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Brodhead and basketball

From a K-Ville rally to dealing with the one-and-done era

Brodhead and basketball

As Duke President Richard Brodhead navigates his final semester, The Chronicle will be examining his impact on athletics with a series of articles, starting with one about Brodhead’s relationship with Blue Devil men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the men’s basketball program in the one-and-done era. Check back in the coming days for stories about Brodhead’s impact on Duke’s football program and much more.

From Richard Brodhead’s first day in office June 28, 2004, his presidency was tied to head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

The three-time national champion at the time was seriously pondering a five-year, $40 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers to jump to the NBA. As a result, Brodhead took it upon himself to convince Duke’s most recognizable icon to remain in Durham, joining students in Krzyzewskiville for a rally and chanting through a megaphone for Krzyzewski to stay.

“I can remember considering the Laker position. All of a sudden, I see my new president out in Krzyzewskiville with a megaphone and doing some crazy things,” Krzyzewski said. “It was neat, but then I didn’t want him to be in that position. I wanted to let him know first of all that I wasn’t going to go to the Lakers, but secondly, that I work for him.”

Eventually, Krzyzewski turned down the high-profile NBA offer and became the winningest men’s basketball coach in Division I history, adding two more national titles during the first 11 years of Brodhead’s tenure.

Some of Brodhead’s most notable moments have related to athletics, including the infamous lacrosse case, ending Duke’s old tailgate and hiring head coach David Cutcliffe to rejuvenate a lifeless football program. And since his first day, he has been there as Krzyzewski has taken one of the nation’s most prominent athletic programs to new heights.

“Everybody knows that Coach K was offered the Lakers job on my first day in office. The consequence of that is I had long talks with him almost before I talked to anyone else at the University,” Brodhead said. “The choice for him was was he or was he not fundamentally an educator? A coach in the NBA isn’t an educator. A coach in college is. That actually began a good understanding. I consider Mike a friend. We have good talks. I have a world of respect for him.”

‘Something I really learned at Duke’

After 32 years as a professor and dean at Yale, where he also received his undergraduate degree and Ph.D., Brodhead’s decision to transition to Duke raised concerns to leaders in Blue Devil athletics.

Would a leading scholar in American literature understand how sports, particularly men’s basketball, fit into Duke’s culture?

“I think people were worried about him, that he had spent his whole life at Yale, that he would try to make Duke Yale,” Krzyzewski said. “What he’s done instead—I think the greatest thing he’s done was keep Duke unique. He has helped Duke become even more unique and develop its own personality during a period of immense growth and also a period when we had a very difficult situation here [with lacrosse]. I applaud him for that. It was one of the great leadership things that I’ve seen to adapt to this environment, and not just adapt, but to flourish in it.”

John Burness, former senior vice president for government affairs and public relations, noted that such concerns are not unique.

“I think when [former president Nan] Keohane came, it was, ‘Oh, a woman from Wellesley,’ there was some of that then,” Burness said. “It is not uncommon whenever a new president comes to Duke, at least over the past 25 to 30 years as Duke has risen so rapidly in the ranks to be one of the great academic institutions.”

Burness added that Keohane used to refer to the University's motto as "Eruditio et Basketballio" rather than "Eruditio et Religio". 

Despite the concerns, Brodhead had actually been a Duke fan since he started watching the NCAA tournament with interest in the early 1990s.

As Grant Hill and company won the program's first two national championships in 1991 and 1992, Brodhead’s interest in college basketball grew. With athletics in his purview as dean for 11 years at Yale and Hill’s parents Calvin—who was a standout Yale and NFL football player—and Janet as good friends, Brodhead said he actually thought he had pretty good understanding of men’s basketball fanaticism when he arrived at Duke.

Still, there were bound to be new experiences as the face of a university that had been to 14 Final Fours before he arrived.

One of those came when the Blue Devils made their first Final Four during Brodhead’s tenure in 2010, eventually cutting down the nets for their fourth national championship.

“I had never been to Indianapolis. I had been to a Final Four unhappily when we were eliminated by [Connecticut] the spring I was coming in as president [in 2004],” Brodhead said. “When you go to the Final Four, if you’re lucky, there’s one game, then there’s a second game. But there’s a very long interval between them. What are you supposed to do with yourself? We ransacked guide books to fill our time. I went to Butler. I called on the president of Butler that year, that was kind of fun."

"So we went, we beat West Virginia, I would say we thrashed them, but that doesn’t prove anything. And then you’re going to play this upstart team [in Butler]. It was just incredible. I spent that entire evening in a state of transport, elation, amazing. When you win these games, I’ve never found it possible to go to bed before about 5 [o'clock] in the morning after those games. You’re just too excited about it.”

Although he previously understood the role athletics can play in educating students at a university, Brodhead’s appreciation for the joy that comes with winning has grown since his arrival in Durham.

“I’m a scholar. I’m a man of intellect. I’m an educator. I’m never for a moment going to lose sight of the main thing at universities,” Brodhead said. “Nevertheless, the pleasure that can be taken through athletic events is something I really learned at Duke. Not only there, but if I can remember being in Indianapolis in 2010. What were the chances? Being in Indianapolis in 2015 [for the team’s fifth national championship]—it’s just a form of ecstasy when you win these things.”

'Not my favorite feature'

Brodhead said the 2009-10 national championship team was one of his favorites because he got to watch four-year players grow—the main reason he prefers college sports to watching professional contests.

But the past several years have seen that philosophy tested as the numbers of one-and-done prospects and transfers have increased steadily.

“I can remember the first time I saw [2010 national champions] Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer play,” Brodhead said. “They were very young. They got way better over the course of their careers, and then they won the national championship. And now I still have them around [as assistant coaches]. Now they can be my pals. I go places and we can all hang out and talk about things.”

Since 2011, Duke has had seven players leave school early for the NBA Draft starting with Kyrie Irving. The Blue Devils brought in several potential one-and-done prospects in the Class of 2016 and have already received commitments from multiple high school seniors who are almost certainly eyeing the 2018 NBA Draft. 

Duke and Kentucky have set themselves apart at the top of men’s basketball recruiting, but Duke’s academic reputation is seemingly at odds with bringing in a high number of one-and-done talents.

“It’s not my favorite feature, and if I were a coach, it would be my least favorite feature,” Brodhead said. “In the days when you got to nurture people’s growth over four years, you had experience on your team. We have some experience on our team now, but it used to be you had a few newbies and a lot of experienced people. Now the balance has shifted."

"I still would say the fact that our players have left for the pros have finished the year of study before they did so is immensely meaningful to me. The fact that Kyrie came back and did some more course work, you don’t hear about that at schools I will not name. You don’t.”

After leaving Duke following his 2010-11 freshman season, Irving pledged to finish his degree in five years. 

But since becoming one of the NBA’s brightest stars, he has changed course, though to Brodhead’s point Irving and several former Blue Devils have continued working toward their degrees. 

“In this era of one-and-done, I’ve had really good talks with President Brodhead. One is that I want to make sure that people know that we’re still recruiting the same Duke kid that we’ve recruited 40 years ago,” Krzyzewski said. “They have to be talented on the court, talented off the court and be good guys. It’s just that some of them are going early. The thing that Dr. Brodhead always talks about is that they finish up." 

"In other words, if a kid is going one-and-done, a lot of kids don’t even finish up their schooling that semester. All of our guys have done that, they’ve done it well and a lot of them have continued their education, so I know we’re in step with what our leadership wants.”

Flexibility with admissions dates

Two primary consequences of players leaving early for the NBA Draft and frequent transfers between schools are that programs woo prized talents extremely early in the recruiting process and high school seniors often wait until late April or May to announce their college decisions.

Last year, Duke recruited the top high school freshman in the country, R.J. Barrett, and after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship, ESPN reported that 11-year old LeBron James Jr. already had standing scholarship offers from the Blue Devils and Kentucky. 

Even though many players have the chance to make a college decision very early in the recruiting process, it is increasingly common for top talents to wait to see how unexpected departures might affect their preferred teams. In 2015, Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram waited until late April to commit to Duke, and Marques Bolden did not announce his decision until late May.  

Such circumstances with varying offer and decision dates are not unique to men’s basketball, and the result is that the University has to be more flexible when evaluating prospective student-athletes.

“We’re always in concert with what the University wants academically. During the ever-changing landscape of men’s college basketball that takes place over these almost four decades, you have to make sure you’re always on the same page with regards to summer school, recruiting, when you could offer,” Krzyzewski said. “One of the great people on our campus is Christoph Guttentag, our [dean of undergraduate] admissions. You can’t get everything in at the time when you have to make decisions, at least initial decisions on youngsters, and they’ve worked with us and we’ve worked with them.”

Since ultimate admissions decisions rest with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, admissions officers typically evaluate players when programs have a strong interest in the student-athlete and also feel that the recruits are considering Duke solidly as a potential destination, Guttentag explained in an email. 

He said he could not speak about any particular applicants, but noted that flexibility and early communication mean that the evaluation process for recruited athletes has not changed much in the past several years. Peter Lange, provost from 1999 to 2014, echoed that point, explaining that the system was consistent during his time as Duke’s chief academic officer. 

“There are many athletes that coaches exclude from their recruitment lists because of our admissions requirements,” Guttentag wrote. “The coaches tend to have a very good sense of who is and isn’t admissible, but the ultimate decisions rest in the admissions office.”

‘The biggest honor’

For Brodhead’s second-to-last graduation ceremony in May 2016, he asked Krzyzewski to be the commencement speaker—a decision that was made a year before Krzyzewski actually spoke at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“The biggest honor—I’ve been fortunate to get the University medal, to win national championships—one of the biggest private moments was at his home, where we were at a function a year in advance, actually the graduation before,” Krzyzewski said. 

“And he said, ‘I want you to do me a favor.’ I said, ‘Certainly, anything.’ He said, ‘I would love for you to be our graduation speaker next year.’ I said, ‘That’s a favor? That’s an honor. I would love to do that.’" 

"It meant the world to me. It turned out well. I love this University and the fact that he gave me that opportunity.”

As Brodhead and Krzyzewski have navigated the past 12 years as two of Duke’s most recognizable figures, their friendship has grown. Krzyzewski said he and his wife Mickie consider Brodhead and his wife Cynthia very close friends, adding that “we are definitely in debt to the Brodheads for the commitment they’ve made to Duke.”  

And as Brodhead prepares to hand the reigns to University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price, he leaves with a keen appreciation for his front-row seat to Krzyzewski’s record-setting program.

“A coach is in the human-potential unleashing business, you only bring people who are very, very good. But Mike Krzyzewski never told a single player you’re good enough already,” Brodhead said. “It’s helping people understand what they could do to become even better as an individual and as a member of a team. For me, if that’s not education, I don’t know what is.”