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How three iconic North Carolina coaches helped shape a state’s athletic legacy

March 15, 2016 at 8:39 PM EDT
March Madness has arrived once more -- and yet again, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels are in the hunt for a national championship. A new book by sportswriter John Feinstein takes an inside look at one of UNC’s legendary coaches and the two other iconic state basketball figures with whom he formed unique trio. Feinstein joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss “The Legends Club.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: March Madness has arrived, and, once again, the University of North Carolina is very much in the hunt for a national title.

A new book has a behind-the-scenes look at the school’s unique history under a coaching legend, and two rivals who became legends in their own right.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three universities within 25 miles of one another and a rich basketball history of rivalries, great victories and bitter defeats and lasting friendships.

Three men are at the heart of the tale, Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame coach of the University of North Carolina for 36 seasons, who died last year, Jim Valvano, the fun-loving, wise-cracking coach who led North Carolina State to a surprise national championship in 1983, and died of cancer 10 years later, and Mike Krzyzewski, coach at Duke since 1980, winner of five national championships, with the most recent coming just last year.

Their story is told in the new book “The Legends Club.”

Author John Feinstein joins me now.

Welcome, John.

Why these three? What did they mean to you?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, Author, “The Legends Club”: well, I cut my teeth as a reporter covering for them for The Washington Post in the 1980s.

They were all there in the Research Triangle at the same time. Dean Smith had been there since the early ’60s, was already an iconic figure when Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano arrived within nine days of each other at Duke and N.C. State.

And I got to know them all very well. I spent hours and hours late at night with Valvano, with Krzyzewski, not as much with Dean because he was more of an introvert, but probably spent more time with him through the years than anybody in the media.

And as their relationships evolved, it came to me much, much later that there was a remarkable story to be told.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this is partly your personal story, right, of becoming — or starting as a young student, journalism student at Duke up to today.


JEFFREY BROWN: But for those who don’t know the role of basketball, the role of these guys in the state of North Carolina, what is it?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, you have to understand that, until the mid-1990s, there were no professional sports teams in North Carolina.

ACC basketball was king. It still is, to a large degree, even though there are three professional sports teams in the state now. And there were great coaches going way back to Everett Case at N.C. State, Vic Bubas at Duke, Frank McGuire at North Carolina. Dean Smith succeeded Frank McGuire and built a dynasty that went on for the 36 years he was there.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a story of friendship, but it didn’t always — it certainly didn’t start that way.


JEFFREY BROWN: There’s all these jealousies, rivalry, anger, charges of double standards. There’s a lot of — and everything hinges, of course, on who — who’s winning.


The irony is that when Krzyzewski first came into the league, he resented Dean Smith because Dean was the bar. And he did say there was a double standard for Dean with referees, for Dean’s team with referees. There was one game where he refused to shake hands at the end of the game because he didn’t think the game was over, that there should still be time left on the clock.

And that upset Dean that he behaved that way. And at one point, Krzyzewski even said to his assistant coaches: “If I ever start to act like him, don’t ask any questions. Just get a gun and shoot me.”

Well, years later, he became Dean. He became the standard. He became the bar everybody was trying to jump over, and he became the guy about whom they said there were double standards and the refs gave Duke all the calls.

So, that’s when he began to understand Dean and respect him more as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I mean, they all ended up in a kind of pantheon, especially the two Dean Smith and Krzyzewski, but they all flirted with or felt failure at different times.


And you go back the Dean in the 1960s. In his fourth season, he was hung in effigy after a loss at Wake Forest. And Billy Cunningham, who became…


JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that tells you right there the role of…


JOHN FEINSTEIN: Basketball, yes. And this was on campus.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: This was the students doing it to him.


JOHN FEINSTEIN: And Billy Cunningham, who later became a Hall of Fame player, was the one who pulled the effigy down.

Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47 after three years at Duke, and there was a night in Atlanta when they lost 109-66 to Virginia in their last game of the season, when Tom Butters, the athletic director who had hired him, was literally pushed up against a wall in a hotel, with boosters demanding that he fire this guy.

Seven years later, he said he got letters from those same people when Krzyzewski was offered the Celtics job, saying, pay him anything, but keep him.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is part of me that loves college basketball and college sports generally, but wants to push back at you here.

When we have talked about this on the program, it’s the rising role of the coaches, so much emphasis on the coaches. They become the most powerful person in the state in some cases, right, at these universities.

And here you are. I want to say, John, are you sort of raising them even higher by focusing on these three?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: It’s a good question, but I think these are three who did it right.

And I don’t apologize at all for saying that they are good men, in addition to being great coaches.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying it’s beyond the winning with these three?


Dean Smith helped desegregate restaurants in Chapel Hill in the 1950s, when he was still an assistant coach, before he was a star, before he had power. He went into a restaurant with a black member of his church and basically dared the management not to serve them.

Jim Valvano, when he was dying, started the V Foundation, helped by Krzyzewski, who was in his hospital room almost every day the last two months of his life. And the V Foundation has raised more than $150 million for cancer research. Krzyzewski will tell you, that was his greatest coaching job.

Krzyzewski has raised millions and millions of dollars for charity in North Carolina and in Durham. He started the Emily K Foundation, named after his mother, which sends kids with no money to college. And they have had something like 100 college graduates in the last few years.

So, they all went beyond the basketball court. They’re all great coaches, but I find them all to be admirable men, and that’s why I don’t have any trouble saying, yes, I knew these guys, I spent time with these guys, and I learned from these guys.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re writing as a fan in an age where there is so much criticism in college sports. What do you want people to take from this story?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I don’t want anybody to think that I’m saying that there aren’t any problems with big-time college athletics, that — that we’re rife with them right now.

But what I’m trying to say is, this was a unique, perfect storm. You had two of the four coaches who were on coaching’s Mount Rushmore, Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, along with John Wooden and Bob Knight.

And then you had this third coach, Valvano, who has this unique niche because he won this amazing national title in 1983, because, frankly, of the way he died, the famous speech — you can look it up — the ESPYs speech, when he won the award for courage and spoke for 11 minutes, when — and literally passed out when he was finished, that everybody still looks at to this day.

JIM VALVANO, North Carolina State Basketball Coach: And I got one last thing. I have said it before, and I’m going to say it again. Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind. It cannot touch my heart. And it cannot touch my soul.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: I guess the message of the book is that these were three special people, and the way their relationships evolved, from the hostility of the 1980s to genuine love at the end of first Jim’s life and then at the end of Dean’s life between them and Mike Krzyzewski, I think, is unique in the pantheon, as you said, of college athletics.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “The Legends Club.”

John Feinstein, thanks so much.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Jeff.