Last week newspapers in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte published an Associated Press story about the upcoming Duke vs. Yale game. The second paragraph said: “The Blue Devils not only have a Hall of Fame coach in Mike Krzyzewski, but five championship banners he’s brought during his 36 years at an academic school that was largely an afterthought on the hardwood before his arrival.”
Afterthought? Really? So before Coach K, Duke basketball lived in Loserville? When Coach K arrived in 1980, Duke had already won 1,117 games, placing them among the elite of college basketball. Let’s take a look back at those first 1,117 wins. Pay attention.
Once upon a time there was a small college in Randolph County called Trinity. It had operated under other names going back to the pre-Civil War era. After the war, every couple of years or so, Trinity would teeter on the brink of financial collapse, only to be saved by one of its alums, John Wesley Alspaugh, a Winston, NC lawyer and the publisher of the Western Sentinel, a weekly newspaper.
Eventually, Trinity caught the attention of tobacco mogul James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who moved the school to Durham and finally, in the 1920s, built a spectacular brand new campus and renamed the school for himself.
In 1905, Wilbur Wade “Cap” Card fielded the first college basketball team in North Carolina at Trinity. He would remain the Trinity coach for seven years, compiling a 30-17 record, his best year being 1908-09, when the team won 8 and lost just 1.
Eventually, the benchmark for a good season would become 20 victories. Wake Forest would become the last of the North Carolina “Big Four” to do that, in 1926-27, with 22 wins. NC State had won 20 the year before. And UNC posted a 24-0 record in 1924 and was voted the national champions by the Helms Foundation.
But Trinity was the first to make the 20 win club by going 20-4 in the 1916-17 season. In those days, the coach and the captain pretty much shared responsibilities. The coach was Charles “Chick” Doak. The captain and leading scorer, with an average of 11.1 points per game, was Linville Kerr “Hip” Martin, a first year law student from Winston-Salem. One of the other key players was Luther “Skin” Ferrell, also from the Twin City.
The team won 4 out 6 games in a “northern tour” in a time when southern teams were looked down upon. In those days, there were no official championships, but a “state champion” was determined by claim, based on head to head competition during the regular season.
Guilford College had won the “Virginia-Carolinas” basketball championship in 1912 and 1913. But that title no longer existed. Elon had won the state title in 1915, and Wake Forest in 1916. But in the 1916-17 season, both Trinity and N.C. A&M (later N.C. State) had made short work of the former champions. So the 1917 title would be decided by a series of three games between N.C. A&M and Trinity. At the time, UNC was so negligible that Trinity did not even bother to play them once.
The first two games of the championship series were played in Raleigh in January. Trinity won the first 32-24. But the Aggies decided to slow the second game down and emerged triumphant, 16-14. So the deciding game would be played at Trinity’s home court in Durham. A large and enthusiastic crowd was expected, but before the game could begin, a dispute erupted over the officiating. A&M refused to accept the referees. Trinity insisted on proceeding. So when the refs called the teams to center court, A&M did not show. Trinity won the forfeit 2-0 and the state championship.
Both of the Twin City players departed and Trinity’s fortunes sank the next year. They finished 10-5 and Doak retired with a 30-9 overall record as coach. Trinity ground along for several years, until they became Duke and the amazing Eddie Cameron arrived in 1928. Cameron’s first act was to encourage Duke to join the Southern Conference, consisting of 23 schools covering an area from Maryland to Florida to Louisiana.
By then, Duke had acquired their nickname, the Blue Devils, after a crack French mountain regiment in the Great War. Cameron soon had them playing up to their name. Over the next fourteen years, he would win 226 games while losing only 99, a .695 percentage. During that time, Duke would win two regular season conference titles and three conference tournaments. And in 1939, he would build Duke the largest capacity basketball facility south of the magnificent Palestra in Philadelphia.
Cameron became the Duke athletics director and was succeeded in 1942 by Gerry Gerard, who compiled 131-78 record in eight seasons, winning another conference regular season title and another tournament championship.
In 1950, Gerard became ill and his assistant Hal Bradley took over. After the season was over, he was hired as the permanent coach. He would post a 61-27 record in Duke’s last years in the Southern Conference. But more importantly, he would lead the Blue Devils to the first ever Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship in 1954, with a 9-1 conference record and 21-6 mark overall. The next year the Devils finished second in the conference with an 11-3 record, a record which they repeated in 1958 to win their second ACC title.
In 1959, Vic Bubas succeeded Bradley. His first team, which had finished only 7-7 in the conference, was the first Duke team to make the NCAA Elite Eight. Between 1963 and 1966, Duke won four straight ACC regular season championships…I think it was during that time that Dean Smith was hanged in effigy on the UNC campus.In those years, Duke finished third, second and third in the NCAA championship tournament. When Bubas retired in 1969, he had achieved a 213-67 record overall, a .761 winning percentage, having won four ACC regular season championships and five tournament titles., while losing in the tournament final three other times.
The next five years are ones that Dookies would like to forget. Under Bucky Waters and Neill McGeachy, the Blue Devils went 73-71. In 1974, Bill Foster arrived from Rutgers. The program had fallen so far that he struggled for three years, going 40-40. But his 1978 team finished second in the ACC and went to the NCAA championship game before losing. When he left in 1980, he had won 73 0f his last 97 games and added another Elite Eight season.
From the arrival of Everett Case at N.C. State in the mid-1940s, Duke coaches found themselves battling one legend after another in their own conference…Murray Greason, Bones McKinney, Frank McGuire, Dean Smith, Lefty Dreisell, Press Maravich, Stormin’ Norman Sloan, Terry Holland, Jimmy Valvano, Gary Williams, Bobby Cremins, my Guilford College classmate Dave Odom (three time ACC Coach of the Year) and more…and I should mention Clemson coach Bobby Roberts, who was not a great coach, but was not a bad coach either, who knew more cusswords than all the sailors in history combined.
I guess for some all that might be an afterthought. For those of us who lived through much of it, it was something else entirely. Too many people believe that history began on the day that they were born. It did not.