Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Fourby John Feinstein
Exploring what it means to a school, a coach, and a player to be in the Final Four or even at The Final, this work features stories of players and coaches who thought they'd never make it to college basketball's final weekend, the spectacular triumphs of the winning teams, and the heartbreaking defeat of those who missed the cut.See more details below
Exploring what it means to a school, a coach, and a player to be in the Final Four or even at The Final, this work features stories of players and coaches who thought they'd never make it to college basketball's final weekend, the spectacular triumphs of the winning teams, and the heartbreaking defeat of those who missed the cut.
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By John Feinstein
Little, BrownCopyright © 2006 John Feinstein
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THERE WAS A TIME, a few years back, when it was very difficult for me to go to the Final Four when my team didn't make it there. Part of it, no doubt, was the disappointment I felt because we weren't still playing. I'm probably spoiled because we've made the Final Four on ten occasions since 1986, although I can honestly tell you that I have never taken getting there for granted. Each trip is special.
This past year, after we lost in the round of sixteen to Michigan State, I decided to make the trip to St. Louis. There were some meetings I felt I should attend and some people I wanted to see. As it turned out, making the trip was one of the best things I've done in a long time.
On Sunday morning I attended a new event that the National Association of Basketball Coaches started recently called the Past Presidents Brunch. It is, as you might have guessed, a brunch for all past presidents of the NABC. I was president in 1992, so I was invited.
When I sat down, I found myself next to Bill Foster. I have been given a lot of credit through the years for the success of Duke basketball. What a lot of people don't realize is that the foundation our program is built on was put in place by Bill Foster. In 1974 he became Duke's coach after the worst season inschool history. The program was in shambles and Bill had to rebuild in what was, without question, the toughest basketball conference in America. North Carolina State had just won the national championship, North Carolina was coached by Dean Smith, Maryland was strong under Lefty Driesell, and Terry Holland was just arriving to build Virginia into a power. Within four years, Bill turned the program completely around. He recruited players such as Jim Spanarkel, Mike Gminski, Gene Banks, and Kenny Dennard. In 1978 Duke won the ACC Tournament and, with no seniors in the starting lineup (back then, that actually meant something), went all the way to the national championship game before losing to Kentucky.
My first truly great recruiting class included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson. All of them have told me they have memories of that '78 team, that they admired guys like Spanarkel and Gminski and Banks and Dennard, and that those players and that team first put Duke on their radar. If I don't recruit those four players, I'm probably not the coach at Duke today. If Bill Foster hadn't built the team and the program he did, I probably would not have gotten those four players. At that brunch I had a chance to sit and really talk to Bill about what he had to overcome and to tell him how much I appreciated what he had built. I got to look him in the eye and tell him that I honestly believed he deserved at least some of the credit for all that Duke has accomplished in the past twenty years. I think-I hope-that meant something to him.
As I was leaving the brunch, I ran into Marv Harshman. Like Bill Foster, Harshman is retired now, but years ago he was a great coach at the University of Washington. In fact, the first NCAA Tournament game I coached was against a Marv Harshman-coached Washington team in 1984. We lost. Marv and I joked about the fact that he had started me on the road to having the most NCAA Tournament wins of any coach-with a loss.
I walked out of the brunch with a big smile on my face. Being in that room with so many of my colleagues from so many years and so many games was great. But to run into Foster and Harshman, two men who played a role in my life and were great coaches long before anyone thought to ask me to do a commercial for anything, was a great reminder to me of what the Final Four is all about. It is much bigger than the four teams and coaches who have the honor of playing in it in a given year. It has far more scope than three basketball games. It is about much more than wins and losses-although the wins and losses that occur will be remembered forever by the participants.
The Final Four is about understanding how lucky we all are to be part of college basketball. It is about people like me remembering how important Bill Foster and Marv Harshman are, not to mention John Wooden and Big House Gaines and Bill Russell and Bill Bradley and Dean Smith and John Thompson. And so many others. There's a tendency during the course of a basketball season for a coach to crawl into the cocoon of his team and the day-to-day, game-to-game pressures. Sometimes in April I feel a little bit like someone who has been locked in a cave all winter and I find myself blinking at the glare of Life Beyond Basketball. When I'm not still coaching at the Final Four-and, believe me, I prefer the years when I am still coaching-being there is a bridge back to reality. I'm reminded there's more to basketball than our practices, our games, and our rivalries. In spite of what some people might believe, Duke-Carolina is not the game's only great rivalry, although it is a pretty damn good one.
My first memories of the Final Four go back to listening to games on the radio as a kid growing up in Chicago. I always watched the Big Ten game of the week on television when I was young and I often went to games in the old Chicago Stadium. For some reason, a game I saw there between Duke and Notre Dame sticks out in my memory. Maybe there was some fate involved in that.
The first team I really remember well, though, is the Loyola of Chicago team that won the national championship in 1963. Those games, particularly the championship game against Cincinnati, stand out. I remember having the sense that what Loyola had done was a big deal even though I couldn't actually watch the games.
When I played at Army for Bob Knight in the late '60s, the National Invitation Tournament was as big a deal in our minds as the NCAAs were. My three years as a college player coincided with Lew Alcindor's three years at UCLA. (Alcindor, of course, later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) I remember it sort of being accepted that no one was going to beat UCLA. We had very good teams at Army and we badly wanted to win a championship. In 1968 we were 20-4 and invited to the NCAAs. We knew we weren't going to beat UCLA and Alcindor, but we honestly thought we could win the NIT. So, Coach Knight decided to take the NIT bid. Unfortunately, we lost to Notre Dame (on St. Patrick's Day, as I am constantly reminded even now). The next year we went back to the NIT and shocked South Carolina, which had been ranked number two in the national polls for a lot of the season, in the quarterfinals before losing in the semis to Boston College.
My first Final Four was in 1973. I was still in the army but back home on leave in March. I had already talked to Coach Knight about joining his staff when I got out of the army the following year and I flew to St. Louis to watch Indiana play UCLA in the semifinals. I remember thinking then how big the event was and how amazing it was to stand in the lobby of the coaches' hotel and watch the parade of famous coaches as they came and went during the weekend. I didn't get to see Bill Walton shoot 21 of 22 for UCLA because I had to report back to my unit soon after the semifinals. I'm not sure if I'm right about this, but I don't think I would have been able to stay even if Indiana had won on Saturday.
A little more than a year later, I went to work for Coach Knight as a graduate assistant. That was the first year  that he coached a team that went undefeated in the regular season. Unfortunately, Scott May broke his leg in February, and even though he was able to come back and play in the tournament, he wasn't the same player and we weren't the same team. We lost in the regional final to Kentucky, 92-90. To this day, I think Coach Knight would tell you that was his most disappointing loss because, with Scott healthy, that was probably his best team. Of course, Indiana, led by Scott, did go undefeated the next season and won the 1976 national championship.
I wasn't around-except as a spectator-when Indiana won that year in Philadelphia. By then I was back at Army as the head coach. I loved coaching at my alma mater, but deep down I knew I wanted to do what Coach Knight had done: take a team to the Final Four and win a national championship. The days when that was even remotely possible at Army were gone. The Vietnam War and big money coming into the NBA had changed recruiting at Army-even more so for football than basketball-and we had to set more realistic goals, such as getting to the postseason and getting into a conference where we could compete. The players I coached during my five years at Army are still among my closest friends today. But I knew there was going to come a time when, if I was successful, I was going to have to consider moving on.
That time came in 1980 when Tom Butters surprised me (and shocked the basketball world) by offering me the job at Duke. Had I known what the first three years were going to be like, I might have thought twice. I had to learn on the job how to coach-and recruit-in the ACC. Dean Smith was at his absolute zenith as a coach. My first game at Duke was against North Carolina in the old Big Four Tournament in Greensboro. Carolina had James Worthy and Sam Perkins and Al Wood on the court, and Dean had already gotten a commitment from a high school senior we knew was pretty good named Michael Jordan. They lost to Indiana in the national championship game that season. A year later, with Jordan, they were national champions. We were 10-17, the worst record in Duke history.
At the same time that I went to Duke, another young coach whom I knew pretty well took the North Carolina State job: Jim Valvano. Jimmy and I had coached against each other while I was at Army and he was at Iona. He had taken Iona to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, and in 1980, his last year at Iona, my final year at Army, his team was the last one to beat Louisville, which won the national championship. They beat them by 17 in Madison Square Garden and Jimmy had his players cut down the nets. He said he was practicing for the day when he coached a team that cut down the nets at the Final Four. Typical Jimmy.
Of course, in his third year at State-my third year at Duke-Jimmy and his team did cut down the nets at the Final Four in Albuquerque. While Jimmy and State were becoming national champions, we had improved from 10-17 to 11-17. We lost our last game that season to Virginia, 109-66. A lot of Duke people thought I was going to make a great coach-back at Army, where they thought I belonged.
I still remember that Final Four pretty vividly. Specifically, like a lot of people, I remember the semifinal game between Houston and Louisville. There was a stretch in the second half when it seemed as if every single play took place above the rim. Every player on the court appeared capable of jumping out of the building. They all looked like future NBA All-Stars. It was Roger Valdiserri, the longtime Notre Dame SID [sports information director], who famously commented after the game, "Welcome to basketball in the twenty-first century." I wasn't that much different from most people in New Mexico's Pit that day, in that I was awed by what I saw. The difference was, I was the coach at a school that had recent Final Four history-1978-and my goal as a coach was someday to be down on that floor coaching on Final Four Saturday. That's what was scary to me. I knew my team was a long way from being able to compete with what I was watching. It was one of the few times when I wondered if my dream of coaching in a Final Four might not come true.
A year later my four freshmen starters had become sophomores and we went 24-10. We beat North Carolina-with Jordan, Perkins, and Brad Daugherty-in the ACC Tournament semifinals and ended up losing to Washington and Marv Harshman in the NCAA Tournament. In 1986 we made it to the Final Four and beat a great Kansas team to get to Monday night. We lost that championship game to Louisville, 72-69, and if there is a game in my career I look back on with regret, it's that one. I just don't believe I gave my players as much help as I could have if I'd had more Final Four experience at that point. They were tired after the Kansas game, very tired, and I didn't find ways to use the bench early in the game to keep them fresh enough for the finish. Those four kids-Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas, and Henderson-deserved to win the national championship. I know they all feel as if they somehow came up short by not winning that night, but I've always felt that if anyone came up short, it was me. I do think they know that the three national championships we've won since would not have happened if not for them. That's why I honestly believe they have been national champions-because 1991, 1992, and 2001 could not have happened if not for 1986.
That 1986 team began a run that, as I look back on it now, was remarkable. We went to seven Final Fours in nine years. We upset number one seeds in the regional final in 1988 [Temple], 1989 [Georgetown], and 1990 [Connecticut]. In 1992 Christian Laettner hit the shot everyone remembers in Philadelphia to beat Kentucky. In 1994 we beat another number one seed [Purdue] in another regional final. I still remember Pete Gaudet, who was my associate coach throughout that run, joking after we beat UConn that he was going to have to withdraw from the annual coaches' golf tournament at the Final Four again. I told him I hoped he never got to play in it again.
When I was in St. Louis last year, I kept hearing people talk about all the pressure that was on Roy Williams because he hadn't won a national championship yet. I remember thinking how unfair that was. Roy was in his fifth Final Four last year-four with Kansas, one with North Carolina. No coach should feel pressure when his team is in the Final Four. He should feel great that his team is still playing on the last weekend of the season and be able to enjoy what they've accomplished. That doesn't mean you don't put everything you have into trying to win it all, because there is no feeling quite like cutting down the nets on Monday night. But getting to the Final Four should always be something you get to celebrate, not something that creates pressure. When I walk around at a Final Four, I'm constantly reminded how lucky you have to be to get to one. I see people like Lefty Driesell and Gene Keady and Norm Stewart and John Chaney, each of them a great basketball coach. They all made multiple regional finals; they all built programs that were excellent year in and year out for many years. None of them ever coached in a Final Four.
To get to one, you have to have a number of ingredients. You have to have been able to recruit very good players, you have to have a very patient family, you need excellent assistants, and you need luck. You need to keep key players healthy and, most of the time, you need to win at least one game that you probably deserve to lose. In 1986, when we were the number one seed in the eastern regional, we trailed number sixteen seed Mississippi Valley State with ten minutes left to play. We easily could have lost that game, but Johnny Dawkins made just enough plays to pull us through. Everyone remembers Christian Laettner's first buzzer-beater against Connecticut in 1990 that put us in that year's Final Four. A lot of people (not UConn fans, I know that) have forgotten that Tate George came within an inch or two of intercepting Bobby Hurley's pass downcourt just before the in-bounds play that set up Christian's shot. We certainly could have lost to Kentucky in the regional final in 1992, and Quin Snyder's Missouri team easily could have taken us out in the second round in 2001. We managed to win and ended up winning the national title.
My point is this: I'm not sure you have to be a great coach to get to the Final Four. Probably you have to be a good one who catches a few key breaks-during the tournament, during the season, during a career. Sometimes I wonder where I would have ended up if I hadn't listened to Tom Rogers, my officer rep at Army, when I asked him if he thought I should take the Iowa State job when it was offered in 1980. "I think you need to follow this Duke thing through to the end," Colonel Rogers said. I guess it's fair to say he gave me good advice.
Excerpted from Last Dance by John Feinstein Copyright © 2006 by John Feinstein. Excerpted by permission.
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