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.


Trinity College, 1861. Trinity opened in 1838 as Brown’s Schoolhouse, later Union Institute and Normal College before becoming Trinity in 1859. Trinity moved to Durham in 1892.

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.


John Wesley Alspaugh

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.


Wilbur Wade “Cap” Card

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.


The Angier B. Duke Gymnasium opened in 1898 and would become the birthplace of Duke basketball. Always known as “The Ark”, it would remain in service until 1939.

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.


Manager Jim Smith is in the suit at far left. He was responsible for scheduling, transportation, tickets and finance. Despite having to refund all the tickets to the sold out, standing room only season finale because it turned out to be a forfeit, he produced the first profitable Duke basketball season.


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.


Charlie Frank Benbow, from East Bend in Yadkin County, was probably the best college player in North Carolina history through 1913. He still holds the record for the most points scored in a game by a college player, 91, against the Durham YMCA. He also starred in baseball and track. After graduation from Guilford,  he moved to Winston-Salem and took up real estate development. He built the historic Gray Court and Mayflower Apartments in the West End, among others.

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 typesetter was daydreaming about America’s favorite sport

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.


Eddie Cameron, right rear, with his first Duke team

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 Indoor Stadium under construction, 1939

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.


Gerry Gerard

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.


Hal Bradley with his star Dick Groat, who would go on to a 14 year career as a major league shortstop. In 1960, Groat, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the National League in batting and was named the league MVP.

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.


Vic Bubas with his star Howard Hurt

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.


Bill Foster and Jim Spanarkel

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.


Tipoff of the first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, January 6, 1940 vs. Princeton

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.