Thursday, February 11, 2010

Duke wins the game it had to; Explaining my respect for Ryan Bucchianeri

I guess I have to start this morning with Duke-North Carolina because it is always a game people talk about and because of my obvious connections to the rivalry that date back more than 30 years to my undergraduate days at Duke.

Let’s put aside last night’s outcome for a minute except to say this: It was a game Duke had to win. Carolina is down this year and when your arch-rival is down—especially when it is usually very good to excellent—you have to take advantage. What’s more, the Tar Heels had won three in a row; five-of-seven and seven-of-ten against Duke. The game was anything but pretty, Duke finally pulling away in the last five minutes to win 64-54 in a matchup that certainly won’t be an instant classic anywhere. The Blue Devils were no doubt glad to get out of Chapel Hill with a road win and now face a very tough game Saturday against what will be a rested Maryland team—the Terrapins taking the day off Wednesday after the latest Washington blizzard postponed their game with Virginia until Monday.

All that said and with my usual admission of an anti-ESPN bias, I really am sick of the way the network acts as if every Duke-Carolina game is the next coming of the U.S.-Soviet hockey game of 1980. ESPN hypes everything it televises but it goes to new levels with Duke-Carolina. A lot of it starts with Dick Vitale, who just can’t help himself. To be fair, if Dick was doing Bucknell-American (which I’ll be doing tonight if I can get out of my driveway) he would think IT was the greatest thing he’d ever seen in his life.

At least his hype is genuine.

And look, Duke-Carolina has been a wonderful rivalry through the years. Carolina has had three of the all-time great coaches work at the school in the last 60 years: Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. Bill Guthridge never got the credit he deserved going to two Final Fours in three seasons. Matt Doherty was a failure—although he DID recruit the key players on Williams’ first championship team in 2005. Duke has also had three superb coaches: Vic Bubas, who made Duke a national power in the 60s; Bill Foster, who rebuilt the program after it had fallen apart in the 70s and, of course, Mike Krzyzewski who won his 853d game Wednesday—putting him 26 behind Smith and 49 behind his old coach Bob Knight for the all-time record.

There have also been truly great players (interestingly there is not ONE Duke player in the basketball Hall of Fame; Carolina has, I believe, 15) and great games and great moments.

So what did ESPN show prior to the game to prove how great the rivalry is?; fights. Instead of showing Walter Davis’s miracle shot in 1974, it showed Doherty and Chris Collins yelling at one another. Oh please. Instead of showing Gene Banks’ buzzer-beater in 1981 it showed a bloodied Tyler Hansbrough. THIS is what makes a great rivalry: coaches yelling at each other and elbows to the mouth?

I’ve said this before and I will say it again: I think the rivalry has been hyped to the point that fans on both sides act stupid. The Duke students lost their spontaneity and humor years ago. All they want to do is paint their faces and get on TV talking on their cell phones. Carolina people are obsessed with Krzyzewski’s success because they feel it somehow diminishes Smith’s accomplishments—which is completely ludicrous. Nothing can diminish what Dean did—on and off the court.

Last year a friend if mine from Carolina grabbed me in a press room and said, “you’ve got to see the FUNNIEST video ever made.” The video was basically some Carolina kids mocking all white Duke point guards and saying they were gay. Maybe I’m just old. I didn’t think it was even a little bit funny—just dumb to tell you the truth.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I respect Dean and Roy (and Bill Guthridge too, one of the best men I’ve ever met) and Mike. I like all of them a lot and think they’ve all done great work building model programs with (for the most part) good kids who graduate. Of course whenever I say something good about Krzyzewski it is because I’m a Dukie. When I say something good about Roy it is because I’m a traitor.

Gee, I wonder why I don’t like being around the rivalry very much. When HBO asked me to be part of their Duke-Carolina documentary I said no. It was a no-win for me. Unfortunately I thought they leaned on some very bad sources—particularly a couple of people on the Carolina side who claim to be journalists but hate Krzyzewski with a passion that defies reason.

So, like I said, it was a good win for a Duke team that I think is far from special and another tough loss in a down year for Carolina. It didn’t come close to being worthy of the hype. But then few things on ESPN can live up to that sort of hype.

By the way, what exactly is Rivalry Week? Other than Pitt-West Virginia on Friday I can’t find a single real ‘rivalry,’ game other than Duke-Carolina on their schedule. Clemson-Florida State? That’s a big rivalry? Georgetown-Providence? Syracuse-Connecticut MAYBE but they don’t even play home-and-home every year anymore because of the silly Big East schedule. You have to love the way the network marketing geeks just make stuff up and throw it out there. Maybe they can have, “Hype Everything Week.” Oh wait, that’s every week.


I got a call yesterday from Ryan Bucchianeri. If you read ‘A Civil War,’ you will know the name right away. If you are a football fan, you will know who he is when I remind you. Ryan was a kicker at Navy. He missed an 18-yard field goal as a freshman that would have won The Army-Navy game. The field was soaked, the game was played in a driving rain—there were plenty of excuses available for Ryan after the game.

He took none of them. He just took the blame. “I missed the kick, that’s all there is to it,” he said repeatedly.

For taking responsibility and not making excuses Ryan became something of a national hero. Sports Illustrated did a long piece on him the following fall. Early in the next year’s Army-Navy game he missed another makeable kick. It was the last field goal he ever attempted at Navy.

Many of Ryan’s teammates resented the fact that he was made into a hero—even though he never asked for that status. They thought (correctly) that in accepting blame he had simply done what they are all taught to do: No Excuse Sir is a mantra at both Army and Navy.

I wrote ‘A Civil War,’ during Ryan’s junior season. There was a new coaching staff that basically wanted no part of him. Too many bad memories. He was shunted down to fourth string and got into two games all year—both times to kickoff. He became almost a pariah within The Brigade of Midshipmen and was badly treated—very badly treated—at times. Writing the book, I reported all this. I liked Ryan a lot and appreciated his willingness to talk to me about all that had happened. I thought my version of events was sympathetic to him, which it was meant to be.

Apparently not everyone read the book that way.

Ryan is now running for Congress after a distinguished career in the Navy. He was running in The Democratic Primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th district (that’s in Western Pennsylvania where Ryan grew up) against 19-term incumbent John Murtha. You may know the name: Murtha was well-known for a number of reasons: A marine veteran who served in Vietnam, he came out against the war in Iraq in 2005 after initially voting to support it in 2002. But he also became known as, “The King of Pork,” and was famous for ear-marking bills to give companies whose lobbyists had contributed big money to his campaigns contracts that benefited the companies and, frequently, his district in Pennsylvania. He has been investigated for possible ethics violations more than once.

Ryan’s campaign was a long shot given Murtha’s time in Congress, his contacts and his campaign war chest. On Sunday, Murtha, who was 77, died after complications from gall bladder surgery. Suddenly, Ryan’s campaign isn’t a long shot anymore.

I had seen Ryan in September when he was campaigning outside Heinz Field before the Navy-Pittsburgh game. He still looks 21 even though he’s now 35. The reason for his call was direct: there were people writing and saying that if you read, ‘A Civil War,’ it was apparent that the author (me) didn’t think very much of him.

If so, that was bad writing on my part. I have great respect for Ryan Bucchianeri and it isn’t because he’s a Democrat or that we agree on most issues. He’s just a good PERSON, who has served his country overseas and who I am SURE will work like crazy if he gets to Congress. So, if anyone has any doubts about how I feel about him because of the book, that’s on me. Did his teammates view him as a loner? Yes. A lot of kickers are viewed that way and Ryan took one emotional hit after another and kept coming back.

If you want to know how his teammates REALLY felt about him, I’d read the scene I witnessed in the locker room after the Notre Dame game that year when Andrew Thompson, the team’s defensive captain, told Bucchianeri how much he respected his un-willingness to give up when it seemed everyone at Navy wanted him to give up. Thompson, by the way, is still serving in the marines today and is as tough a guy as I’ve ever met.

So, if you want to know more about Ryan and his campaign, click on: I’m not writing this for any reason except that I like and respect the guy and I feel badly if anyone read ‘A Civil War,’ and didn’t come away knowing that.


charles pierce said...

He's got my vote.
Yes, I know I don't live there, but I'm from Massachusetts, I know from voter fraud.

Anonymous said...

John--Where does the "riot" that Brawling Artie Heyman started with Carolina players and fans rank in the rivalry? And, please, enough with the pimping! I, like most people, read you for your unique insight into sports, and I don't need or want to be proselytized about politicians!

JDM said...


A Civil War is one of my favorite books and my favorite of yours. You treated Booch with respect but certainly made him seem a bit nerdy.

What was your honest opinion, though? Did you agree with Ryan after the 1995 season when he told the coach he should have been first string??

Tony said...


You are not the cosmos.

Sometimes your blog entries revolve around how everyone's perception is of you, and your books, etc..

Get over yourself.

(apologies to Molly Ivins for the stealing of her cosmos line)

Tim said...

To both Anonymous #2 and Tony -- are you both serious? If you want straight up columns on sports, go read the guys at ESPN, SI and others who file the game reports. Otherwise, just put up with a few daily personal items from time to time. If you think this post was overly political, we obviously read different posts. And I, for one, like reading John's view of the topics with his actual real life insights from experience being in it.

Its not about agreeing with things, its about seeing the perception from someone who experiences it. I don't know what a blog is, if not this.

Mark said...

I read "A Civil War" and I thought Ryan was treated fairly. He did come off as someone who kept to himself. Odd, then, that he should consider a career in politics; after all, he will be in the spotlight constantly.

And to those of you who don't like what John posts, there are 9 million other blogs out there that you can choose from. I think it is the height of arrogance to try to dictate to someone what they should write. It is John's blog and John's time and talent. No one is forcing you to read it.

Anonymous said...

Memo to Mark: It's called "reader feedback!" And any decent scribe worth his or her salt, welcomes it. Does the term, "mental masturbation," ring a bell?

Mark said...

Hey Anonymous - criticizing the story is one thing - saying don't write about X and write about Y is completely different.

Chris Wilson said...

I think Vandy vs. Tenn. qualifies for a rivalry game during "Rivalry Week," though I agree ESPN stretches it a lot.

Gunnar said...

I cannot believe there is not a single Duke player in the Hall of Fame. Danny Ferry, Christian Leattner (sp?), Johnny Dawkins, Grant Hill or Bobby Hurley? Now forgive me if I missed a player in the 1980's and 1990's....I live up in Quinn Snyder territory in Seattle, and saw him play in High School. Prior to the 1980's, I have no knowledge of Duke hoops. My first vote would be for Johnny Dawkins, I thought he was a fantastic college player. Second vote would be for Grant Hill, third for Leattner (sp?).

Anonymous said...

Art Heyman is a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, does that count

Dan Clark said...

I felt the same way as you when I watched the opening of the Duke/Carolina game. ESPN was way off the mark. What was the purpose in showing the blood and the gore? I am surprised they didn't sneak in a picture of Mike Tyson biting an ear. Show the great plays instead of reminders of people losing their cool.