In the Big Easy, a city the Big Blue Nation owned 10 years ago, a new national championship will be crowned Monday night. Sadly for Wildcat fans, it will not be Kentucky.
Unfortunately, it could be the team that now claims the mantle as the all-time wins leader in Division I men’s basketball. Or it could be another program that claims its shade of blue is what’s proper when it comes to the blood that distinguishes the nation’s best.
Fortunately for UK fans, it will not be Duke. Coach K is gone for good.
It might have been too much for Cat fans to handle – two weeks after seeing their beloved team fall to some upstart Peacocks, the Blue Devils winning a sixth trophy for the man they love to hate. Thanks to the Tarheels, they won’t have to.
There’s no doubt the BBN will go on hating Duke with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns, forever wounded by the outcome of what some still believe is the greatest game in the history of college basketball, waaaayyyy back in 1992, some 30 years ago.
Duke fans, of course, don’t even consider Kentucky when it’s time to ponder their arch rival. That, naturally, is North Carolina which now can claim victories over Mike Krzyzewski in his first setback as Duke’s head coach, his final Atlantic Coast Conference tournament AND his Final Four finale.
Dukies don’t see Kentucky that way although they no doubt have little good to say about John Calipari. Outside of the BBN, not many do. And in all candor, most UK fans couldn’t stand him until he dropped anchor in Lexington.
To Big Blue backers, Coach K is, was and likely always shall be the face of the Evil Empire. It’s the kind of irrationality that’s inherent among sports fans.
I, myself, can’t stand the Dallas Cowboys. It’s been ingrained within me since the 1960s, when my beloved Green Bay Packers ran into them a couple of times in the playoffs. The Pokes stood between “us” and the NFL championship. So they had to be evil and to me, they still are. And I even lived down there for a couple of years. Didn’t change anything. They still suck.
So I get it when UK fans profess their passionate dislike for K but it does make me smile. Every now and then I think back to an actual one-on-one interview I conducted with Krzyzewski when we were both much, much younger.
In the early ’80s as a fledgling Lexington sportscaster, I often covered Louisville games for ABC Radio Sports, back when Denny Crum was in his heyday. I was in Freedom Hall on January 2, 1982 when a young Coach K brought his struggling 3-5 team to face the 14th-ranked Cardinals.
Duke, on the way to a 10-17 record, featured a Lexington native, Vince Taylor. The senior forward averaged 20 points and five rebounds a game so I went there seeking an interview with the former Tates Creek Commodore. I also wanted to speak with his coach.
Louisville administered a 99-61 beat-down. The Cardinals led 54-27 at halftime after shooting 67 percent in the first period; six U of L players scored in double figures. The Cards blocked 10 shots. The Blue Devils blocked none.
After the game I spoke with Vince and then set about looking for his head coach, who was outside the visitors locker room, talking with a small group of reporters.
I waited for them to finish, stepped in and introduced myself and asked if we could talk about Vince.
Krzyzewski readily agreed and suggested we move away from the traffic near the door. So we walked a few feet away and there, under the Freedom Hall end zone bleachers, among the empty popcorn boxes and beer cups, we talked hoops. Just me, with the future Hall of Famer.
Of course, nobody knew it at the time. In fact, there was a growing faction of Duke fans who wanted him gone already. He hadn’t been a popular choice to begin with, when athletics director Tom Butters, on the advice of Bobby Knight, hired the head coach at Army, who had played for Knight at Army and had been on his staff at Indiana. (In fact, Krzyzewski was an assistant on the IU team that was upset by UK in the 1975 NCAA region final).
Coach K at the time was in his second season; the following year Duke would finish 11-17. But the year after that they were back in the NCAA Tournament.
And less than four years after our intimate chat, Coach K’s Blue Devils were playing those same Louisville Cardinals for the national championship. They lost that night but would go on to win five titles – one of them at the extreme emotional expense of the Kentucky Wildcats and their fans.
And it was immediately after that 1992 game, with his players still celebrating on the court in Philadelphia, that Krzyzewski walked over and asked Cawood Ledford and Ralph Hacker if he could speak on the radio to UK fans. Cawood was in the midst of his farewell address as this was his final game behind the mic for the UK network. But Ledford invited him to come on the air and Hacker volunteered his headset to the Duke coach.
I listened as he spoke of Richie Farmer and John Pelphrey and the rest of the team that would become known as “The Unforgettables.” He later said he watched the Kentucky players tearfully leaving the floor in unimaginable agony and wanted to pay tribute to the magnificent effort they had just given in the overtime loss.
I never got a chance to speak with Krzyzewski again after that day in Louisville; I did cover some regionals for NCAA Radio that included Duke. By then, Coach K was surrounded by staff members wearing suits and scowls. They reminded me of Secret Service agents, just daring anyone to try to get close to The Chosen One.
I would smile then, as well, thinking back to that 1982 afternoon in Freedom Hall. I could still smell the popcorn boxes and stale beer as I talked basketball with the young coach, brilliant and embattled, but destined for greatness.
Hate on, BBN, but I can tell you this: If you ever get him alone for a few minutes, away from his minions, just to talk basketball? He’s not that bad of a guy.