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Giving the Devil His Due

If you are like me, and I am sure you are, you have very mixed emotions about the notorious Coach K. On the one hand, you have to respect his accomplishments. Since taking over the Duke program, he has turned the University into the number 1 college basketball program in the country, making numerous final 4 appearances and taking advantage of the new era of media-driven sports to establish the Duke name brand in a way virtually unparalleled in any other sport. Because of Coach K, virtually any person under the age of 20 thinks Duke when they think college basketball and the University continues to benefit in a myriad of ways.

On the other hand however, there is a lot on the surface to be skeptical about Coach K. He is one of the worst abusers of referees in the country, and my experience at Cameron Indoor next to the bench always suggested to me that leaving a little child with Coach K would be grounds for state intervention. While often considered to be the posterboy of the coaching ranks, Coach K has shown a difficult side, whether it is in the way that he treats players who leave before he believes they should or how he yelled at my ex-girlfriend after he almost backed into her on Science Drive. And virtually everyone gets tired of the K sanctimony, whether it be during his tours supporting his book and his goal of “Leading from the Heart” or his ubiquitous American Express commercials where he claims to be a “Leader of Men.” There comes a time that K overload can lead to the need to projectile vomit.

Thus I, like most college basketball fans, have reasons to love and hate K. As a Kentucky fan I respect how he acted in 92, coming and talking to Cawood Ledford and picking up Richie off the floor. But I also have seen his negative side first hand at Duke and I wonder if much of his praise is a bit off the path. Both of these thoughts were in my head this weekend when I saw Coach K at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis.

As an initial matter, it is clear that NO ONE has the presence Coach K does in the coaching ranks. When he is at a game, people notice and whispers of “who is he here to see”, permeate the room. At one game I found myself in front of K, Tommy Amaker and Chris Collins and used my time at Duke to begin a conversation. In many ways, K could not have been more gracious. He introduced me to my “fellow alums” Amaker and Collins and quizzed me about my law school background and what my type of practice I had. He then mentioned how much he loved the state and how he still holds the 92 and 98 games as two of his favorite coaching memories.

After about ten minutes of such talk, I was fortunate enough to get to listen as K broke down the basketball game before us with his past and current assistant. We both were focused on the same player and listening to Coach K was an invaluable lesson. He picked out qualities I would have never imagined to look for, such as the “strength of his off foot”, the “location on the chest where he throws his passes” and the way in which the player “naturally understands spacing.” On two plays I heard him illustrate exactly why a particular action by the player was incorrect and a way that it could easily be corrected. It was clear he had a mastery over the subject and his fellow coaches (and me) ate up everything he said.

After the game, we spoke a minute about the player and he asked me what I knew about him. He was kind enough to act as if he cared about my opinion (which I doubt he did or should have) and listened intently to my view on him. Soon thereafter I left, with contradictory emotions. On the one hand, I felt grateful to talk to one of the true legends of the sport I love. He was initially a little skeptical toward me, but once I established a connection and we mentioned people we knew in common, he was nothing but kind. But on the other hand, here was Coach K….the person who represented all that I am supposed to dislike about the evil Duke Empire. And yet, I found myself liking him and falling into the Duke personality trap that I have always ranted against.

I quickly took myself away before I fell into the trap anymore and began rapidly slapping the floor. Ultimately I cant truly like Coach K as he is the coach of Duke, and that means I cannot in good conscience be a fan. But then again, I am not sure I can hate him now either. When people are nice to you, it is hard to wish them ill will, even when they are connected to Duke. I will never be a Cameron Crazie, but maybe now I will take down my Wojo dartboard…..well at least until the season starts.

Article written by Matt Jones