A March to Madness: The View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conferenceby John Feinstein
The ACC has always produced college basketball champions, including Michael Jordan; it is home to legendary coaches; & the league has won a total of 7 national titles. Feinstein follows all 9 ACC teams through the unforgettable 1996-97 season & illuminates the almost inconceivable pressures on coaches & players in the conference. He brings to light the hidden world of college basketball the bitter rivalries between coaches, the toll of competition on marriages & careers, the difficulties coaches have in dealing with NBA-bound players, & much more. Feinstein paints a living portrait of how college basketball is coached & played at the highest level.
- Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.33(w) x 9.49(h) x 1.48(d)
- Age Range:
- 13 Years
Read an Excerpt
One Shining Moment
IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL, when you say the words "Monday Night," they mean only one thing: the national championship game. Every coach dreams of seeing his team play on Monday Night. Throughout each season coaches tell their players over and over what it will take to play on Monday Night. To those who follow the college game, Monday Night has every bit as much meaning as Super Sunday does to fans of pro football.
The great Al McGuire, who twice reached Monday Night when he was the coach at Marquette, always tells coaches to remember to pause and take a look around when they walk on the floor on Monday Night. "There is nothing like that feeling," McGuire tells them. "You are at the absolute top of your profession. You are coaching in the one game that every coach dreams of coaching in."
Each year, only two coaches get their teams to Monday Night. The rest watch. Although every Division I college basketball coach in America has a ticket for Monday Night, very few of them actually come to the arena. Most have been in town earlier in the week for the annual coaches' convention that is part of the Final Four, but few stay for Monday Night. They all say it is because there is work to be done back home, and all are telling the truth. Or part of the truth. For most, being that close to the grand stage but not being on it is simply too painful.
So, they leave. But they all watch the game. Everyone in basketball watches Monday Night.
Technically, there are 306 schools competing to play on Monday Night. Most of them have no real chance to get there. But because it only takes thirteen players (or less) to field a college basketball team, and because the potential for riches is great, almost every university with a gym either plays in Division I or aspires to play there. By contrast, only 112 schools play Division I-A football.
Even among the sixty-four who make the NCAA tournament field, only a handful have a serious chance of playing on Monday Night. For Coppin State and Navy, Valparaiso and Boston University, Fairfield and Jackson State (among others), just being in the field is a thrill and a financial windfall. Winning a game--as Coppin did in 1997--is gravy. Anything beyond that is basketball nirvana. For a majority of the 306, Monday Night is nothing more than a fantasy.
For a chosen few--fifty, perhaps sixty schools--Monday Night is the goal. In the major conferences, the ones whose games are on TV throughout the season, it is the benchmark of success for every coach.
Nowhere is that more true than in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC may not be the most powerful basketball conference in the country every single year, but year in and year out it is the most consistent. It is the deepest in talent and the most competitive. There are few off nights in the ACC. Every other league in the country has a team or two or three that the top teams know they will beat every time they play unless they make an absolute pratfall. That's just not true in the ACC. In 1997, Georgia Tech finished last in the ACC. A year earlier, the Yellow Jackets had finished first. Seven years earlier, they came within one game of playing on Monday Night. That's how quickly fortunes can change in the ACC. Let down just the slightest bit and you become instant roadkill.
The eighth-place team in the league in 1997 was North Carolina State. During the '96-97 season, the Wolfpack beat the team that finished first, one of the teams that tied for second, and both teams that tied for fourth. It lost to the other second-place team by one point in one game and blew a nine-point lead in the last two minutes in another.
No off nights.
On this Monday Night, a cold windy last day of March 1997 in Indianapolis, none of the nine ACC teams were in the building. There were seats reserved for the players from North Carolina because they had reached the Final Four, coming within one victory of Monday Night. But the Tar Heels were nowhere to be found. They had flown home to Chapel Hill--devastated, even after a remarkable 28-7 season that had included a sixteen-victory, two-month winning streak--twenty-four hours before the championship game began.
Their coach, Dean Smith, had walked out of the RCA Dome on Saturday evening after the loss to Arizona looking crushed. Two weeks earlier, he had become the winningest coach in the history of college basketball. The look on his face as he walked to his car showed a man who wasn't thinking about the 879 games he had won, but of the one that had just gotten away. That's the way coaches are. They remember the losses much longer than the wins.
But that's part of the job. Almost all successful coaches--at least the ones good enough to get into the NCAA tournament field--end their season with a loss. When it is all said and done, only two coaches get to Monday Night. And only one wins.
The only ACC coach in the building for 1997's Monday Night was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. As Arizona and Kentucky dueled on the floor of the RCA Dome, Krzyzewski sat about one hundred feet away on a raised CBS-TV platform that had been built directly above the tunnel Kentucky was using to get to and from the court. Krzyzewski had a perfect view of the other tunnel, on the far side of the arena, the one Arizona would use--the same tunnel his Duke team had used six years earlier on Monday Night.
It was in this building--then known as the Hoosier Dome, before RCA paid millions to rename it--that Krzyzewski's coaching career and his life had changed forever. On a magic final weekend, he and his players had pulled off one of the most monumental upsets in NCAA tournament history, beating the defending national champion, Nevada-Las Vegas, in the semifinals. UNLV was 34-0 going into the Final Four and had already been anointed as one of the greatest teams of all time. A year earlier, UNLV and Duke had met in the national championship game and the final score had been 103-73, the most lopsided final in the tournament's fifty-two-year history. Given virtually no chance the next year to keep the game close, much less win it, the Blue Devils had won.
In 1995, after taking Duke to four championship games in five years, Krzyzewski had missed the last two months of a disastrous Duke season because of back problems and exhaustion. He had, for all intents and purposes, crashed--physically, mentally, and emotionally. He wondered then if he would ever coach again, if he even wanted to coach again.
He had come back in the 1996 season, but continued to wonder if coaching was what he wanted to do. Six weeks before Arizona and Kentucky met, Krzyzewski had turned fifty. Watching the season's final game, Krzyzewski knew there was only one thing he wanted to do with his life right now: get his team back to Monday Night.
Back in Chapel Hill, Dean Smith watched the game in his living room along with his wife, Linnea. Like his archrival, Krzyzewski, Smith had taken teams to the final game five times and, like Krzyzewski, had won twice. Six years, including this year, he had taken teams to the Final Four, only to lose in the semifinals.
At sixty-six, Smith was one of the coaching icons in the game's history. He had coached at North Carolina for thirty-six years, winning every one of those record-setting 879 games there. He had been at Carolina so long that he had coached in three different arenas, the most recent a 21,444-seat palace that bore his name.
All winter, there had been rumors circulating in the ACC that Smith was going to retire at season's end. He would break Adolph Rupp's record of 876 victories and he might also have a fairy-tale national championship. The possibility of the latter had ended against Arizona when Smith's team made seven of 11 shots to start the game and then missed 47 of its next 63. The Tar Heels had been rattled by Arizona's speed and, after a jackrabbit start, had played the next ten minutes about as poorly and carelessly as a Smith-coached team could possibly play. That bothered Smith almost as much as losing the game did--perhaps more. His team had played so well during February and March and then arrived at the Final Four and fallen to pieces.
In the aftermath of the loss to Arizona, Smith had been asked about Arizona's quickness. A stream-of-consciousness talker--the previous day he had turned a question about Adolph Rupp into a lengthy monologue about his former player and assistant Larry Brown becoming a father again at the age of fifty-seven--he had somehow finished his answer by predicting that Arizona and Duke would be in the Final Four next year. Smith did that often--predicting success for Duke. It was a defense mechanism, but also a reflection of the rivalry between Carolina and Duke and between their two hugely successful coaches. Neither was ever far from the other's thoughts.
Now, as he watched Arizona and Kentucky, Smith was again struck by Arizona's speed and poise. He felt better understanding that his team's loss hadn't been a fluke. Arizona was good. It had beaten Kansas, the pretournament favorite, in the round of sixteen, a devastating loss for Smith's ex-assistant, Roy Williams. Now, it had beaten North Carolina and Kentucky. The best team had won.
But Smith knew his team wasn't far from being that good. He believed his team had been worthy of this Monday Night. He knew that if his best player, sophomore Antawn Jamison, returned to play another year of college ball, his team would have a chance to be very good again in 1998. Still, even though it had been a good season, it had been a long, tiring winter. Again.
And even though he had a contract to coach four more years, he had no idea how much longer he would want to coach. This year had been fun. Some of the previous ones hadn't been. He hoped he would be as eager next October as he had been for the thirty-six previous ones.
Wake Forest coach Dave Odom also watched the final with his wife that night. Lynn Odom had driven to their brand-new beach house on North Carolina's eastern shore on the same day that Odom had flown to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Odom had a number of meetings to go to there and he always looked forward to seeing his friends in the coaching fraternity. Few men in coaching had more friends than Odom.
Most years, Lynn would have gone too. She enjoyed Dave's friends and was close to a number of the wives she had met through the years. This year, though, with the new house finally ready after more than two years of planning, she decided to go to the beach. What's more, this was the Final Four that Dave and Lynn Odom had planned on attending as participants rather than spectators. The reality--that Wake Forest's season had ended three wins shy of that goal--was a painful one. Lynn didn't have to go; Dave did.
Seeing other coaches was good for him. It reminded him of how much he enjoyed being in the business. The toughest part came on Thursday night at the NCAA's annual "Salute Dinner," which was really a snooty NCAA way of throwing a party for its various corporate sponsors. Odom found himself sitting at a table with Clemson's Rick Barnes, Virginia's Jeff Jones, and Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins.
"You know what we ought to do," he said as they were taking their seats. "We ought to go over and congratulate Dean on the record and getting to the Final Four."
The others nodded. There had always been an unseen barrier between Smith and the other ACC coaches. Part of it came from Smith being the target in the league for so many years. Part of it came from his shyness, which some coaches saw as aloofness. Years before, when Smith had been the same age as most of the other top coaches in the league, they constantly sniped at him, convinced that he was always sniping at them. When Lefty Driesell was the coach at Maryland, he often said that he was convinced that the name of the coach at North Carolina was "that goddamn Dean," because North Carolina State coach Norman Sloan would call him almost every morning screaming, "Do you know what that goddamn Dean just did!"
Now, Smith was twelve years older than Odom, the league's second-oldest coach. Jones and NC State coach Herb Sendek weren't even born when Smith arrived at North Carolina. He is respected now as the elder statesman, but that doesn't mean there isn't antipathy. Smith and Krzyzewski haven't gotten along since 1984, when Krzyzewski insisted there was a "double standard" in the way ACC referees worked--one for North Carolina, another for the rest of the league. Smith still bridles at that claim, and the two men have exchanged brickbats--publicly and privately--ever since. In 1995, Rick Barnes's first year in the league, he and Smith nearly fought during an ACC tournament game. A year later, they were called to Commissioner Gene Corrigan's home and told in no uncertain terms to quit calling each other names in public. Now, they just do it in private.
But time is a healer. After Smith broke the record for most career wins by a college coach, the first ACC coach to write him was Barnes. And so, when Odom suggested crossing the room to offer congratulations, Jones, Barnes, and Cremins followed him to Smith's table. But Smith hadn't arrived yet. As organized as he is when it comes to basketball, Smith can be a mess when it comes to matters that aren't that important to him--like a dinner where he knows he has to speak and doesn't really want to. "He'll be here in eleven minutes," said Woody Durham, who has been North Carolina's play-by-play man on radio for almost as long as Smith has been the basketball coach.
Odom and company returned to the table. When Odom saw Smith walk in, he suggested another pilgrimage. By now, the others were eating their salads. Later, they said. Odom didn't want to wait. He walked back to Smith's table--no small feat since he had had surgery on a toe six days earlier--and put a hand on Smith's shoulder.
"Coach"--Odom has never been comfortable calling Smith "Dean"--"I just wanted to congratulate you for everything," he said. "No one's more deserving."
Odom meant it. He was awed by the very fact that someone could coach at the ACC's level of intensity and pressure for thirty-six years, much less win at that level every single year. Smith stood up to shake hands. "Thanks," he said. Then, awkwardly, not quite sure what to say, he added, "I really thought you"--Wake Forest--"would be here too."
That thought had been with Odom almost nonstop ever since the clock had hit zero twelve days earlier in Tucson and the Deacons had five fewer points on the scoreboard than Stanford. "Our guards," he said for about the five hundredth time. "Somewhere, they just lost confidence in their shot and--"
"I never thought they were that good to begin with," Smith interjected.
Odom couldn't help himself. He started to laugh. He knew Smith wasn't putting down his guard;) he was trying to say, "It wasn't your fault." He also knew that come next January, when North Carolina and Wake Forest were getting ready to play again, Smith would talk about those guards as if they were Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Nonetheless, he appreciated the gesture.
Later that night, each of the four coaches whose teams would be playing Saturday had to get up and speak briefly. "Someday," Odom thought, "I want to speak at this dinner."
That was why watching Monday Night from his living room was difficult. In eight years as the head coach at Wake Forest, he had rebuilt a sagging program into a national power. But the closest Odom had come to Monday Night had been in 1984, when he had been an assistant coach at Virginia and the Cavaliers had lost to Houston in overtime on semifinal Saturday.
The Deacons had played almost flawlessly for fourteen games, looking like a team that might not lose all season. But then chinks had appeared in the armor. They went from a preseason Final Four certainty to a team that shocked no one by losing in the second round to Stanford.
Intellectually, Odom knew he had done everything a coach could do to try and shake his team loose from its malaise. Still, the pain was palpable. Odom had gotten into college coaching later than the other ACC coaches and hadn't settled in at Wake Forest until he was already forty-six. The only other coach who had been forty when he arrived in the ACC was Maryland's Gary Williams, who was forty-four when he was hired to coach at his alma mater. But Williams had already been a successful head coach for eleven years by then. Odom's head coaching resume when he got to Wake had consisted of a three-year stint at East Carolina that had produced a 38-42 record.
The Wake job had come at a time when Odom wondered if he would ever get the chance to run his own program in the ACC. He had steadily built it, first to respectability, then to this point, this year. It was difficult to look back on a 24-7 season and wonder what had gone wrong, but that was what Odom was doing. As he watched Kentucky and Arizona go at one another, he was struck by the quality of the game. The two teams had speed and quickness. They were both tough. Their coaches seemed to understand them perfectly. Odom had known Rick Pitino since they had worked together at the Five-Star Camp when both were climbing the coaching ladder. He was genuinely happy that his friend had become such a star in the coaching pantheon because he knew how much Pitino craved that sort of recognition.
Odom has never needed the spotlight. But he still felt a craving as he watched the game wind down. "Our basketball team could not have played with Kentucky or Arizona in March," he said later. "But we could have played with them in December or January. The trouble is, they don't play the Final Four then. The question I will always ask myself is why we didn't get better as the season went on. I can speculate, but I'll never really know. Because if I had known, I would have done something about it."
The entire Barnes family of Clemson, South Carolina, watched the championship game together. Rick and Candy, Nick and Carly. Nick was twelve, Carly nine. Nick made it to the finish, just before midnight. Carly was sound asleep long before the final buzzer.
Rick Barnes had no regrets about his third season at Clemson. He had looked at the tape of his team's double-overtime loss to Minnesota in the round of sixteen and had discovered something he hadn't known in the immediate aftermath of the game. "When we were up 80-74 in the first overtime and they caught us, I thought we'd blown it," he said. "But when I looked at the tape, I saw that they made some hellacious plays. I mean, hellacious plays. Sometimes, you've got to give the other guy credit. As coaches, we don't always do that. Either our kids messed up or the refs made a bad call--something. Not this game. They just went out and won it."
The Tigers had come agonizingly close. And yet, Barnes felt no agony, just pride. He knew where the program had been in the spring of 1994 when he had fled Providence after six difficult years to take over the ACC's worst program. His athletic director, Bobby Robinson, had told him during the interviewing process that Clemson might be the worst team in ACC history the next winter. Instead, the Tigers finished sixth in the league and went down fighting--literally--in the ACC tournament against North Carolina. That game had made it clear to people who Barnes was. He could be both funny and charming and no one liked a practical joke more than he did. But if you missed the competitive side of him, you missed him.
Exactly a year later, again facing North Carolina in the ACC tournament, the Tigers came from behind to win the game. The victory put them in the NCAA tournament. There wasn't a senior on the team. Suddenly, they had gone from the league's worst team to a team many thought would finish second to Wake Forest in 1997. The turnaround was breathtaking.
Barnes was now a hot young coach. At forty-two, his name seemed to come up every time a major school was looking for a coach. He had no interest in leaving Clemson. Candy loved living there. Both had grown up in western North Carolina, and they were a lot more comfortable living in a small town in the South than they had been living in the Northeast.
Time and again throughout the 1996-97 season, Barnes had told his players, "This is your time; this is what you've worked so hard for." They had responded with twenty-one victories in the regular season, then had come back in the NCAA tournament to beat both Miami of Ohio and Tulsa to reach the Sweet Sixteen. It was the school's first appearance there since 1990 and only the third in Clemson history. And then they had played and lost a classic against Minnesota.
Only one senior had started for Clemson in the Minnesota game--shooting guard Merl Code. Everyone else would be back. A strong recruiting class was on the way. Clemson would probably begin the '97-98 season as no worse than a cofavorite to win the ACC. It would be ranked in everyone's top ten and in a lot of top fives.
All of that, Barnes knew, guaranteed nothing.
"As soon as the championship game was over, I wanted to go to work," he said. "We were only two games from the Final Four. Hell, we were one shot from the final eight. But I knew how hard we had worked to get that far. I knew how hard Kentucky and Arizona had worked to get where they were. It's such a fine line. All I wanted to do was remind my players that every drop of sweat they produce this summer will pay off next winter. That last game, that last night is what it's all about. It has to be your goal. If it isn't, why bother doing all this?"
* * *
Gary Williams, who had once been Barnes's boss back at Ohio State, felt the same way. In a sense, Williams had done exactly what he had set out to do when he graduated from Maryland thirty years earlier. He had won as a high school coach and been a successful assistant coach at the college level. He had dreamed about being a head coach and had become one at the age of thirty-four. He had built the program at American University into a consistent winner and then moved on to Boston College and Ohio State. He had won at both those places. Finally, in 1989, his dream had come true: Maryland had called and asked him to come back.
He couldn't say no to Maryland. And so he left a program at Ohio State that was loaded with players to take over one that was loaded with problems. He knew that the NCAA was investigating deposed coach Bob Wade for rules violations and he knew the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias still hung over the campus even three years after it had happened. It wouldn't be easy, but Williams could handle it. He knew he could handle it because he had always handled coaching challenges. All you did was outwork people. It wasn't that hard if you wanted it bad enough.
Outworking people couldn't overcome two years of NCAA sanctions, though, and that was what Maryland got hit with at the end of Williams's first season. As if to twist the knife a little deeper, the Tournament Committee then left the Terrapins out of the NCAA field even though they had won eighteen games during the regular season.
That was the least of Williams's troubles. Recruiting got hammered. His private life was in disarray. He was recently divorced and, shortly after his first season at Maryland ended, his fiancee called off their planned wedding and skipped town. That summer, he was stopped on his way home from a golf outing and hit with a DUI charge.
"There were times those first couple of years," he said, "when I really thought my career was over." It wasn't. Williams recruited brilliantly, rebuilt the team, and made it into a fourth straight NCAA tournament in March 1997 before losing in the first round to the College of Charleston. The Terrapins weren't awful that night, but they weren't nearly good enough to win the game. And so, on a rainy night in Memphis, what had been a dream season crashed. Williams woke up wondering if he really cared if the plane home--which rocked and rolled all over the sky in awful weather--landed safely or not.
Sixteen days later he sat in his living room on Monday Night and watched Arizona and Kentucky, feeling calmer but nonetheless frustrated. He was fifty-two. Tim Ryan of CBS had called him one of the game's "best young coaches" in the waning seconds of the College of Charleston loss. Williams had been called that often during his career. He knew it wasn't true anymore. He was the third-oldest coach in the ACC. He was two years older than Mike Krzyzewski, who had been to seven Final Fours. He was a year older than Dean Smith had been when he won his first national title in his seventh Final Four. He was eight years older than Rick Pitino.
But he was also ten years younger than Arizona coach Lute Olson, who had waited more than forty years for this night. He still had plenty of energy and he knew he had a good team returning for next season. It was much too soon to give up hope. He never had before, why should he start now?
Jeff Jones was still young enough to be accurately called a hot young coach. He wouldn't be thirty-seven until June and, after seven seasons at Virginia, he had already won 135 games (Smith had won 120 in his first seven seasons) and taken the Cavaliers into the NCAA tournament five times. Two years earlier, they had upset top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen before losing in the round of eight to defending national champion Arkansas.
But things were hardly sanguine in Jones's life. He spent the first half of the championship game on the phone to a recruit, in part because that's what coaches do but also because he knew his team needed reinforcements. The Cavaliers had pieced together a difficult, though solid, season, winning eighteen games and making it into the NCAA tournament. That was a far cry from the 12-15 of the previous year. What's more, there hadn't been any arrests--as opposed to four in 1996, including one for aggravated assault in which a UVA recruit had slashed someone with a knife after an argument during a pickup basketball game. The other good news was that Jones's personal life, which had been the subject of constant gossip in Charlottesville after he had split from his wife, Lisa, had also become little more than a back-burner item.
Still, Jones couldn't get the memory of the season finale, an embarrassing one-sided loss to Iowa in the first round of the NCAAs, out of his mind. He had yet to figure out why his team had failed to show up for that game after working so hard to get there. Five days earlier, he had made the most difficult decision of his coaching career, firing his top assistant, Tom Perrin.
The coaching change was symbolic of the uncertain waters Virginia basketball was in. Jones had only one year left on his contract, and UVA's athletic director, Terry Holland, who had coached him at UVA and then hired him as an assistant coach, had been hemming and hawing about an extension. Jones knew that going into the final year of a contract without an extension was a recruiting nightmare. Holland knew that too. And yet, Jones was still waiting for a definitive talk about his future.
His divorce would be final in a matter of weeks. He still saw his three children often because he had moved into a townhouse that was only ten minutes from where they lived. As long as he coached at Virginia, it was likely he would get to see his children frequently. He and Lisa were having an amicable divorce. But he didn't know if he would be the coach at Virginia for one more year or thirty more years.
Jones is not, by nature, a confrontational person. That was why he had been unable to make eye contact with Perrin during their last conversation. That was why he hadn't pushed Holland harder about an extension. That was why, as he watched the championship game, he chose not to think about the uncertainty of his future. When forty minutes of regulation didn't produce a winner, Jones turned off the TV and went upstairs to his bedroom. He climbed into bed and turned the television on to watch the overtime. When the game was over, he watched all the postgame celebrating and the interviews. He stayed awake right through CBS's annual signoff, a montage of pictures from the tournament that flashed on the screen while the sappy song "One Shining Moment" played over them. Jones knew how corny it all was, and yet, there was that lump in his throat again.
Still there after all these years. He had watched Monday Night as a kid with his dad, who had been a coach; then he had watched it with friends as a player and with Lisa as a young husband and father. Now, he watched it alone, a successful coach with an uncertain future. So much had changed. But the lump hadn't changed. "Being in that game has always been my dream," he said. "I've been close"--semifinals as a player in 1981; semifinals as an assistant coach in 1984--"but never been there. I just feel until I get there, I won't have done what I set out to do in basketball."
As soon as the final notes of the song faded, Jones turned the TV off. The season was over. It was time to start thinking about the next one.
Three of the nine ACC coaches had not taken their teams into the NCAA tournament. Pat Kennedy's Florida State team had missed the tournament for a fourth straight year, coming up one victory short. It had played in the National Invitation Tournament as a consolation prize and pieced together a successful four-game run, reaching the final in Madison Square Garden before losing to Michigan.
Kennedy had been at Florida State for eleven years. A year earlier, after a third straight losing season, his boss, Dave Hart, had told him that the school would not roll over his five-year contract as it had done in the past. That meant he had four years left. He had then talked to St. John's about its coaching vacancy and had been sharply criticized back home in Tallahasee for doing so. Now, Kennedy wanted to know if Hart was going to give him an extension after a 20-12 season in which four of those victories had come in the consolation tournament rather than in the Big Show of the NCAAs.
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