John Feinstein, Trinity '77 and former sports editor of The Chronicle, has spent his entire career telling stories. He covered the ACC's golden age, in the process forging relationships with some of the most successful, powerful college basketball coaches in history. The depths of those connections put Feinstein in the unique position to author his latest book, titled "The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry." Feinstein will discuss the book Friday at 7 p.m. at The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street.
The Chronicle's Ryan Hoerger spoke with Feinstein about the book, what made each coach different and the way they coexisted during the height of basketball in the Triangle. Their conversation has been edited in places for clarity.
The Chronicle: You came down to Duke in Fall 2014 for a Melcher Award dinner and mentioned this book in passing. Can you talk about the process of writing it, and what was the impetus for getting started?
John Feinstein: I was introducing Krzyzewski at a dinner here in Washington, he was getting a coaching award, and we were sitting together at dinner. Somehow we got on the subject of Valvano, and we started talking about Dean. He had just seen Dean, it turns out for the last time, and he was talking about how sad it was to see Dean in such rough shape. As we were talking, two things occurred to me. One was that there’s never been a coagulation of coaches and men in such a small area geographically—ever—when they were coaching against each other. I was in a unique position through my relationships with all three. I’ve spent hours and hours with Valvano. I’ve spent hours and and hours with Krzyzewski. I think I spent more time with Dean [than anyone] in the media over a period of 25 to 30 years. As I was driving home that night, I thought I could do a hell of a book on these three guys, and the relationships and the rivalries and how it changed, because it did over the course of the years.
TC: Why do you think it took so long for someone to think of this idea, because they’re such prominent coaches and had been around for so long?
JF: That’s actually a great question. Bob Costas called me and that was his first comment. He said, ‘As I’m reading, I’m thinking this is such a great idea, why didn’t someone think of it earlier?’ I’m included in that group that didn’t think of it earlier, obviously, and I’m not honestly sure why it didn’t crystallize in someone’s mind. Maybe I’m the one who should take the biggest hit, because as I said, I’m the one who knew the three of them best in the media. I’ll take it a step further—there were others who knew them individually better than I did. Obviously there were people in Krzyzewski’s life far more important than me, people in Valvano’s life far more important than me, people in Dean’s life far more important than me. But I think I’m unique in that I had the kind of relationships I did with all of them. Probably it’s on me that I didn’t that I think of it sooner.
TC: By the time you figure out this idea, there’s not a lot you can do to talk to Dean or Coach Valvano. How much do rely on what you knew previously and how much do you rely on other people to tell you new information?
JF: It was both. As I mention, I am a hoarder, so I was able to dig through my notebooks and find a lot of old notebooks and tapes of interviews with the two of them. I also have a very good memory. I have vivid memories of being in Jim’s office at three o’clock in the morning and being in cars with Dean in non-interview situations. The combination of those two things in the past, and then I was really lucky in particular that both wives were willing to talk to me very openly, Pam Valvano and Linnea Smith. They were very critical to my research—and so was Mickie Krzyzewski, but obviously I had access to Mike. [I talked to] Jim’s two brothers, Nick and Bob, and I talked to a lot of ex-players and ex-assistant coaches, but the two wives were really, really helpful, because there was that gap. I hadn’t spoken to Jim obviously since [his death in] 1993, and hadn’t had a sit-down with Dean since 2009. But that was very helpful too, because it was after the dementia began and I had a sense of the direction he was going, and I could write about it first-hand.
TC: Smith, Valvano and Krzyzewski were very different people in their coaching philosophies and their styles in general. What about each of them made them or makes them successful?
JF: The common thread to me is that all three of them were so damn bright, three of the smartest people I’ve known. If Dean had pursued his major in math he probably would have been a great teacher—because he was a great teacher—or who knows what. Mike has been talked about as a natural leader of men. Valvano had so many different skills—he was one of the greatest stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s the common thread. Jay Bilas said something to me that I knew but hadn’t really thought about it in tangible terms. He said that when he was an assistant coach, he figured out why Krzyzewski was so good—that it wasn’t just a coincidence, or that he was a competitor or that he was hard-working. It was that he was the smartest guy in the room. When Jay said that to me, I realized that through the years, whenever I would call him about an issues story of some kind, inevitably he would say a few things I hadn’t thought of. And I would say ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ And the reason I didn’t think of that is because I’m not as smart as he is. To me, that’s the common thread in all three of them, and also all three of them—in completely different styles—had great people touches. Dean’s players knew how much he cared about them. He was quiet, but always there, and would prod them when they weren’t doing the things they were supposed to be doing away from basketball, constant phone calls after they graduated. They were all so good with the people in their lives, and again, it’s because they were so smart.
TC: There have been biographies about each of them individually. Are you focusing more on how they played off each other and their interplay?
JF: The focus is on when Mike and Jim came to the Research Triangle within nine days of one another, and how the basketball world changed after that, and how their relationships with one another and with Dean evolved through the years, because they changed tremendously. Jim and Mike were not close, even though people think they were, when they first came down there to coach. They became very close at the end of Jim’s life. Dean and Mike were anything but close—they were very antagonistic, and that also changed later when Mike sort of became Dean and came to have a greater appreciation of why Dean did the things that he did. Jim and Dean had a very unique relationship. [Former Georgia Tech head coach] Bobby Cremins said Jim was the only person he ever knew who could make Dean laugh. It’s more about the rivalries between the three of them and the relationships between the three of them than it is biographical.
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TC: That era is looked at as the golden age of the ACC, when you had Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson and no one-and-dones. How much of the aura from that period is the players, and how much did the star power of these three coaches contribute to it?
JF: I think the three coaches drove one another. Mike and Jim knew that if they wanted to be really good, they were going to have to compete with Dean, and Dean was at the top of the mountain when they first got there. They both knew that, but as Mike said, they didn’t understand how iconic he was when they first got there. They knew Carolina was good, but they didn’t realize what an icon Dean already was in the state, even though he hadn’t yet won his first national championship. Something Dean said to me years ago always stood out, when I asked him about Duke getting good and if that had changed things for him. He said, ‘[Krzyzewski] makes me make the extra phone call.’ In other words, recruiting had become harder, because Mike was getting guys like Grant Hill and Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, guys who might otherwise have gone to Carolina before he showed up. It made his job more challenging, and it probably made it better. Mike was always motivated to compete with Jim because Jim was really good there at the same time. They were 11 months apart in age, so they were peers. Bobby Cremins said the three of them together were the young guns, because Bobby was really good too. You have to remember the coaches in the league back then—in addition to Jim, Mike and Dean, you had Terry Holland [at Virginia], you had Lefty Driesell [at Maryland], you had Carl Tacy, who was a really underrated coach at Wake Forest. It was like a coach’s who’s-who. Cliff Ellis [at Clemson] was in the league, who’s still coaching at Coastal Carolina. It was a hell of a coach’s league, it was a hell of player’s league, and if you look back at 1986, Duke’s first Final Four team, that year Duke, Georgia Tech and Carolina were all ranked number one at different times. They spent most of the year ranked in the top three, top five at worst. Maryland finished sixth in the league that year with Len Bias on the team—that’s how strong the league was. I think Mike would tell you his best basketball team was that ’86 team. There were four seniors and a junior starting, and guys like Ferry and Billy King and Quin Snyder and Kevin Strickland coming off the bench. They won 37 games, but they’re not recognized as such because they lost that championship game to Louisville.
TC: The success of the coaches is so important, but their closeness being in the Triangle is also really key. Is this something that you think can ever be replicated?
JF: I don’t know how you could. If you’re talking about the Mount Rushmore of college coaches, I think most people would agree—you can pick your order, but it’s Wooden, Krzyzewski, Knight and Smith. So you had two of the four coaches on Mt. Rushmore coaching 10 miles apart and competing in recruiting and on the court all the time, and then 25 miles to the east you had this unique character in Valvano who not only was a great coach—he won a national championship [and] people forget he went to the Elite Eight in ’85-86. If he’d stayed focused on coaching, he might’ve been in the same category as Dean and Mike. But once he won the national championship, he lost focus, didn’t pay enough attention to recruiting and what was going on with his program and that’s ultimately what caused his downfall. I don’t think you’ll ever get a combination of three personalities, three coaches, three remarkable people in that close of a geographical area again ever.
TC: You mentioned Valvano losing focus after the national title. What kept Smith so driven and what keeps Krzyzewski so driven?
JF: I think it was just that they were basketball coaches through and through. They never wandered in terms of their focus like Jim did. When Dean won his first national title in ’82, he wanted to win again in ’83. Same thing with Krzyzewski in ’91. I remember being next to Dean when they were cutting the nets down in New Orleans and someone came over to him and said ‘Coach, everyone wants you to take the last snip of the net down.’ He’d already taken one earlier and he said ‘No no no, go get Jimmy Black to do it.’ Jimmy Black was the only senior starter. And they said ‘But Coach!’ and he said ‘No, go get Jimmy Black.’ I said ‘Well Dean, why wouldn’t you take the last snip of the net?’ He said ‘Because Jimmy will never have another chance to do this. I hope I will.’ This is 10 minutes after winning his first national championship. Mike was the same way—when they won last year, I know Mike was thinking about trying to win again this year. I don’t think he thought Amile Jefferson would get hurt, I don’t think he thought Tyus Jones was going to leave, but it’s always about Krzyzewski’s cliche, next play.
TC: Knowing each coach as well as you did, what did you learn that surprised you while you were doing this book?
JF: A lot of it was detail stuff. I had not realized what good friends Dean and Jim Valvano were. There’s a story I tell in the book that Linnea Smith told me. When Jim was dying, George Steinbrenner asked him to come throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in April of 1993. Jim was too sick to go—he died 16 days later—and he asked Dean to go in his place, because he knew Dean was a Yankees fan. Linnea told me that the only picture in their house of Dean by himself—with no kids or grandkids or friends or whatever—is him throwing out that first pitch. I hadn’t realized that they were that good of friends, and that when Jim came to the ACC, he reached out to Dean because Dean had stopped going to the annual coach’s and coach’s wives dinner at the ACC meetings, because it had gotten so unpleasant. He really didn’t get along with [former N.C. State head coach] Norm Sloan, and there was all this antagonism directed at him because he was the king of the mountain. And Jim came to him and said, ‘Look, you’re the dean of coaches, you’re the senior guy, you should come to these meetings. Pam and I will sit with you and Linnea and make sure that it’s comfortable for you.’ And Dean did, and they continued to go after that, and Linnea was always grateful to Jim because she got to know the wives. She and Dean got married in 1976, and by then Dean had basically stopped going to those dinners. I hadn’t been aware of any of that stuff. At the end of the book, there’s an anecdote about the last time Dean and Mike saw one another, and their final handshake, which is in direct contrast to the first time they played against each other in 1980. I didn’t know that story either. To me, that was the moment when I was writing the book when I got choked up.
TC: You mention the animosity that was there in the beginning. Does that exist in college basketball anymore, at least to that level?
JF: I think the answer’s probably no. Coaches are making so much money nowadays that it’s not as much a fight for survival. Mike was making $40,000 a year when he came to Duke and had no idea if he would be around at the end of the contract. Jim was making $42,000. Now, you get to coach in the ACC, most of them are in seven figures. I don’t know that you’re going to see it that much. Mike and Roy [Williams] certainly had their moments but now they get along, certainly nothing like it was with Mike and Dean—nothing.
TC: Does the money affect more things than just how coaches get along?
JF: Oh, it affects a lot of things, sure it does. Let me put it this way: If I was you, if I was at The Chronicle today rather than back 100 years ago when I was there, I would never have the chance to develop the intimate relationships with coaches at this level that I did in my early twenties. It’s a different world. When I was in school and when I was first out of school, it was routine that anywhere you went, you sat and watched practice. It never occurred to me or to any coach to say that practice is closed. Now you need a court order to get in the door. I was very lucky in that sense to come along when I did. Coaches are a lot more insulated. When I was in school, the Duke sports information office had two people working for it. Carolina was huge because it had three. It is a different world in that sense.
TC: How did you get these relationships in the first place, and how did you build them up?
JF: Most of my books and most of what I do has always been about access. The best answer I can give you to that is I’m very good at hanging around. What I mean by that is I always tried to put myself in positions with people where I wasn’t interviewing them. When I’m on the golf tour, when I go on the range to talk to somebody, I never open a notebook. I just walk out , I’ll start chatting about last night’s basketball game or ‘How’s your family?’ or something that has nothing to do with golf. I would go to games at N.C. State when Jim was the coach and a lot of times I didn’t really go to see the game—I went to hang out with Jim afterward, because unlike most coaches he wouldn’t look at tape after a game. He would go up to his office, invite a few friends, order pizza and wine and sit around telling stories, and I would hang out as if I were the only one there. Again, I never took out a notebook, we just talked. [It was the] same thing with Krzyzewski. If I wasn’t writing on deadline, when he was done talking to the media I would just walk back into the coaches locker room and sit there and let him kind of unload, because I think a lot of times people like to unload to an outsider rather than to an assistant coach or somebody. I first met Mike and Jim when they were at Army and Iona, so I knew them both—didn’t know them well, but knew them both before they got in the league. I always tried to build relationships before they’re stars. A lot of people I established relationships with never became stars, but some of them did. The wider the net you cast, the better off you are. When I was a young reporter, I’d spend hours and hours just hanging out at the coaches lobby at the Final Four. You’d take to 100 people in a few hours, and you never knew when one of those 100 guys was going to be someone you really needed to talk to for a story.