Feinstein: With Krzyzewski, Scoreboard Doesn't Lie

There's a reason Mike Krzyzewski gets a lot of five-star recruits: He's Mike Krzyzewski.

John Feinstein
December 11, 2018 - 11:01 am

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I awoke Friday morning to find an avalanche of tweets awaiting me. I was surprised—I don’t tweet that often—and have learned to limit the subject matters to fairly benign topics because anytime I tweet something the least bit controversial—regardless of subject—the number of troll responses I have to block wears me out.

A lot of the tweets were in response to the column I’d written the day before on why I love the Army-Navy game so much and they were, almost without exception, heartwarming to read.

But then I saw the tweet that had set off the avalanche. It was from Dick Vitale and it was in response to the announcement the day before that a five-star recruit, a center from Florida, had announced he was going to do his one-year drive-through as a college basketball player at Duke.

For the record, I like Dick Vitale very much. I think he’s a genuinely nice man, whose enthusiasm is quite real. I often disagree with him, but I know—KNOW—what he says and tweets is never malicious.

In fact, just the opposite. Dick loves EVERYBODY. He is an unabashed defender of all coaches—having never completely gotten over the invective directed at him from Kentucky fans when he suggested almost 30 years ago that Eddie Sutton should resign in the wake of the Emery Air Express envelope controversy.

I was a supporter of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame because I believe he has played a considerable role in the growth of college basketball’s popularity.

And so, there was Dick, tweeting about Duke getting a commitment from this kid—I can’t even tell you his name right now because I stopped paying attention to recruiting years ago. When players show up to play college ball, I watch and form judgments about them. Being honest, in this one-and-done era, I rarely get fired up about any of the one-and-dones because once they’re in the NBA, I’m not going to be paying much attention to them.

The hype that they receive during their brief stopovers in college makes me a little bit nauseous. Much of that is the fault of the hype-machine that is ESPN. Remember a few years ago when it promoted, "Green Room Saturday," highlighting games involving one-and-dones who would be in the Green Room on draft night that June?

To his ever-lasting credit, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams called ESPN out on that, saying the network should let college players be college players until they weren’t. He was right—of course—but very few people were listening.

ESPN isn’t alone by any stretch.

Remember five years ago when Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins—of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, respectively—were the heart and soul of the greatest freshmen class in college basketball history?

My old friend and former colleague Michael Wilbon gushed the night that the three played in the same building (!!) during that annual hypefest involving those three schools and Michigan State, that it had been, “the greatest night in the history of regular season college basketball.”

I’d sort of lean to Houston’s upset of UCLA in 1968 or Notre Dame ending the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak in 1973 (among others), but hey, that’s just me. Parker went on to lead Duke to a first-round NCAA Tournament loss; Wiggins got Kansas to the second round and Randle’s Kentucky team DID almost miraculously win the championship game as an eighth-seed.

So, when I hear that Mike Krzyzewski has another class of great one-and-dones or that John Calipari has four "fabulous diaper dandies"—to quote Vitale—or that Bill Self has done it again (!!) I kind of roll my eyes and move on to a subject that interests me more.

My love for college basketball has been greatly sullied by the one-and-done, although I must say it has been gratifying the last three years to see teams NOT built around one-and-dones (Villanova, North Carolina, Villanova) win national championships. Even Duke’s 2015 team that had three one-and-done starters wouldn’t have won without seniors Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee.

Which is why, when my brother, who is also a Duke graduate, mentioned to me last Thursday night that Duke had gotten a commitment from the Florida kid, my only comment was, “You feeling better now?”

He had complained to me earlier in the fall that Duke hadn’t signed anyone. He DOES follow recruiting. My response was, “Yeah, I suspect they won’t field a team next year.”

And then I awoke to Vitale’s gushing tweet—which I kind of laughed off as Dick being Dick. If the kid had signed with North Carolina or Kansas or Kentucky, he would have gushed about what a great job Williams or Self or John Calipari were doing.

Like I said, Dick being Dick.

But then came the response tweets. They were all pretty much the same: Duke had to have bought the kid; Krzyzewski isn’t much of a coach because for all the great players he’s recruited he hasn’t won very much. (Seriously, there were a bunch of those). There were also those who quoted from the testimony of disgraced sneaker salesman Merl Code in which he says his company offered to help Self land Zion Williamson. Since Williamson went to Duke, this is absolute proof that he was paid to go there.

Most college sports fans are the same: they believe their school is pure as the driven snow and everyone else cheats.

In the case of Duke though, there is an extra layer of anger and resentment—and glee when the team fails on any level. The day after Duke lost to Gonzaga three weeks ago, I saw an internet headline that said, “Gonzaga beats Duke and the twitter-verse loves it.”

A lot of this no doubt has to do with the fact that Krzyzewski HAS had extraordinary success. He’s won five national championships: only John Wooden, the greatest college coach in history, has won more and he won his ten titles at a time when the NCAA Tournament was much smaller (25 teams for nine of his titles; 32 for the tenth) and more regional—his UCLA team always played in the West Regional.

I say that not to put down what Wooden accomplished because winning ten times in 11 tries in a one-and-done event (UCLA didn’t make the tournament in 1966 because freshmen—as in Lew Alcindor, weren’t eligible) is extraordinary.

But at a time when college basketball is deeper than it's ever been and teams have to win six games to win a national title, Krzyzewski has won five times and been to 12 Final Fours. There are all sorts of other numbers that make the notion that he’s not a great coach laughable: 14 ACC Tournament titles; 12 ACC regular-season championships and the most wins ever by a college coach—by a wide margin right now.

Oh, and the three Olympic gold medals. Of course he had great players on those teams so, heck, anyone could have won. Except for this: he was brought in to take over the national team after the U.S. finished third in Athens in 2004 and had been humiliated in the World Championships a couple of years earlier when it finished sixth. Yes, SIXTH.

There is also the widely held theory that Duke has won all these games because it, "gets all the calls." If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that (especially living in an area where I’m surrounded by Maryland fans), I wouldn’t be writing this column right now. I’d be retired and living on my own tropical island.

Do better teams sometimes get the benefit of the whistle? Yes. Do home teams? Yes. Years ago, everyone in the ACC—including Krzyzewski—was convinced that Dean Smith and North Carolina got all the calls. Why? Because Carolina WON all the time.

It was only after Krzyzewski succeeded Smith as the target for the notion of getting all the calls that he understood how wrong he had been in his early years at Duke.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting for my team,” he said. “I needed a reason why we were losing to them. I didn’t want to admit it was because Dean was a better coach or he had better players. It was both.”

Now, it is Krzyzewski who hears that he gets all the calls and it is Krzyzewski who people just KNOW is buying players. If all these great players are going to Duke, it must be because Duke is cheating, right?

Wrong. They’re going to Duke because, knowing they’re only going to college for one year, they want to play for one of the best college coaches of all time. It’s no different than one-and-dones going to Kentucky because John Calipari has repeatedly proven he will make certain they are NBA-ready after one year.

Am I biased where Krzyzewski is concerned? Of course I am: I’ve known him since he coached at Army—I’m so old I saw him PLAY at Army when I was a kid—and I know what kind of a man he is and a lot of the things he quietly does for people that aren’t publicized—myself included; things that have nothing to do with him being a coach or, in my case, me being a reporter.

But I’m also biased where a lot of other coaches are concerned. I’ve been fortunate to know most of the game’s most famous coaches—and a lot who aren’t so famous—while doing this for 40 years.

I get as discouraged as anyone who loves college hoops about the involvement of sneaker companies in recruiting; about the one-and-done rule (a pox); about sleazy AAU coaches and street agents running amok. There’s plenty to dislike in the sport I love so much.

But the notion that a coach like Krzyzewski is only getting players because he’s paying them or that he wins only because of the refs or that he’s not a good coach is absolutely laughable.

I know there are people who believe all of that, mostly because they want to believe it. I get that. I’d like to believe Bob Woodward’s books out-sell mine by millions because he gets more publicity than I do.

He DOES get more publicity than I do. You know why? Because he’s Bob Woodward and he’s better than I am. The same is true of Krzyzewski.

He’s just better than the other guys. As the old saying goes, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.
John Feinstein’s new book is, “Quarterback,--Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,”—described by ‘Booklist,’ as, “Another must read from a master of long form sports journalism.” His latest work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters and the pressures he faces on and off the golf course. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com.