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Dean and K: Legendary Parallels (Part 1)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 10:45am
By: Al Featherston

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Click here for Part Two.

The ACC — and the Triangle area of Tobacco Road, specifically — has been blessed by the career accomplishments of two of college basketball’s greatest coaches.

From the 1961-62 season and now into 2008-09, North Carolina’s Dean Smith and then Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have made the Durham/Chapel Hill area the center of the college basketball universe.

Their amazing 48-year (and counting) dual run includes a 17-season overlap from 1980-81 through 1996-97, when the two hardwood titans competed head-to-head. Their duel was at the highest level. Between them, they’ve won five national championships, coached in 21 Final Fours, won or shared 28 ACC regular-season titles, won 23 ACC Tournament titles and combined for 40 final AP top-10 finishes, including 10 No. 1 rankings.

The success of the two great coaches has generated countless debates, including the fundamental one: Who’s better?

That’s an argument that really can’t be addressed completely until Krzyzewski finishes his career and everyone can compare his accomplishments with Smith’s completed oeuvre.

But Krzyzewski’s recent triumph in Beijing, where he led the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team to the gold medal, matching Smith’s 1976 Olympic triumph in Montreal, should remind us of the remarkable parallels between the two coaches. Indeed, the comparisons between Smith’s career at North Carolina and Krzyzewski’s career at Duke are too striking to ignore.

True, they often took different approaches to their programs and represent different personalities, different political views and even different recreational choices. Yet their career accomplishments have followed remarkably similar tracks — from their earliest years through their 28th season at their Tobacco Road address. That’s the point where Krzyzewski is now. Smith, of course, completed 36 seasons at North Carolina, which means that Coach K would have to stay at Duke for eight more seasons to match the length of his rival’s tenure.

Before we start comparing career records, let’s track their careers and see how they match.

There is an early difference worth noting. Before taking the Duke job, Krzyzewski had a five-year apprenticeship at West Point, where he was 73-59 as the Army head coach. UNC was Smith’s first head coaching job. He had spent four years as Frank McGuire’s top assistant in Chapel Hill before stepping into the leadership of the Carolina program. It’s difficult to say which job provided a better preparation for the future coaching giants. Krzyzewski had the advantage of being a head coach, but it was at a school in very different circumstances from the one he would lead in Durham. Smith was merely an assistant under a very strong-willed head coach, but he also was in place at UNC, getting to know both the school and the ACC intimately before stepping into the head job.

However, it’s safe to say that the head coaching jobs at North Carolina and Duke present very similar opportunities and difficulties. No one can suggest that Krzyzewski should have won national championships at Army. Yet that is always the ultimate goal in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Therefore, we chose to track their careers from the same starting point — from their first day on the job at the schools where they would make their marks.

That’s where the parallels begin. Both inherited programs that had enjoyed considerable success just before their arrivals. However, both faced daunting rebuilding jobs to reach contention for ACC and national honors.

Was it mere coincidence that each coach required a five-year stretch of mediocrity before achieving break-out success in his sixth season? Each coach won his first ACC title and made his first Final Four appearance in Year Six. In each case, the initial season of success inaugurated a 16-year run of excellence, capped by a national title in Year 21 for both coaches.

Smith followed his 1982 national title in New Orleans with an eight-year stretch that is hard to describe. It was certainly not a slump — UNC remained one of the nation’s great powers — but it was a period of frustration when the Tar Heels failed to achieve the goals that Smith’s earlier success had established as the benchmark for the program. Krzyzewski has followed his 2001 national title in Minneapolis with a similar period of “successful frustration.” Duke has been very, very good in the last seven seasons, but not as good as the expectations Coach K had cultivated. Smith’s program took off again in his 30th season, and he ended his career with a seven-year stretch that was as good as anything he enjoyed in his prime.

That’s the one part of the career track where we can’t compare the coaches. We still don’t know how Krzyzewski’s reign will end. Will he match Dean’s glorious finish? Will he go out at the same level as he’s maintained for the last seven years? Will he actually slump in his final seasons?

The answer to those questions will go a long way toward determining the relative greatness of the two coaches. But before we get to that point, let’s take a closer look at the periods we can compare.

Coming Tuesday: The Rebuilding Years