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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?
Today we look at:
THE GLORY YEARS
Dean Smith (1967-82)
Overall: 402-98 (.804)
ACC regular season: 160-49 (.766)
ACC Tournament: 30-7 (.811)
NCAA: 25-13 (.658)
NIT: 7-3 (.700)
Championships: 7 ACC regular-season titles, 9 ACC Tournament titles, 1 NIT title (1971); 7 NCAA regional titles, 1 NCAA title (1982).
Mike Krzyzewski (1986-2001)
Overall: 448-100 (.818)
ACC regular season: 174-55 (.760)
ACC Tournament: 25-9 (.735)
NCAA: 55-12 (.821)
Championships: 9 ACC regular-season titles; 6 ACC Tournament titles; 9 NCAA regional titles; 3 NCAA titles (1991, 1992, 2001).
For Smith, the 1967 season changed everything. After five years of moderate success, the young coach finally put a powerhouse on the court.
Starting one senior (Bob Lewis), one junior (Miller) and three sophomores (Clark, Bunting and Grubar), the ‘67 Tar Heels opened the season with 16 wins in 17 games. That included a victory over No. 4 Kentucky in Lexington and, more importantly, a win over Duke in Durham. The road victory over Bubas’ team, which had won four straight ACC regular-season titles, was like a changing of the guard on Tobacco Road.
North Carolina also beat Duke in the ACC Tournament title game, to give Smith his first championship of any kind as a head coach. It was just the second conference title in 22 seasons for the Tar Heels.
It also was merely a prelude for what was to come. The young Heels stormed through the East Regional and reached the Final Four for the first time since 1957, when UNC had captured the NCAA title under McGuire. Dayton and a red-hot forward named Donnie May ended the 1967 run in the national semifinals, but it was only a temporary setback for Smith. Now that he had reached the top rung of the college game, he was never going to back up.
Smith’s 1968 Tar Heels, replacing Lewis in the lineup with brilliant sophomore Charlie Scott, repeated as the ACC champions and returned to the Final Four. The Heels reached the title game this time, before losing to Lew Alcindor and UCLA. The 1969 Tar Heels won a third straight ACC title and made a third straight Final Four trip.
Smith didn’t win every year after making his breakthrough in 1967. The ACC threw up a number of challenges for him over the next few seasons.
First, it was his old boss McGuire, who had turned traditional ACC doormat South Carolina into a power. In the early 1970s, the Norm Sloan/David Thompson teams at N.C. State held a slim edge on the Driesell/John Lucas-Tom McMillen teams and the Smith-led Tar Heel teams, which more than held their own with the powerful Terps.
UNC regained ACC supremacy in 1975, when freshman point guard Phil Ford quarterbacked the Heels past Thompson and N.C. State in the ACC title game. Foster soon revived Duke, to offer another challenger from 1978-80. As the decade of the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, the arrival of Ralph Sampson at Virginia provided a new test for the Tar Heel dynasty.
But Smith met the challenge with back-to-back ACC titles and Final Four trips in 1981 and 1982. In the former, UNC forward Al Wood led the Tar Heels past Sampson and Virginia in the national semifinals. A year later, All-America forward James Worthy and a freshman future megastar named “Mike” Jordan gave Smith his first national championship, capping a 16-year run that was like nothing ever seen in ACC annals — nine ACC championships, seven Final Fours and the ACC’s third national title.
Yet Smith’s 16-year run would be matched — maybe even surpassed — by a coach who started his own 16-year run at the top just four years after Smith’s great stretch.
For Krzyzewski, the 1986 season changed everything. The members of his first great recruiting class were all seniors now. Three of them (Dawkins, Alarie, David Henderson) started, along with one junior (Tommy Amaker) and one freshman (Danny Ferry), when Duke opened the season by winning the inaugural Preseason NIT, beating No. 18 St. John’s and No. 5 Kansas in Madison Square Garden to capture the title.
Duke, picked third in the ACC preseason poll, kept winning even as senior big man Jay Bilas recovered from a preseason injury and replaced Ferry in the starting lineup. The Blue Devils opened 16-0 and climbed to No. 3 in the rankings before losing back-to-back games at UNC (in the first game ever played in the Smith Center) and at Georgia Tech. But the setback was merely temporary, as Coach K’s team started another 21-game winning streak that ended only in the NCAA title game against Louisville.
Coach K’s breakthrough season proved — like Smith’s first big year — to be even more significant because of what followed. He was not a one-year wonder. Instead, 1986 proved to be the first year of a nine-year stretch that saw K’s Duke teams play in the Final Four seven times and win national titles in 1991 and 1992.
The Blue Devils suffered a setback after losing the national title game to Arkansas in 1994. Krzyzewski, who underwent back surgery just before the start of practice, came back too soon and, after leading the team to a 9-3 start, had to step down. He turned the team over to assistant Pate Gaudet, who finished 4-15.
Krzyzewski returned to guide the 1996 team to an 18-13 record and an NCAA bid. He was back on top in 1997, when the Blue Devils won an unexpected ACC regular-season title. The 1998 team spent the entire season in the top three nationally and became the first ACC team to finish with 15 regular-season conference wins.
In fact, from 1998-2000, Duke won 46 of 48 ACC regular-season games, a streak that has never been matched. After falling just short of another national title in 1999, Krzyzewski picked up his third national title in 2001, beating Arizona in Minneapolis.
That capped a 16-year streak that was very comparable to Smith’s long run. Smith won more ACC titles in his prime (9 to K’s 6), but Krzyzewski had more NCAA success during his glory years, with nine Final Fours (to Smith’s seven), four runner-up finishes (to Smith’s three) and three titles (to Smith’s one).