The record-breaking Duke basketball coach inspires a remarkable amount of resentment
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) try to understand why there's so much resentment toward Duke's head basketball coach.
Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils defeated Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, 74-69. With the win, Coach K surpassed his mentor Bobby Knight as the most successful coach in men's college basketball history with 903 career wins. (You'll probably hear a lot this week that he's the most winningest coach "in college basketball history"; that's flat-out wrong. Pat Summitt has won 1,071 basketball games as head coach of Tennessee's women's team.) And despite the obvious esteem that comes with such a record, no one—perhaps least of all, yours truly—wants to see this man succeed.
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It's hard, in any sport, to consider an opposing or rival coach "likable." It's against our nature. There are exceptions, of course; we just don't like to make them. But Coach K is a special case. Coach K, it often seems, is considered a special kind of evil in the sporting world. I've always understood my personal distaste for the man to go hand in hand with the fact that I'm a Tar Heel fan. But for hundreds of Duke haters across the country—or even the world? OK, maybe I'm exaggerating—there's a more deep-seated disdain at play here. No one outside of Durham and, more precisely, Krzyzewskiville, is likely to celebrate Coach K's milestone (and in that generalization, I'm intentionally ignoring the circle of unassociated Duke fans I grew up with in Vermont because they are unmentionable).
I've always thought that the general public's dislike of Krzyzewski, and of the school and basketball program he works for, has to do with a very particular elitism that's been rubbed in our faces over the years (sample prose: scholar-athletes at a private university). Still, that explanation ignores that teams like Kentucky, Kansas, and even, I'll admit, UNC, have achieved similar success without earning the same wrath. So what's the real problem with Coach K and his basketball program? Jake, do you have any insight into our (or my) dislike for everything Blue Devil?
I wish I knew, Emma. Maybe then I'd know a little bit more about myself.
See, I don't like Coach K, either. Never have. I hated his smarmy, dirty-playing Duke teams from the early '90s (to this day I don't understand how Christian Laettner didn't get thrown out of the famous Duke-Kentucky game after he SMASHED HIS FOOT ON A PROSTRATE OPPONENT'S CHEST). I openly despised one Blue Devil after another over the years, including Cherokee Parks, J.J. Redick, and of course Laettner, the canker sore of the 1992 Dream Team. As for Coach K himself, I found one reason after another to hate him, from his trademark smirk to his obtuse American Express commercials to his obnoxiously un-spellable name.
But objectively, what's not to like about the guy? He's presided over the most successful program in men's college basketball history this side of John Wooden's UCLA teams. He held out longer than any active coach against the tsunami of underclassmen leaving early for the NBA (I still remember being shocked that Luol Deng would dare to leave Duke after his freshman year), and even now most of his stars stay all four years. And from a distance he seems like a personable guy who's a good ambassador for the Duke community and so far had coached for 31 years without a major scandal.
So why do I, Emma, and so many others dislike Coach K in spite of his seemingly spotless resume? Could be the aura he and the Dukies emit, a country-club, we're-better-than-you vibe that isn't helped by the fact that unlike the other big-time hoops programs, the players are predominantly white? Coach K's attitude is even worse than that—with every smirk it looks like he's saying, "We're better than you, we know it, and you know it, but we're going to be magnanimous about it." Or if implied condescension isn't the answer, it could be that no one likes rooting for the CEO of March Madness's U.S. Steel, or even that Coach K looks like the middle-management twerp in your office that everyone hates.
But that's all conjecture. All I know is I dislike him—I don't really get why. Any insights, Hampton?
Is this a trick question? Do you ask Luke why he hates the Empire? Do you ask David what bugs him about Goliath?
You've already mentioned the main reasons people hate Duke. First, of course, is jealousy. If the team weren't so frustratingly good year after year, no one would care enough to hate the coach. There's also the weird racial tensions around the team you mentioned, Jake. And it's not just over the preponderance of white players, but also over what sort of African-American players the school does recruit—a tension most controversially expressed by Jalen Rose.
Or how about a student body so snobby that Elton Brand complained about being excluded from campus life and its "posh group of yuppies"? Cameron Indoor even has brass rails, for goodness sake. However loud the fans may be, the place still looks like the inside of a fern bar. Even the school's name is elitist, with its implications of inherited privilege. But what else can you can expect from college hoops arrivistes?
Emma, you mentioned Kansas, Kentucky, and UNC. All those programs trace their roots straight back to Dr. Naismith, who begat Phog Allen and Adolph Rupp, who begat Dean Smith, who begat Roy Williams and Larry Brown, who hired Bill Self, and so on. Not Duke. Those roots go back just one generation—to Bobby Knight and he's such a jerk that he wore a green sweater to the Blue Devils' record-setting game. The one against Michigan State.
How about this: the most iconic image in the program's history isn't Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky, but Thomas Hill crying after it. And what about Bobby Hurley, who cried every time he was called for a foul. Have we mentioned Gerald Henderson's cheap shot on Tyler Hansbrough?
Sure, Krzyzewski seems to recruit clean, but he coaches dirty, then presents himself as near-saintly—as exemplified by the preening voice-over in his infamous 2005 ad for American Express. In that nasal tone, always cascading down in condescension, Coach K informs us that he's not like all the others.
"I don't look at myself as a basketball coach." he says, "I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball." He then goes on to extol his own virtues at preparing young men for life—with the crystal-clear implication being that other coaches don't. It's just galling.
What say you, Hruby? Are you a Blue Devil-basher like the rest of us?
I'd like to play the contrarian here. It's what I do best. Problem is, it would defay both history and reason—not to mention a two-second Google search—for me to deny the truth: I'm a longtime, accomplished Duke refusenik. Emphasis on the "k."
Indeed, when his K-ness was rumored to be interested in coaching the Los Angeles Lakers—at their insufferable mid-2000s apex—I all but begged the sports Gods to make it happen, the better to consolidate my sports-fan loathing:
Deliver Mike Krzyzewski unto the Los Angeles Lakers.
Please. Por favor. Sil vou plait. I'm begging you. Send America's K-lassiest coach to America's most dysfunctional sports franchise. Bring group hugs and babbling claptrap about all the special, special kids to a group of men so jaded, you'd expect to find them in a Burmese mine. Pair the NBA's biggest egotist, Kobe Bryant, with the college game's high priest of sideline sanctimony.
Trust me: the first time Bryant drops a dismissive, contemptuous f-bomb on Krzyzewski during a time out, the resulting Coach K nostril flare—is that special, special spittle on the corner of his mouth?—will be well worth your efforts.
When Krzyzewski later signed on to coach the U.S. men's national basketball team, it was enough for me to consider Alec Baldwin-style expatriation:
Don't get me wrong: I love the United States. I'm proud to be an American, despite our status as the world's leading exporter of Michael Bay movies. I'm not exactly standing on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, teeth chattering, fluttering application for political asylum in hand.
But now that Krzyzewski has been tabbed to lead the U.S. national team, well, let's just say that northern Saskatchewan is starting to look a little more inviting
When Duke failed to reach the Final Four between 2004 and 2009, I actually was a bit sad, because hatin' on the Evil Empire wasn't nearly as fun:
I miss the Blue Devils' long line of get-under-your-skin floor villains: chest-stomping Christian Laettner, so-smart-his-brain-is-on-the-outside-of-his-skull Shane Battier, poetry-penning J.J. Redick. I miss Duke justifying Dick Vitale's breathless exhortations with an overwhelming armada of All-America talent. I miss Coach K bullying ACC refs, and not being the patriotic guy who helped us reclaim Olympic gold. I miss Cameron Indoor's finest being basically as good as North Carolina; I miss seeing Virginia Commonwealth's NCAA tournament upset of Duke as proof that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice.
In short, I miss the bad guys.
And when Arizona throttled Duke in last year's NCAA tournament, I was less happy to see my beloved hometown Wildcats win than to see the Blue Devils' season dissolve into salty tears. (I still have this dunk cued up on my DVR, and watch it any time I feel a bit down.)
As for why I detest Duke, and why so many other people feel likewise? The rest of you pretty much covered the list. With the probable exception of Steve Wojciechowski once winning national defensive player of the year for—as far I could tell—leading the country in floor slaps. Excuse me. Scrappy floor slaps.
People have written entire books about Blue Devils hate—but yeah, I'm the crazy one for using a dunked-on Dukie clip as an antidepressant—and the only semi-original thing I can add is that I dislike Duke Basketball because Duke Basketball is never peddled as just basketball. It's always a morality play, a lesson in doing things the "right way," a metaphor for winning-the-games-of-business-and-life (and hawking theaccompanying airplane ride/Father's Day book while giving b-school leadership seminars). It's mixing the serious notion of real-world ethics and how to, you know, live and be good with the decidedly unserious, make-believe world of tall men throwing an orange ball through a red hoop, all while another man in a suit yells and fumes and struts. It's the Great Big Shining Lie of college sports, and high school sports too, the Grand Experiment espoused by ... Joe Paterno and Penn State. Sports build character? No more than Drivers' Ed. Life builds character. Playing basketball makes you better at dribbling. There is a difference, and the maddening aspect of all things Duke is pretending otherwise.