Duke men's basketball connections run deep as UCF's Johnny Dawkins readies to face alma mater

<p>Central Florida head coach and former Duke star Johnny Dawkins will face his alma mater for just the second time since departing Durham in 2008.</p>

Central Florida head coach and former Duke star Johnny Dawkins will face his alma mater for just the second time since departing Durham in 2008.

COLUMBIA, S.C.—More than three decades ago, well before the era of hoop mixtapes and absurd college commitment declarations, Johnny Dawkins was the centerpiece of Duke's recruiting class.

While there wasn't all the hoopla that surrounds the Blue Devils' current crop of freshmen, the group that Mike Krzyzewski brought to Durham in 1982—featuring Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson—was just as, if not more, impactful. Not only did it propel Duke to more than 30 years of success, but it also helped give Krzyzewski a trusted lieutenant for 10 seasons when Dawkins returned to the Blue Devil bench as an assistant.

Yet, the two have faced off just once since Dawkins left Duke in 2008 to take the head coaching job at Stanford, a matchup in the 2014 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Sunday evening, once again not by their own desires, Dawkins and Krzyzewski will line up on opposite sidelines as the Blue Devils battle Central Florida in an NCAA tournament second-round contest.

"Why would you want to?" Krzyzewski said when asked about not scheduling regular-season matchups against former assistants. "They're family. If I don't have to play against [Dawkins], I'm not going to do it. But this presents an opportunity for both of us in a great setting."

Even with the bond they share, it's not an occurrence Dawkins would prefer, either.

"We all felt fortunate to play for Coach and work for Coach in my case," Dawkins said. "For my son, growing up in Durham, that was special. He was always around the team, always in the gym working out afterwards, so I'm sure it's a unique feeling for him as well.

"It's awkward, too, because it's someone that you've worked for, you're very close with. Like I said before, no one looks forward to that type of situation."

Dawkins, unlike his mentor, has not won with the same sort of ease. The former 10th overall selection in the 1986 NBA Draft went just 66-78 in Pac-12 play over eight seasons with the Cardinal, making only one NCAA tournament appearance before he was let go in March 2016.

Eight days later, though, Dawkins found a new home on the opposite coast, moving to Orlando to take the Knights' job.

That ultimately brought Dawkins' son, Aubrey, to UCF after he struggled to find a footing in his first two seasons at Michigan.

"Now being a young man in this game and having the ability—or having the chance to be around [my dad] at this stage in my life and my career in basketball has just been priceless," Aubrey said.  "That's what I love most, just going every day next to him and learning from him and us getting closer as a father and son and also as a player and coach."

Aubrey Dawkins is the Knights' second-leading scorer at 15.1 points per game and shoots nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc to anchor Central Florida's perimeter attack.

Together, Johnny and Aubrey Dawkins, along with a talented group that includes 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, have revived the Knights. Aubrey, a second-team All-American Athletic Conference honoree, scored 14 points and pulled down seven boards in UCF's first-ever NCAA tournament win Friday night.

For Aubrey, now he'll have a chance to battle the team he spent so much time with as a young kid, learning from guards like Chris Duhon and Dahntay Jones.

"It's more cool than anything else," Dawkins said when asked if there would be any awkwardness. "This is the kind of thing you always imagined and dreamed of, but the odds of it happening aren't great."

The connections to Duke run even deeper than just the two members of the Dawkins family. Vince Taylor—who played for the Blue Devils under Krzyzewski and graduated in 1982—is one of the Knights' assistant coaches, and UCF Director of Athletics Danny White is the son of Duke AD Kevin White.

Still, it all comes back to the head coach, who Krzyzewski Saturday afternoon called his "first great player."

"His senior year, I'm not sure we'll ever have a team of guys like we did in '86 where you have two head coaches, [Tommy] Amaker and Dawkins. Alarie was a pro and is very successful. Bilas is the best at what he does. Henderson is a scout for Cleveland. Billy King and Danny Ferry have been—Danny was an 18, 17-year pro, both of them GMs. Quin Snyder is the head coach of the Utah [Jazz]," Krzyzewski said. "What a collection of great guys who really understood the game."

When Krzyzewski's 2019 team takes to the Colonial Life Arena floor Sunday, it'll be a drastically different kind of group from those of Dawkins' Blue Devil days. The connection he shares with his alma mater, however, remains the same.

"He'd probably put me on the line now, and I'll probably start running suicides," Dawkins said with a laugh. "That's just part [of the relationship]—once someone's coached you, they're your coach for the rest of your life. That's how it is. I have, of course, the utmost respect for Coach and his program. Like I said, I was a part of it and loved it, and I love Coach."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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