Thursday, January 21, 2010

Duke – my relationship with the school, and the slipping standards of the program

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?

Yes, guilty.

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.’


Anonymous said...

Bill said...

So, are we about to have another Duke backlash? This could get fun....

Anonymous said...

I think the Coach K and Olympics issue is a viable question and analysis. I don't know that I believe coaches have to coach themselves to death (as we all know this is big news these days with Calhoun, Meyer headliners) but it seems virtually impossible to run the Olympic program and a top notch collegiate program simultaneously.

I don't know enough about assistants and their capabilities, but Duke doesn't seem to have the old guard type guy who can take on a great deal of the head coaching responsibilities and not miss a beat. Collins, Wojo and others may be unbelievable, but they've been under Coach Ks wing their entire careers, and seem sheltered and very clone-like.

If he's going to do this, too bad he can't/won't go hire some type of older, more established old-school assistant to be his top sidekick to hand the program over to time to time. Maybe his ego won't let him do it, or maybe there is no good fit.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the upside of your divorce from Duke is that they don't hit you up for money. Or maybe you didn't get that lucky.

Daniel said...

Coach K makes a commitment to recruit good STUDENT athletes, ones who will usually stay in the program for three years. Does this put Duke at a disadvantage when trying to draw the elite level talent? Probably. But I would rather have him run the program like that, than bring in a bunch of 1-and-done players who only want to go to college because they have to.

Anonymous said...

Daniel - now THAT is an apologist stance. Coach K tried desperately to get Wall, to get Harrison Barnes next year, and many others. I know that Duke (and other programs) stay away from some types of players, but to say that he doesn't want one-and-done level talent players is patently false.

TheWizard said...

Good recap.

Jim Boeheim is a coach on the Olympic team - granted not the head coach - along with Coach K and his team seems to be doing pretty well this season and has a top 3 recruiting class coming in.

Duke will be back as always, can't do it every year; they'll have another run 2-3 yr run in the near future. If anything I think him being head coach of the gold medal NBA filled Olympic team, helps recruiting and the program.

Anonymous said...

Coach K is heading down a similar road to Bobby Knight -- he can't attract the quality of players that he used to get, his teams are over-rated during the regular season, and they wilt in the NCAAs. If he didn't dye his hair, he'd even look like Bobby Knight.

CJMTPA said...

Is it me, or has Coach K just gotten very stubborn?

How many years has it been that Coach K has actually developed a player? Redick and Shelden didn't get much better during their tenure. I think back to Battier or Duhon, role players in their first two years, then top flight players their latter years. Smart athletes. I love Duke, but they don't make the investment.

Yes, it's amazing to see UNC losing 3 in a row. BUT, I give Roy Williams credit. He's taking his lumps, he is playing 10 deep, they will probably improve over the season and they will be VERY dangerous next year.

Coach K doesn't seem to make that investment anymore. He's too used to coaching Pro players that already have all their skills.

The assistants are totally lacking. Gee, we used to have Bilas, Mike Brey, some really talented assistants that could share their knowledge. Too many of the current assistants feel like they got the job "to be employed". I'm sorry, but Nate James and Chris Collins just don't hit me as great future coaches.

Mark said...

John, this story about you and your alma mater is very sad. It is hard to believe that a great educational institution such as Duke can be so petty. If it is any consolation, the worse they act the better you look.

It sort of reminds me of story you told in one of your books, how Bobby Knight just cut off Coach K for having the temerity to win a few games. Again, so unbelievably petty.

Jeff said...

So, you have a personal grudge against Duke, so you are going to write a blog post mocking them for losing in recent years?

How stupid.

Tiny Robert said...

Coach K's assertion that being an Olympic coach has not hurt him but in fact made him a better coach should be rebutted with a reminder that it should not be about him but about the program. The program is suffering. One big reason is recruiting. It must do serious damage to Duke's chances of landing top recruits if the perception exists that Coach K's other obligations impede his ability to devote full attention to the Duke program, regardless of whether this is true.

Anonymous said...

Feinstein has earned the right to criticize his alma mater. Krzyzewski is not perfect. Our tendency to idolize coaches, athletes, the military, and politicians can be very destructive.

Now, maybe Roy Williams should coach the Olympic Team.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I actually feel sorry for you. As a Duke alum, I completely agree with your comments about Alleva, Keohane and Brodhead. Its your right as a journalist to express your opinion but you come across as a bitter, whiny know it all. Every Duke alum with a passion for basketball knows you have an axe to grind. Coach K is not Duke, and Duke is not Coach K, and if Coach K feels a sense of purpose and fulfillment coaching both Duke and team USA, who are you to criticise? No, Duke and Coach K are not above reproach, and the questions you ask might be fair but are tired. Instead of using your blog as a bully pulpit, the old axiom praise in public, criticise in private might apply here.

Anonymous said...

John, willing to express your opinion has it's ups and downs.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Is it a coincidence that Duke's last Final Four appearance came in 2004, the last year Coach K was NOT affiliated with the Olymipics?

Anonymous said...

Boy, don't you have a high opinion of yourself. Maybe Duke doesn't think you are all that important. Take a humble pill!

Anonymous said...

I agree that Coach K has been surrounded by "yes-men" for too long. If he brought back Gaudet and quit coaching the Olympic team, all problems would be solved.

charles pierce said...

I've always considered you an Honorary Marquette Alum anyway, John.

Anonymous said...

How many pro players has Roy Williams actually developed, and I mean the true meaning of "develop"? You could really ask this of any college coach in reality. It seems to me that the good coaches relay fundamentals to their players so those with average NBA talent become good role players (see most Duke/UNC NBA players) Those who really dominate the league do so on pure talent and later experience, look no further than Kobe or LeBron with no college experience to speak of. Do you really think Rick Barnes developed Kevin Durant? This is a pure myth that needs to be put to bed.

Anonymous said...

Duke's handling of the allegations with regards to the lacrosse team could fill the pages of another one of your bestsellers.

I have heard/read you take to task Tiger Woods for his generous use of expletives on the sacred PGA tour. Can you please reconcile Coach K's penchant for delivering F-bombs within earshot of young, impressionable Duke undergrads who only want to one day pull down gigantic bonuses in exchange crippling our economy.

Anonymous said...

While I see several valid points on both sides of this argument in this thread, the mediocrity of the Duke basketball program over the last few years is not about the Olympics. Instead, it is the result of a coach who leans too heavily on his top 2 or 3 players to play a ridiculous number of minutes each game, and is unwilling to potentially sacrifice a game or two during the regular season in the interest of developing younger players. The big three played 119 of a possible 120 minutes against NC State on Wednesday. How is that possible? Meanwhile, our freshman get spot minutes wasting away on the bench. This will ultimately lead to an early exit in March as our exhausted stars will launch tired looking 3's because they are too beat to take it to the rack. I fear the only way we will ever sniff the Final 4 again is if Coack K is fortnuate enough to land enough NBA-bound prospects who simply are too good to lose (see Roy Williams - a terrible game coach who found lightning in a bottle the last few years).

Anonymous said...

John - just came across this article. I could not agree more with the note and I appreciate very much your candor.

You are dead on that that standards have slipped and I do think K has chosen the Olympics over Duke being the best program in the nation. In many ways he's more of a figurehead. Watching his program recently - he noted that he basically lets his assistants run practice and do most of the pre-game talking (they do 5-6 minutes, he does 1-2).

"K can do no wrong" fans will be hatin' but you are correct.

Anonymous said...

Duke is very lucky to have had Coach K.

Having said that I think he is just too set in his ways.

On the Joe Alleva deal you need to MOVE ON. Nan is gone and Tom Mickie has passed away. I am sorry she picked him but MOVE ON. I do think one of the most surprising things I ever heard of that LSU hired him.

John said...

Kevin White "seems perfectly competent"...really? Do you know where he was before Duke? That other hated school in college sports, Notre Dame.

He had a very distinguished resume at ND that screams competence. Let's see, giving Bob Davie a contract extension then firing him a year later. He then hired George O'Leary only to fire him a week later after he falsified his resume. White then settled on Tyrone Willingham whose record over the next (and last) 7 years of his coaching career would be 32-52. When the incoming president and BOT fired Willingham, White did nothing to quell ND's PR disaster of firing a black coach by appearing like a beat dog before the media.

When Willingham was fired, White was unable to secure Urban Meyer in his dream job and had to settle again for a coach, this time Charlie Weis with no HC experience and no experience in college in two decades. Then halfway through his first year, he locks up Weis for a 10 year contract extension! This was the guy calling the shots the whole time.

Perfectly competent! You are lucky that Cutcliffe didn't leave for Tennessee or else whatever signs of life that program has would die immediately with White hiring his successor. If I was a Duke fan I would pray Coach K outlasts White in his role or chooses his own successor because White could destroy Duke basketball the same way he spearheaded ND's decade of misery, the 2000s.

Anonymous said...

This story was interesting and had some good points until the comments about the woman on "Survivor" made it seem like nothing but a petty rant. Reminds me of the rant Art Heyman went on after not being able to get a ticket to a Duke/UNC game at the last minute.

As for Duke not making it past the Sweet 16 being evidence of the Coach K's declining standards, that "logic" presupposes that Coach K alone determines how far his team gets. They do have to play other teams, ya know. Other teams with talented rosters.

Coach K doesn't develop players? JJ and Shelden didn't get much better?!? You may want to look at what they could do at the beginning of their careers and compare it to their senior years. Did anyone honestly think Redick and Williams would ultimately have their jerseys retired after seeing their freshman campaigns? Kyle Singler has played three positions at Duke. Jon Scheyer hasn't developed? Don't know what you call development. Roy plays 10 guys, because he needs to pull his 5 starters out and yell at them for not putting forth any effort.

As a UVA fan said to me, "Duke never takes a play off. They play hard regardless of score or clock." THAT's Duke Basketball. THAT's Krzyzewski. Those standards haven't been relaxed, and they never will.

Pharaohfitz said...

Thank you for writing this and giving us some facts. Academics and, in particular, academic bureaucrats simply are not qualified to make intelligent hiring decisions for most positions, let alone athletic department hires. It is another example of the Peter Principle writ large. Standards have been slipping, AD and assistant Bball assistant coaching hires are ridiculous, recruiting is a crap shoot at best. Unfortunately, the Peter Principle idiocy is not confined to Academia, as my gray hair from working for IT geeks over the past 20 years shows. What is different is that many of us love Duke and there is a great deal of knowledge out there from outstanding alums, sports, business, etc., that could be consulted for guidance. Hell, hire a damn consultant and not the "Survivor" cast member! If Duke is paying him to coach College Bball, I don't understand the Olympics (waving the flag.) Once you win a championship, let alone, three, the standards can only go down and that is the current trend.

Anonymous said...

John, you rip Brodhead for screwing up the lacrosse situation, but how can you ignore Coach K's deafening silence? Any half decent coach of college kids was able to figure out what was happening, and K could have spoken out in support of Pressler (who was a good friend) and said that the witch hunt was uncalled for. However, he played the loyal Duke soldier. No one will ever know what impact he would have had if he did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Great points but I wish you had gotten even MORE specific about Coach K's decline. For several years I've joked about starting a "" web site. I'm not really serious, but here are some key points - all of which could be greatly elaborated upon:
* failing to develop the bench (my favorite)
* Wearing out the players with too many regular season minutes (see above - see the lastest games)
* not playing to win at end of games (the spread offense is Duke's version of football's prevent defense, i.e., "preventing victory")
* stubbornly sticking with pressure man to man when he doesn't have the personnel (it's fun watching Zoubek 40 feet from the basket)
* not developing players (Marty Pocius' best game was freshman year in November in Madison Square Garden)
* recruiting mistakes
* and on and on and on

Anonymous said...

Agree completely with the last post. I would add a few more:

- Intense focus on winning less meaningful games in Nov and Dec that begins and reinforces the trend of playing 6-7 man rotations at the expense of developing depth (conincidence that Boozer's injury forced depth development on the '01 title team?)

- Reliance on 3's, which becomes more pronounced in March after shooters play 36-38 MPG all season.

- Inability to develop post players or interior offense (is this surprising when the "Big Man" coach is 5'11"?), which is now making it difficult to recruit telant in the post (every competing coach sells this against Duke)

I don't know enough about K's schedule with the Olympic team to determine how much less time he's spending with the team and whether it is impacting the program. What I find more surprising is how adeptly Coach K strategically identified the weaknesses of Team USA basketball and thoughtfully deveoped a comprehensive plan to address those weaknesses, yet he continues to operate a "business as usual" strategy at Duke. He remains among the best motivators and tacticians in the game, but seemingly refuses to take a step back, admit there is something amiss with the program and work hard to restore its greatness just as he did with USA Basketball. Where is that Coach K?

Scott said...

Interesting that you say the doctors practically had to strap Krzyzewski to a bed to keep him out of the gym when one of his assistants told me that he had no contact with any of the staff or players for about six months that year...Guess the straps kept him from picking up the phone...