By Jim Sumner
January 29, 2008
Contributor. What does it mean?
One definition: "To give or supply in common with others; give to a common fund or for common purpose." Sounds positive enough. Who wouldn't want to give for a common purpose?
The world of sports thrives on contributors. There's the batter who takes a strike so a runner can steal a base, or the basketball player who sets a screen so the star can bury a jumper.
But it's kind of a limiting term, too. Contributors don't take home the prom queen. They don't get the accolades or make the all-star game. They certainly don't make halls of fame.
So why did Vic Bubas, the long-time Duke basketball coach (1960-69) and one-time N.C. State player and assistant coach, go into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in November as a contributor?
In this case, the term isn't a limiter at all. Instead, it's recognition of a distinguished career as a player, coach, administrator and, yes, committee member.
The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame was founded in 2006 and is located in Kansas City, Mo. Don't confuse it with the much older and more prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Bubas isn't in that other hall of fame.
"Maybe he should be," said Chuck Daly, the former Bubas assistant and long-time NBA head coach who is enshrined in Springfield. "Vic had so many careers. Maybe voters don't know how to identify with someone like that. But he had a great basketball mind and was way ahead of his time."
The collegiate hall is the brainchild of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. It is associated with the College Basketball Experience, an adjacent museum and interactive facility.
Rick Eddy, the director of public relations for the collegiate hall, said his organization has a different mission than the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"The Naismith does a great job, but it has a much larger constituency than we do. They have to deal with the pro game, the international game, the women's game," Eddy said. "We felt there were people associated with the men's college game who were deserving of recognition but who just weren't going to get into the Naismith. Vic Bubas is one of those people."
Bubas traveled from Gary, Ind., to play basketball at N.C. State in the late 1940s. He was one of those "Hoosier Hotshots" who helped transform college basketball in the mid-South under legendary Wolfpack coach Everett Case.
Bubas never was much of a scorer, but he was a solid ball-handler and defender. In today's parlance, he was a point guard, and a good one. A two-time all-conference selection, he helped State win four Southern Conference titles, and he was the captain of the 1950 team that finished third in the NCAA Tournament.
"Vic defended me as well as anybody," said former Duke star Dick Groat, who also was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in November. "Nobody outworked him, and he was always prepared."
Hard work and preparation were two concepts that followed Bubas throughout his career. He stayed at State, first as a freshman coach, then moving up to become Case's top assistant. The two men were so close that State's players called them "Pete" and "Re-Pete." Bubas was a sponge, learning everything he could from the man known as the "Old Gray Fox."
In the spring of 1959, Duke coach Harold Bradley resigned to take the same job at Texas. Bradley had produced a nice run with the Blue Devils, but the fact that he thought Texas was an upgrade suggested that the Duke program had not exactly reached its potential.
Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron looked 25 miles down U.S. 70 and picked Bubas to replace Bradley.
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. The Wolfpack had been hit with several recruiting violations during Case's tenure. Bubas was not implicated in any of them, but there was some suspicion of guilt by association.
"Lots of Duke people were unhappy," said Bucky Waters, a former N.C. State player who worked under Bubas at Duke in various capacities from 1959-63 and succeeded him as the Blue Devils' head coach in 1969-70. "Eddie's decision was all spine. It was a gutsy move. He was criticized, but he knew he was right and stuck by his guns."
Cameron wasn't the only one operating on faith. Bubas took a pay cut when he left State.
Bubas had a great start. Within days of becoming the Duke coach, he secured prep sensation Art Heyman, taking him away from North Carolina's Frank McGuire, after McGuire and Heyman's stepfather had a falling out. Heyman became a three-time first-team All-ACC player for the Blue Devils and the 1963 conference player of the year.
Duke finished fourth in the ACC in 1960, Bubas' first season in Durham, but shocked UNC and Wake Forest to win the school's first ACC Tournament title. The Devils followed that with the school's first two NCAA Tournament wins, advancing to the East Regional final before losing to New York University.
Bubas accomplished those feats with players left to him by Bradley, but he made sure he could improve on that with his own players. Bubas inherited Fred Shabel as an assistant coach. It didn't take Shabel long to recognize Bubas' talent.
"Vic was national sales manager for Duke University," Shabel said. "We were his national sales force. State was ahead of everybody. He brought that to Duke and improved on it. His organizational ability was his biggest asset."
College basketball teams in this era often used a buddy system when recruiting and worked tried-and-true territories. McGuire had his famous "Underground Railroad" to New York, Case his pipeline to Indiana and the Midwest. Pennsylvania product Press Maravich took over at Clemson and started recruiting Pennsylvanians. Maryland's Bud Millikan stuck to the Mid-Atlantic. It wasn't unusual for a coach to sign a player he had never actually seen play, based on the recommendation of a trusted talent scout.
Bubas would have none of that. He was the first coach to evaluate and contact large numbers of juniors. He made Duke a national program, not conceding territory to anyone.
Bubas hired Waters as an assistant shortly after he took over at Duke. Waters, then 23, worked first with the freshman team, then with the varsity. On the recruiting trail, youthful energy trumped experience.
"Vic expanded the recruiting scope," Waters said. "Organization was better, we thought bigger. A lot of hard work, a lot of travel. There weren't any five-star camps in those days. If you were interested in a kid in Kokomo, then somebody was going to have to go to Kokomo."
It was a situation designed for ambitious workers.
"Vic was extremely bright, with great organizational ability that he honed under Case," Waters said. "Get good people, give them space, encourage them, and get out of the way. Give responsibility and expect responsible results. It was a wonderfully invigorating atmosphere. He wasn't a buddy-buddy coach. There wasn't a lot of hyperbole.
"His greatest gift was his ability to get the most out of everybody. Bubas allowed you to grow. He wanted you to expand."
Recruits certainly responded to that approach. Daly, who replaced Shabel when the latter went to Connecticut in 1963, said the Blue Devils' success came from a combination of factors, including Bubas' personality.
"He was comfortable dealing with everyone fans, media, recruits, recruits' parents," Daly said. "We were so organized. We made so many contacts, had so many files."
Jeff Mullins joined Heyman, then Jack Marin, Steve Vacendak, Bob Verga, Mike Lewis. At Duke in the 1960s, it was one All-American after another.
Duke's recruiting prowess became legendary. Duke center Jay Buckley was such an exceptional science student that he expressed an interest in becoming an astronaut, surely a quixotic goal for someone almost 7-0. Asked if he wanted to become the first person on the moon, Buckley responded, "I'd probably find Coach Bubas there, recruiting."
After Lewis helped Duke twice defeat UCLA in December 1965, Bruins coach John Wooden was asked why he didn't recruit Lewis.
"We tried to," Wooden said. "But every time we called the Lewis home, Bucky Waters answered the phone."
Of course, all of the recruits in the world don't do a coach much good if he doesn't know what to do with them. Bubas knew.
His practices were as organized and detailed as his recruiting. Bubas hired assistants who could teach as well as recruit. He found Daly when the future Detroit Pistons coach was a 33-year-old high school coach. Hubie Brown was 36 when he joined Bubas' staff in 1969, after a single season as an assistant at William & Mary.
Bubas was comfortable having stars. Seven of his 10 Duke teams had at least one player average 20 points per game. Speaking of Verga, Lewis said, "Sure, Bob shot all the time. But that's what he was supposed to do."
Duke could run, shoot, defend and rebound. Bubas' 1965 team set a still-standing school record of 92.4 points per game, a generation before a shot clock or three-point shot.
The Blue Devils did things Bubas' way off the court, too, or they paid the price. The coach once suspended nine players, including four starters, for staying out too late on New Year's Eve.
There was one tantalizing near-miss. Duke actually signed Bill Bradley, but Bradley changed his mind over the summer of 1961 and switched to Princeton. Bubas still is bothered that he didn't find out until Bradley's father called him on the day the coach was scheduled to pick up Bradley at the airport.
Bradley, who became a three-time All-American at Princeton and the national player of the year in 1965, would have overlapped with many of Duke's top players had he followed through on his initial decision Heyman for one year, Mullins for two, Marin for two, Verga for one. Making matters worse, Bradley had taken Duke's final scholarship that year, a grant that otherwise would have gone to Fred Hetzel, who became an All-American at Davidson.
Even without Bradley or Hetzel, Duke won lots of games and championships under Bubas. Duke made its first Final Four in 1963, losing in the semifinals to Loyola. The following season, Duke made it all the way to the championship game, becoming the answer to a trivia question: the first team to lose a title game to Wooden's nascent UCLA behemoth.
Bubas was especially effective at tournament time. Remember that both he and Case came from that Indiana high school tournament tradition. Bubas said "what I learned from Case was to simplify at tournament time. Use what works and eliminate what doesn't."
Duke went 22-6 in the ACC Tournament under Bubas, winning four titles and never losing in the first round. The Blue Devils went 11-4 in four NCAA Tournaments only the ACC champion was invited from the league in those days and that was without the 1/16 first-round blowouts top teams see today.
His best team was in 1966, a balanced, powerful team that included six future pros and became the first Duke squad to be ranked atop the AP poll. But Verga, the team's leading scorer, came down with strep throat before the Final Four match with Kentucky. He scored only four points as Duke fell 83-79.
"You'll never know for sure," Bubas said, "but I think we would have won with a healthy Verga."
The 1966 season ended up as the high-water mark. Gradually, Bubas lost his passion for recruiting.
"The thought of getting on another plane and chasing another high school kid was overwhelming," Bubas said.
He started losing recruiting battles Larry Miller and Dennis Wuycik to an up-and-coming coach named Dean Smith at North Carolina, John Roche and Tom Owens to South Carolina. Two of Bubas' final three recruiting classes were mediocre, at best.
Bubas' last team struggled to stay above .500, although it rallied to win two games in the ACC Tournament. He retired after the 1969 season, with a 213-67 record. Only UCLA and Cincinnati won more games in the 1960s.
Bubas was just 42, and his organizational skills were as keen as ever. He worked as an administrator at Duke until 1976, when he became the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. He held that position with distinction through 1990. In his honor, the league still calls its annual all-sports championship trophy the Bubas Cup.
In the early 1980s, the NCAA began to allow conferences to experiment with some rules, especially shot clocks and three-point shots. Bubas was one of the first to sign up.
"We were a new conference," he said. "We weren't going to get the publicity of the ACC or the Big Ten, so we needed a way to get exposure. We needed to experiment. There was some consternation from some schools, but we pushed it. We didn't just mess around with the three-point shot and the shot clock. We did detailed statistical analysis, figuring out how they impacted the game."
Bubas also became a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, eventually becoming the chairman. Gene Corrigan was the athletic director at Notre Dame and a fellow member of the committee.
"Vic was never pushy with his intelligence," Corrigan said. "He spoke quietly and eloquently. He was so totally fair in everything. His only agenda was to get it right."
Corrigan tells a story that illustrated how Bubas worked.
"It was 1984, and I was representing independents and was pushing for Dayton. It was Saturday night, and the committee decided to go with Michigan over Dayton for the last spot. I didn't take it well. I stormed out," Corrigan said. "The next morning we got together, and Vic suggested we reconsider Michigan and Dayton. He calmed everybody down, and we talked it over. The committee reversed itself and went with Dayton."
Now for the punch line.
"Dayton ended up making the West Regional final, losing to Georgetown. Michigan went to the NIT and won the title, beating Notre Dame in the title game," Corrigan said. "Digger (Phelps) was mad at me for years."
One of Bubas' greatest contributions was his insistence that the committee make use of computers.
"Vic was the first guy to organize stuff in a truly business way," Corrigan said. "He understood his business, and he wanted us to make decisions with as much data as possible. How did teams do against the top 25, the top 50, at home, on the road, the final 10 games? Things we take for granted now."
Bubas said he thought the committee needed a more advanced way of assembling the data available to it.
"We needed better statistical analysis," Bubas said. "We started asking computers for more information to sniff out tons of information. When you get down to the last five or so teams, you can be there a month if you don't have data you trust. We launched a new era in how we put together and used information."
That wasn't his only contribution. Bubas advocated expanding the NCAA Tournament field, playing in larger arenas, televising more games. People listened, changes were made, and the tournament got bigger and better.
"He understood what would make the game better," Corrigan said. "He was part of a group of people who knew and loved basketball. It's fortunate that he was around when he was."
Bubas is retired now and living on the South Carolina coast. But his influence lingers.
"Vic is my mentor," said Shabel, now the vice president of Comcast-Spectacor. "I learned more from him than in any classroom."
Daly also fondly recalls his time in Durham.
"Vic basically said, Come with me, work your ass off, and you will be rewarded accordingly.'" Daly said. "I took that philosophy with me everywhere I went."
Bubas said he would be honored with recognition from the Naismith Hall of Fame, but that he doesn't think much about it.
The College Basketball Hall of Fame inducts people as coaches, players or contributors. He's comfortable with being a contributor.
"The college hall of fame is where I belong," Bubas said. "College basketball is where I spent so much of my life. I'm not a Mount Rushmore coach. I wasn't a lifer. I didn't stand pat. Contributor probably fits me pretty well."
Jim Sumner is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal. His articles on southern sports history have appeared in the Sports Journal and many other publications. His latest book, "Tales From The Duke Blue Devils Hardwood," was published in 2005. He also writes a bi-weekly column on ACC history for theacc.com, the official website of the conference.