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Q&A: Jay Bilas discusses Duke’s 1982 recruiting class

A four-year starter at Duke, Jay Bilas is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
A four-year starter at Duke, Jay Bilas is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN.

 When he was hired by Duke four decades ago, Mike Krzyzewski was a young head coach with limited prior experience. After a tumultuous few seasons to open his tenure in Durham, Krzyzewski was able to put together a legendary recruiting class in 1982 that opened the door for him to put together arguably the most impressive coaching resume of all-time. Krzyzewski is now a five-time national champion with the Blue Devils, the all-time winningest coach in college basketball and a three-time Olympic gold medal winner as coach of U.S.A. basketball. 

The ACC Network documentary ‘The Class that Saved Coach K’, released Thursday, takes an in-depth look at what made the 1982 class—featuring Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins, David Henderson, Bill Jackman and Welden Williams—so special, and how they turned Krzyzewski’s career around. 

The Chronicle’s Derek Saul spoke to Bilas, ‘The Class That Saved Coach K’ executive producer and current ESPN college basketball analyst, over the phone this week to discuss the fabled 1980s Duke teams and the legend of Coach K.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Tuesday was move-in day for the freshmen, including the incoming basketball recruits, here at Duke. What was move-in day like for your class?

Jay Bilas: It wasn’t as organized—you were kind of on your own back then. And, you know, we didn’t go to summer school. So you didn’t have a head start in that regard. Now, the players’ dorms are furnished, and all their stuff is already there. So it’s just a totally different deal.

TC: Just how in the world did Coach K get so many top recruits before proving himself on the floor, having never gone to the NCAA tournament?

JB: Well, he hustled. He recruited all of us really hard. And it was all different, we didn’t know one another, so it wasn’t like we could help recruit each other. There was a little bit of that toward the end, when certain guys committed, but he targeted a small group of the top players and he went after them hard and we’re just lucky that all of us said yes.

TC: Do you think something like that—a head coach putting together just such an elite class before really achieving success on the floor—would be as easy to pull off today?

JB: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m not really sure, because it wasn’t so much about Duke. I mean, Duke was certainly a factor, but it was more about him. And I committed to Duke because of him. I didn’t know very much about Duke, honestly, and so Coach K really sold me on him more than anything. 

If you look at my final schools, it was Duke, Syracuse, Iowa and Kansas. Those schools didn’t really seem to make any sense taken as a whole, but it was the four coaches that I really wanted to play for that was the unifying factor. And Coach K was the one above all others.

TC: Duke now has built that brand-name status. Do you think when Coach K is recruiting, he’s still primarily selling people on himself?

JB: Well, he doesn’t have to sell [himself] anymore, because it’s already done before he gets there. That’s the difference now, that there’s no sale to make. The players all know who he is and what he’s about before he ever walks in the door, so it’s just a different feeling.

TC: Last year’s recruiting class, they really seemed to have that strong sense of camaraderie like your class did, did you see any similarities there?

JB: It’s different because they all know they’re only going to be there for a year, so it’s sort of hard to the same kind of camaraderie, but they’re all great friends. And, you can totally get along really well together, which is a really nice thing with any team. 

Because our group had a unique bond and a special connection to one another doesn’t mean that other classes haven’t had that same thing and it doesn’t happen at other places, but it certainly was special for us.

TC: In the documentary, Coach K mentioned that you guys really first exemplified “The Brotherhood” concept, what’s it been like seeing that concept grow into Duke’s signature thing?

JB: I had never heard of “The Brotherhood” until it came out of the Duke program. We didn’t refer to it that way back then. We were teammates and best friends and all that, and I’m sure the term “like brothers” was used, but I never heard the term brotherhood that was thought something up in the last several years with Duke. 

But, we were the first for Coach K. We were his first NCAA tournament team, his first No. 1 ranked team, his first ACC championship team, first Final Four team. So I don’t know whether extra significance gets added on to that or not, but I’m sure there have been a bunch of classes that have been just as close and just as good of friends.

TC: Something you also mentioned in the documentary was losing your matchup in terms of comparing your team to the all-time great teams—obviously, Lew Alcindor is a tough guy to beat out at center. So you think it wears on guys that don’t necessarily have a high profile, but still have big roles on the team?

JB:  No, that’s what you sign up for. All of us could have gone to other schools and been all-conference, but so what? Just because you play a role doesn’t mean you’re a lesser player, and I don’t really care what other people think in that regard. That’s their business. 

To me, it’s not that big of a deal either way. David Henderson is probably the prime example. If David had gone to N.C. State, he would have been first-team all-ACC. We played on an extraordinary team that had a lot of great players on it. 

When people hear the term role player, they can start thinking, well, that means that the player was limited. That’s not true, we just had to play a certain role on that team, but if we had gone somewhere else, we’d be sitting around with our little all-conference trophy, but I’d rather be a member of the team I was on.

TC: What would be your advice to this incoming class as a whole? How could they really emulate that bond that your group formed?

JB: I don’t think they even need to emulate it. I think they just need to do their own thing. They’re playing for the best coach, and it’s not like they need to look into the past to determine how they relate to one another. When you’re a good player, you’re a good guy and you’re a good teammate, all that stuff kind of takes care of itself. 

Coach K over the years has recruited some really good guys. We were lucky and had six of them and that led to recruiting even better guys after that, which was really, really nice. 

We were very involved in the recruiting after that of making sure that we did our best to help bring in guys after us that were kind of like us in that regard—team-first guys that were really good players that wanted to win.

TC: What is the Coach K lesson that has stuck with you the most?

JB: Oh God, there’s so many of them. Probably next play, that whatever happens, you’ve got to move on to the next play. That’s been a great thing for certainly for me and I think for all the guys that I’ve talked about it with, and I know that the guys that are coaches now have used that with their teams.

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