a national title. Since then: no trips beyond the sweet sixteen. The standards have slipped. Mike needs to re-think HIS standards again.
Of course he doesn’t need me to tell him how to coach that’s for sure. He can always consult with the woman from, ‘Survivor.’