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The Landmark Class: A conversation with Jay Bilas

Special excerpt from The Chronicle's book: The King of Cameron

The 136-page paperback book covers every milestone during Coach K’s career.
The 136-page paperback book covers every milestone during Coach K’s career.

The Chronicle’s Beau Dure spoke about Coach K’s legacy with Jay Bilas, a forward on Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team in 1986 who is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: What was your impression of Coach K when he recruited you?

Jay Bilas: I liked him right away. I'd never heard of him when he started recruiting me—I grew up in Los Angeles. My first year at Duke was his third year. I trusted him right away and really liked him. 

I was looking more at coaches than at schools. Of the four coaches I came down to, he was the least experienced and least successful. My final four were Lute Olson (then at Iowa), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Ted Owens (Kansas) and Coach K. 

More importantly, I trusted him right away.

TC: How concerned were you that he wouldn’t keep his job after he struggled his first few years and critics called for him to be fired?

JB: I don’t know how close in reality it was. I know there was an awful lot of talk about it, to the point that it was really disturbing for a player.

In high school, a lot of schools negatively recruited against Duke because of that. My mom got a call from a competing coach who asked, ‘Mrs. Bilas, have you ever heard of Appalachian State?’ ‘Well, no,’ she said. ‘Well, they just beat Duke last night.’ 

That shook her up pretty good. Coach K called not long after that, and my mom always answered the phone. She said, ‘I’m kind of concerned about your program.’ He said, ‘Well so am I—that’s why I’m recruiting your son.’

[The negativity] pissed me off pretty good. I didn’t care for that at all. The idea that everybody was in it together didn’t seem to be the case. There was a lot of negativity around the program, but not in it.

One day, he came into the locker room and said, ‘I’ve just signed a long-term extension. Let’s go out and practice.’ That was a weight lifted. There had been talk among the players that, ‘If he goes, then  I’m out of here. If you fire *my* coach, I’m leaving.’ There was very little reason to stay back then. I’m going to stay somewhere where there’s mob rule? 

The Iron Dukes were not kind to him. They were later. That’s fine—that’s what fans do—but I didn’t care for it.

TC: How has he evolved over the years?

JB: He’s just gotten better every year. He’s always been a great coach. You have to believe in your players, as we believe in him. The people outside didn't believe in him, but we did.

Maybe early on there were some times you wondered if he had wheels in his head, thinking, ‘What would Coach Knight do?’ But his beliefs and values haven’t changed. He’s just gotten better. Anybody in any job, you do it for 40-some years, you just get better. He still works just as hard at age 70-plus as he did in his 30s.

TC: How would you sum up what he has accomplished?

JB: It’s impossible to sum it up. The list of accomplishments is so vast that you’d run out of time listing them. People would get bored. There was a thing recently in golf where they had a two-page list of Jack Nicklaus’ accomplishments. Golfers were turning it over, looking at the back page, saying, ‘My God.’ If you sat young coaches down and showed them a list like that, they’d say, ‘My God—if I did ONE of these things, I’d be considered a wild success.’

He’s built Duke into a no-record program. Nobody talks about their record. They could be 29-5 or 32-4, but if they lose in the Elite Eight, it’s, ‘Oh well, they lost.’ Most schools hang banners for that. It’s the best season in their history. For him, it’s become, ‘Yeah okay, but you didn’t win.’ It might be like Tiger Woods finishing third in the Masters. That’s where a Hall of Fame golfer might be, but with Tiger Woods, it’s, ‘He didn’t win.’

It’s impossible to think of Duke basketball without thinking of him first. He’s been the hub of a very successful wheel of great players who’ve done amazing things in the game. You think about all those relationships he has. We look at him as if he’s the North Star. And yet he’s got to service all these players who look at him as the center. It’s really remarkable to have this—you can’t even call it a run—a career where he’s embedded in the lives of so many people.

I think it’s going to be the hardest act to follow in the history of sport. No one else has had that long a run at that high a level, all on television, where everything’s plastered all over the place. Name every great coach—John Wooden, [Paul] ‘Bear’ Bryant—none of them did it on television and for that length of time. 

He had his first No. 1 team in 1986. He’s had that sort of success all the way to 2020. 

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