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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 REBUILDING YEARS
Dean Smith (1962-66)
Overall: 66-47 (.595)
ACC regular season: 41-29 (.586)
ACC Tournament: 3-5 (.375)
Mike Krzyzewski (1981-85)
Overall: 85-45 (.654)
ACC regular season: 28-42 (.400)
ACC Tournament: 3-5 (.375)
NCAA 1-2 (.333)
NIT: 2-1 (.677)
Smith replaced McGuire after UNC’s 19-4 ACC regular-season championship in 1961. The ‘61 Tar Heels were on a one-year NCAA probation and, because of that, elected not to participate in the ACC Tournament. But McGuire’s last UNC team did finish No. 5 in the nation.
Graduation robbed the Tar Heels of first-team All-ACC picks Doug Moe and York Larese, plus starting center Dick Kepley. In addition, guard Yogi Poteet, the 1961 team’s sixth man, was ruled academically ineligible to play in 1961-62.
Smith was left with standout guard Larry Brown, who was entering his junior season, senior forward Jim Hudock, the No. 3 scorer in ‘61, and senior guard Don Walsh. He also inherited freshman Billy Cunningham, McGuire’s last great New York recruit. The future All-American had to play freshman ball in 1961-62 under the NCAA rules in place at the time, but he would be available to anchor Smith’s second, third and fourth teams in Chapel Hill.
That would be important because of the recruiting restrictions Smith would have to deal with in his first two years. After the point-shaving scandals of 1961, UNC system officials imposed measures to de-emphasize basketball at UNC and N.C. State, the state’s largest public universities. The most serious of these restrictions limited Smith to two out-of-state recruits per year.
On the other hand, the ACC that Smith joined was very different from the one we know today ... or the one Krzyzewski faced in 1980.
Duke’s Vic Bubas and Wake Forest’s Bones McKinney had great teams — they would combine to win five of six ACC titles from 1960-66 and would produce four Final Four teams between them — but there wasn’t much depth in the league.
N.C. State, the ACC’s dominant power in the 1950s, was decimated by the same de-emphasis that confronted Smith. Maryland, the only non-North Carolina team to have success in the league’s early years, was in decline after its 1958 title. Clemson, Virginia and South Carolina were pitiful, non-competitive programs in those days.
So while Smith faced the difficult task of building his program in the shadow of his neighbor at Duke, he didn’t have many other ACC challengers to worry about.
Krzyzewski replaced Bill Foster after Duke’s 24-9 season in 1980. Those Blue Devils struggled through an injury-plagued campaign, but they caught fire in the postseason. Duke won the ACC Tournament, then knocked off Kentucky in Lexington before falling to Purdue and Joe Barry Carroll in the NCAA South Regional final.
Graduation robbed Krzyzewski of All-American center Mike Gminski and senior point guard Bob Bender. The new coach did inherit three outstanding players: senior forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard (each starting for the fourth year) and junior guard Vince Taylor.
Unlike Smith, Krzyzewski didn’t have any internal limitations in his early years. However, he did face a much deeper, stronger ACC — during maybe the strongest period in the league’s history.
Not only did Smith win a national title at UNC in 1982, but Jim Valvano won one at N.C. State in 1983. Virginia played in the Final Four in 1981 and 1984. Both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest reached the Elite Eight during this period. And that doesn’t count Lefty Driesell’s powerhouse at Maryland, which was ranked in four of Coach K’s first five years.
Krzyzewski had a fairly productive first season (17-13 and NIT quarterfinals), but the graduations of Banks and Dennard the next year sent the Devils into a two-year spiral that was halted only in his fourth season, when his first great recruiting class — Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and company — reached their sophomore season.
Smith’s tenure started slowly, with what would prove to be the only losing season of his head coaching career. But when Cunningham joined the varsity in his second season to team with veteran guards Brown and Poteet (back from academic probation), the Tar Heel coach was able to fashion a fairly strong 15-6 team that finished third in the ACC.
Years later, Smith called his 1964 season (12-12) the worst coaching job of his career, explaining that he made the mistake of putting everything on Cunningham’s shoulders. That started a lifelong passion for balance, which paid off with good but not great seasons in 1965 and 1966.
At the end of his first five years running the UNC program, Smith looked like a 1960s version of Herb Sendek. He had earned respect for milking moderate success out of teams that didn’t have a lot of talent, beyond Cunningham. But he had never won more than 16 games in a season, and he had failed to reach the ACC Tournament final at a time when the ACC Tournament was the only path to postseason play.
Many Carolina fans were disgruntled. Smith was twice hung in effigy during the 1964-65 season.
However, Smith was laying the groundwork for his 1966-67 explosion. He beat out Bubas in a head-to-head recruiting battle for Pennsylvania prep superstar Larry Miller in the spring of 1964. The next recruiting season, Smith landed a deep, talented class that included center Rusty Clark, forward Bill Bunting and Dick Grubar, a high school center Smith turned into a point guard.
Those recruits would be the core of Smith’s first great teams.
Krzyzewski’s breakthrough recruiting effort occurred early in his tenure. He landed the Dawkins-Alarie class during his second season at Duke. They were actually in place in his third year, enduring an 11-17 season that provoked considerable fan unrest in Durham. Coach K was never hung in effigy, but athletic director Tom Butters was forced to defend his young coach to a legion of frustrated Duke boosters.
Krzyzewski’s fourth year took off some of the heat. Duke won 24 games, including an ACC Tournament victory over No. 1 UNC, to earn the Duke coach his first NCAA trip as an at-large team. (That was an option Smith didn’t have in his first five years.) That season was followed by a 23-8 campaign in Durham, and another short NCAA trip.
Coach K’s fourth and fifth seasons solidified his job status and earned him a measure of respect. He even won the 1984 ACC coach of the year award. But there was still no evidence of the greatness that would come.