Back in 1984, when conference tournaments mattered, the ACC was the crown jewel of them all. Back when teenagers like Tommy Amaker headed to gym class at Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. to find students and teachers alike packed around a television set watching the games—the three-day, eight-team event was a March staple from Maryland to Atlanta, and everywhere in between. Back when back-to-back NCAA championships by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University turned the Research Triangle into college basketball’s Mecca, Mike Krzyzewski had yet to win a game in the fabled conference playoffs—and Duke fans were growing increasingly restless.
Before he came to Duke in 1980, Krzyzewski went 73-59 in five years at Army. He built the program from the ground up, adding a fresh coat of Cadet gray to the decaying wooden bleachers on his days off. But his team had regressed to win just nine games in 1979-80, the worst season of his young career. Making matters worse, any coach taking over the Blue Devils was in for a brutal assignment. Bill Foster had led Duke to a 73-24 record in the three years prior, even reaching the 1978 NCAA Tournament championship game. “If [Foster] leaves, Duke has nothing left,” Durham Morning Herald sports editor Art Chansky told The Washington Post in 1979. “Its whole athletic program is down the tubes. He’s the only winner they have over there.”
Much to the shock of Duke fans and local media, Athletic Director Tom Butters hired Krzyzewski after Foster’s departure. Krzyzewski beat out Bob Wenzel, then a Duke assistant, Bob Weltlich, the reigning SEC coach of the year at the University of Mississippi, and Paul Webb, head coach at Old Dominion.
“Certainly the Duke community did not expect that when they were replacing Bill Foster they would replace him with a guy whose record [was 9-17 in his final year at Army],” said Mickie Krzyzewski, who married Mike in 1969. “There was some animosity... before we ever came here, that this guy can’t succeed.”
Butters was intrigued by himself when he kept Krzyzewski around through the interview process, but the 29-year-old had one major advantage: the support of his former coach, Bob Knight, who had hired him as a graduate assistant in 1973. “Butters, you’ve always liked the way I coach,” Knight, who was then Indiana University’s head coach, reportedly said, “Mike has all my good qualities and none of my bad ones.”
But three years later, Butters struggled to hold the hordes of Krzyzewski dissenters at bay. The Blue Devils had not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since Foster’s departure. They had won just 11 games in 1982-83, including a pair of losses to the Tar Heels by a combined 45 points. Duke limped through conference play with only three wins and was blown out by Virginia in its only postseason game.
“Certainly the early years were tough. We didn’t win as much as Duke was accustomed to winning, and we were naïve in terms of those expectations,” Mickie said. “The expectations [at Duke] are that we will win every game.”
The embarrassing loss to the Cavaliers stayed with the quartet of freshmen—Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson—the talented recruiting class that earned Krzyzewski a contract extension prior to the 1983 season. In their sophomore season, joined by freshman point guard Tommy Amaker, they won 24 games—more than the previous two years combined and the most in program regular season history. But the team still lacked the firepower of the juggernaut eight miles down Tobacco Road, which had lost only two games all season. Plus, the Tar Heels had Duke’s number. Michael Jordan, who would be named Naismith Player of the Year, had singlehandedly, it seemed, beaten the Blue Devils twice by leading improbable rallies. In the teams’ first meeting, he scored six points in a late-game 90-second stretch to lead the Tar Heels to a 78-73 win. Six weeks later in Chapel Hill, it was Matt Doherty who led North Carolina back from a late deficit with an off-balance leaner at the end of regulation to force overtime. Two extra periods later the Tar Heels celebrated, Jordan most of all, after scoring a team-high 25 points.
Entering the 1984 ACC Tournament, though, Duke had amassed a 24-11 record and a national ranking but remained outside the conference elite. An opening win against a rebuilding Georgia Tech was nice, but the game that the sold-out Greensboro Coliseum crowd was waiting for was a rematch between the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels.
“It’s a big deal now, but it was a monumental deal then,” Amaker said. “It was the premier conference tournament in the country, and everything else followed that.”
Greensboro was unseasonably cold the night of the semifinal. Duke’s youthful team faced a taller, more seasoned Tar Heel squad that boasted eight future NBA players, including Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith and Sam Perkins, who were on the court that night.
The game’s first half deviated from the teams’ regular season matchups—both one-point games at the break—with Duke jumping out to a 40-32 lead. The Blue Devils’ hot start was not altogether surprising based on its season-long tendency to explode out of the gate before fading down the stretch as opponents began to take advantage of their undersized lineup. But North Carolina played the opposite, led by Jordan, who had become the best closer in the college game. And true to their reputation, the Tar Heels rallied after the break, going on a 16-5 run to take a three-point lead with 16 minutes remaining.
The undersized trio of Alarie, Bilas and Danny Meagher struggled to contain Perkins and 6-foot-11 Brad Daugherty. The three were prime examples of the recruiting shadow cast by Dean Smith and N.C State head coach Jim Valvano throughout North Carolina. Krzyzewski had gone to the Southwest for Bilas, who was recruited out of Rolling Hills, Calif., and Alarie, who hailed from Scottsdale, Ariz. A year prior, the head coach had found Meagher in Ontario, Canada.
But the Blue Devils’ biggest contributors came from the Washington, D.C. area. Dawkins, a high school All-American, was Krzyzewski’s first blue-chip recruit. A spidery 6-foot-2, he lacked physical intimidation, but had deceptive athleticism that allowed him to get to the rim and dunk with two hands. Dawkins held Duke’s career scoring record until J.J. Redick broke it in 2008—and Dawkins had just one year with the 3-point line.
Perhaps the most important addition, however, came a year later. As Krzyzewski recruited Dawkins at a McDonald’s All-American game in Virginia, the head coach was struck by a shifty junior point guard named Tommy Amaker. Amaker was initially more interested in Maryland, where his older sister went to school, but Krzyzewski’s promise of immediate playing time was too much to pass up, especially after watching the Blue Devils’ improvement during his senior year of high school.
“Playing time... is always a factor,” Amaker said.
From his first game, it was clear that Amaker was the piece the Blue Devils were missing. Krzyzewski’s squad featured a number of players that could pull the trigger— Alarie, Bilas, Dawkins and Henderson—but none that could load the gun. Despite barely reaching 6 feet and weighing just 155 pounds, Amaker could draw double teams through the lane, leaving Dawkins and Henderson free to shoot.
On the court, Amaker met an old high school opponent, Smith. The former was a defensive specialist, the latter would go on to be the sixth pick in the 1987 NBA Draft.
“I thought I was quick but not necessarily that fast,” Amaker said, “and he was fast and quick. He was a tremendous player.”
In the ACC semifinal Smith could hardly touch the ball before Amaker arrived to hound him into giving it away, and he was held to just six points and three turnovers. Despite Amaker’s stifling perimeter defense, though, North Carolina’s run to start the second half kept the two teams knotted tightly through much of the second half. The turning point for the Blue Devils finally came about a minute later, when Jordan tried to post up David Henderson, Duke’s sixth man. The pass inside came in high enough for Henderson to reach, and the sophomore leaned over Jordan’s shoulder to poke the ball away, bumping him in the process. As the ball bounced back toward the perimeter, Henderson recoiled and grimaced, raising his arms over his head as if accepting an impending foul call, but none came. Smith was apoplectic on the sideline, berating all three officials as Duke took the ball down the court.
Dawkins cut through the lane as an Alarie jumper arced toward the hoop. His eyes never wavered from the ball, which bounced high off the rim away from him along the baseline. The sophomore leapt high in the air past Perkins, spinning as he extended upwards, and turned the ball back at the hoop. He landed as his tip fluttered down off the backboard and through the netting, giving Duke a 69-67 advantage. On the Blue Devils’ next possession, a defensive miscommunication left Dawkins wide open on the wing for a 17-footer. The score was 71-67, with under three minutes to go.
In the next 70 seconds, Doherty and Dawkins traded jumpers before Perkins’ baseline jumper rimmed out, leaving Duke with the ball in a spread offense with time ticking down. The Blue Devils passed the ball around the half-court for just short of a full minute, employing an ironic twist on Smith’s world-famous Four Corners stall offense. Finally, the Tar Heels broke down and fouled Alarie. Both teams alternated free throws for three possessions before Doherty cut the Duke lead back to two yet again with a pull-up 8-footer in the key. When North Carolina finally got the ball back after another dose of the stall offense, it was down four points. Tar Heel guard Joe Wolf hoisted up an errant jumper, but Jordan was there for a tip-in with five seconds left.
Henderson was fouled immediately on the inbounds pass, sending him to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. Meagher stood just down the lane as Henderson walked to the line. Meagher had missed the potential game-winning free throw in the waning moments of the teams’ meeting in Chapel Hill just the week before, giving North Carolina the opportunity it needed to rally. Meagher’s stomach dropped as Henderson’s shot clanked harmlessly off the rim and into the hands of a Tar Heel big man, while Smith neared an embolism screaming for a timeout.
“I was thinking deja vu,” Meagher admitted in a post-game press conference. “I remembered my miss last week and I thought, ‘Is the ball going to take another Carolina roll today?’”
In the huddle, Smith drew up a play for a last-second shot, deciding to use Jordan as a decoy. Doherty would pass the ball in, guarded by Meagher. When the referee’s whistle blew, Jordan found himself trapped in a double team, as Smith had anticipated. The Duke bench, positioned directly behind Doherty, counted down the five seconds loudly as the senior struggled to find an open teammate. The seconds ticked as the Blue Devils covered the Tar Heels downcourt, and Doherty finally tried to force a pass into traffic, overthrowing his teammate and sending the ball out of bounds into the North Carolina bench.
The Blue Devils inbounded the ball from the baseline to Dawkins, who was immediately fouled. Both squads traversed the length of the Greensboro Coliseum floor so the sophomore could shoot a one-and-one. With a make, Duke would have a three-point lead with two seconds to play, assuring that North Carolina could do no better than overtime on a last-ditch shot. He bricked his first effort, though, and the ball fell directly to Perkins, who heaved a full-court shot at the hoop.
As the ball arced the length of the court, Krzyzewski’s career hung in the balance. Butters said in a recent interview with former Chronicle sport’s editor Ben Cohen that he came close to firing Krzyzewski in the coach’s early years and another loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament might have pushed him over the edge. But Perkins’ shot smacked harmlessly off the top of the backboard, falling to the floor along with a pile of Blue Devils in celebration of the 77-75 win.
The Blue Devils lost the next day in the ACC Tournament final to Maryland. Although Duke had a 30-27 halftime lead, the Terrapins took advantage of an emotionally spent Duke lineup in the final 20 minutes, scoring 47 points en route to a 74-62 win. Two seasons later, Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to the national championship game, putting the memory of his early years behind him.
“It’s evolved from people being against us, to people appreciating that we were winning, to people believing that maybe this is a pretty good thing after all, to people then being devoted to what’s going on at Duke and the direction that Mike was leading them,” Mickie said.