The Tobacco Road rivalry is the biggest in college basketball. Bar none, end of discussion. As much as we like to believe that the games played between North Carolina and Duke supersede all bonds of family and national pride, it turns out that two of the men at the heart of the game’s most vituperative regional clash have plenty of respect for one another, and know when to put the rivalry aside in favor of reaching a bigger goal.
The Harvard Business Review, of all publications, brings us the inside story of Mike Krzyzewski’s rise to the helm of Team USA. The periodical interviewed Jerry Colangelo — the former GM of the Phoenix Suns, who was brought in to run the red, white and blue squad in 2005 — and got a fascinating look at the internal process that led to Coach K’s selection.
In a room full of basketball legends like Michael Jordan, Chuck Daley, Larry Bird, Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens, it was the man who had personally suffered hair-tearing losses to the Duke Blue Devils who emerged as the persuasive voice of reason.
Armed with an agreed-upon set of qualities, Colangelo was now comfortable soliciting candidate names from the group. He gave specific instructions to nominate potential coaches only if they fit the just-established requirements. “A bunch of names went on the white board, all with stellar win-loss records. We talked about each one, weighing the pros and cons,” Colangelo told me.
At one point during the debate, Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith of UNC—soft-spoken off the court—voiced “loud support” for Mike Krzyzewski, better known as Coach K, head coach of Duke University. As Colangelo told this story, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to set me straight, “You’re from Louisville and you think that the Louisville/Kentucky game is a big deal and a big rivalry. But that’s nothing compared to the rivalry when UNC plays Duke. They play for blood. So when Coach Smith told us that no one will connect with and motivate the players like Coach K, the whole crowd was silent. That was a big moment for all of us.”
Some of the Carolina Blue faithful may consider Smith’s advocacy to be dark heresy, but there’s no arguing with the results. Team USA, coming off of a series of humiliating international losses, is now a two-time gold medal winning institution under Krzyzewski. As we learned from The Wire: game recognize game. Which worked out pretty well for the nation’s hoops aspirations.