John Feinstein, best-selling author and long-time writer for the Washington Post, talked to The Chronicle today about the connection between Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith. Feinstein is a former sports editor of The Chronicle and saw first-hand the beginnings of the Krzyzewski-Smith rivalry. The abbreviated conversation is below:
In his last press conference, Coach K said that the competition between Duke and North Carolina was fiercer in the early days. Do you agree with that, and do any incidents stick out in your mind?
I would agree that it was always fierce but I think that it has changed, because when Mike was first at Duke, Dean and the Carolina program were clearly on a higher level than he and the Duke program were. I think it gave [Krzyzewski] a target. And people forget that in Mike's third year at Duke, N.C. State won the national championship. So Mike had Dean on his left and Valvano on his right and that made life very uncomfortable for him, but it also drove him.... He didn't want Valvano to be ahead of him, which he was at that time, and obviously Dean was out there as the big target, because of what he had accomplished.
Then there's the famous "double-standard" game in Cameron. Even though Mike would now say that he better understands what Dean was doing, it showed people that he wasn't intimidated by Dean. It showed his players that he wasn't intimidated by Dean. Of course, Dean didn't like that and the Carolina people didn't like that, but it was probably good for Krzyzewski and for his program. And then, six weeks later, Duke beat Carolina in the ACC Tournament—ironically enough, at the Greensboro Coliseum where they're going to play tonight. That was really the watershed moment in the Duke-Carolina rivalry or the Krzyzewski-Smith rivalry, because from that point on, they were on equal footing.... It went from there to the point that, in the '90s, Dean actually told me that Mike made him better. The line he used was, "He forced me to make the extra call when recruiting." So in the end, Dean and Mike made each other better, but in the beginning there was no question that Dean made Mike better.
So it seems that he used the success of Dean Smith as fuel. But do you think there was also any sort of inferiority complex in the beginning with Dean Smith? Do you think K was jealous of the attention Dean and Valvano got?
No, and I think one of Mike's great strengths was that he didn't worry about that. I think the thing he did really well in those early years was say, "If we get better, we'll get all the attention that we want." And I think it's fair to say that he was right about that.
I've told and retold the story about Denny's.... But it really was the watershed night of his career. And one of the things he said that night was to an assistant then who brought up the fact that Tom Sheehey still hadn't signed with Virginia. [The assistant] said, "He liked us. We might be able to get back involved with him." And Mike said, "We're not doing that. If we can't win with Dawkins, Bilas, Henderson and Amaker, who is coming in the next year, then we should get fired." I think he always believed he was a good coach, and once he got good players in, he was going to be successful.
Imagine going into a place like Duke, where Bill Foster had just gone to the Final Four in 1978, and you come in and no one can pronounce your name, and you go 38-47 your first three years while your two main rivals win back-to-back national championships. Kind of a tough way to start. But it didn't get to him. He didn't like losing, but he said, "As long as I do a good job of coaching, we'll get better." And they did.
It seems like one of the underreported things about the Coach K and Dean Smith connection is the troubles that both had in the beginnings of their careers. Dean Smith was hung in effigy and K had trouble too. Do you think they both benefited from that?
No question. Dean and Mike would be the first to tell you that. People who are great at anything learn from failure. And Mike and Dean both learned from failure. They got stronger and enjoyed success more from it.
Last year, Holy Cross fired their coach, Sean Kearney, after one year. Someone asked me about it, and I said, "If Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith had been judged on their first year, they would never had been Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith!"
What about the personal relationship between Dean Smith and Mike? It seems like they were friendly in the late '90s and today, but in the '80s they didn't seem that way.
I would never describe Mike and Dean as having been friends. First of all, it's almost impossible for guys in a situation that competitive to be friends, when they're still competing against each other. When Dean retired a lot of that animosity went away for obvious reasons, but they were very successful, competitive people recruiting against each constantly and playing against each other two or three times a year. When UNC had success, Krzyzewski had to hear about it constantly and when Duke had success, Dean had to hear about it, so there was a lot of tension between the two.
They're also just very different people. I've always said Dean's a lifelong liberal Democrat and Mike is much more conservative, and Dean is from the country and Mike is from the city. They went to entirely different colleges and learned basketball from entirely different people. But what they had in common was they both had great values as people. That was where the respect came in. So I would describe them as being respectful to each other rather than friends.
Do you think Coach K has turned into Dean Smith in any way?
Many ways. I kid him about it often. There was the famous 1993 game in Chapel Hill where Mike said to his assistant coaches, "If I ever start to act like Dean, get a gun and shoot me." And every once in a while, I'll call and leave him a message saying, "We're rounding up the guns."
I'm sure he loves that.
You can imagine what the call-back sounds like. But I think he became like him in a lot of ways because he came to understand what it was like to be Dean. When he came into the league, Dean was everybody's target. At the ACC Tournament every year, someone would hold up a banner that said "ABC: Anybody but Carolina." And eventually Duke supplanted Carolina as the most hated team in the league.... When Dean was successful for so long, everyone in the league thought Dean got all the calls. Double standard. Now, everyone in the league thinks Duke gets all the calls. Double standard. So Krzyzewski like Dean has to be protective of his players and programs and deal with all the outside stuff that comes with being the No. 1 guy. Dean would tell you now that it's much tougher in the times we live in than when he was on top. There's so much more tension. I think Mike has been able to deal with it because Dean was so intensely private. If Dean had gone through his life without ever once talking about himself, he'd be happy. Mike doesn't need to talk about himself, but he's willing to do it, because he knows it's part of his job. Dean knew it was, but he chafed at it. So there's no question that Mike had to become Dean, in a way.
I think he's probably become more guarded now. One of the biggest similarities between the two, especially in press conferences, is that now he never says much, like Dean did. Didn't he have to be more open in the beginning of his career?
You're absolutely right. Krzyzewski knows that anything he says can be a story. Dean understood that too. One of the times I called him was when they played Butler eight or nine years ago. And Duke won the game and Mike said afterwards that was one of the teams they could play in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. I think Duke was 22-1 at that point, but he caught himself and said, "If we're lucky enough to make the Tournament." So I called him up the next day and said, "If we're lucky enough to make the Tournament? Thank you very much Coach Smith!" That was a classic Dean line! So yeah, I think he's become more careful and he's had to learn to say "No." Before he was Coach K in all capital letters, he never said "No" to anybody. And I think after the second national championship and after '95 after he got sick, he had to learn to do it.