Final Four 2010: It's not so easy to tell Coach K and Dean Smith apart

By John Feinstein
Saturday, April 3, 2010; D03


In March 1993, Duke and North Carolina played each other in Chapel Hill in a game with all sorts of national ramifications. Duke was the defending national champion. North Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country.

Early in the game the two coaches, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, both clearly uptight, were up on every whistle. After several minutes, lead referee Lenny Wirtz had seen and heard enough. He called Krzyzewski and Smith to the scorer's table.

"I know it's a big game," he said. "I know you're both a little hyper. But you have to calm down and let us work the game."

Smith nodded. Krzyzewski did not. "Lenny, there's 21,000 people in here who are all against me," he said. "You three guys are the only ones I can talk to."

Wirtz laughed. Smith did not. "Lenny, don't let him do that," he said. "He's trying to get you on his side."

Krzyzewski glared at Smith, who glared back. Krzyzewski stalked back to his bench and said to his assistant coaches, "If I ever start to act like him, don't ask a single question, just get a gun and shoot me."

Time to round up the guns.

That's not to say that Krzyzewski has morphed into his former arch rival, but as he has become older, more successful and more famous, it is clear that he has come to see the world through a prism far more similar to Smith than he might ever have imagined.

Consider some anecdotal evidence: Smith was famous for shining the spotlight on his seniors -- no matter who they were. In 1975, a North Carolina team led by Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak, won the ACC tournament. Smith's opening comment after the championship game was as follows: "Clearly the leadership we got from our seniors was the key to our winning this tournament."

Those senior leaders were Brad Hoffman, Ed Stahl and walk-on Mickey Bell.

Last Sunday, junior Nolan Smith was voted the MVP of the South Region after scoring 29 points in Duke's win over Baylor in the final. Duke's best player in the first three games of the tournament was Kyle Singler, another junior. The three Duke players in the Final Four interview room Friday for the practice day at Lucas Oil Stadium? Seniors Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.

Dean Smith always made a point of lowering expectations every chance he got. He always said he would be glad to win any game by one point and would never take an NCAA bid for granted -- even while making the NCAA tournament the last 23 seasons of his coaching career.

Several years ago, after a win over Butler, Krzyzewski made this comment: "That's the kind of team we could play in the NCAA tournament . . . if we're lucky enough to make the tournament."

Duke was 22-2 at the time.

There is also the issue of officials. In 1984, after a difficult loss at home to North Carolina, Krzyzewski said there was a double standard for officiating in the ACC: one applied to Smith and North Carolina, the other applied to the rest of the league. Smith was furious -- for years -- over that comment. These days every coach in the ACC is convinced that the double standard has moved 11 miles down the road from Chapel Hill to Durham. Several years ago, Krzyzewski was reminded about the double-standard comment and laughed.

"Looking back, I can see why Dean was upset when I said that," he said. "There's always going to be a sense that a team on top gets the calls because it wins a lot. Good teams tend to win close games because they have players who make plays. We didn't lose to Carolina in 1984 because of the referees, we lost because of Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins."

Smith was always very protective of his players and went out of his way to credit them for victories while blaming himself for losses. Krzyzewski is exactly the same way. The Final Four "is the players' experience," he said Friday. "I'm just happy to be a part of their experience."

And then there was Smith's remarkable ability to take a question about how well his team had defended and turn it into a lecture on why the NCAA should crack down more on gambling, or why it was unfair to make his team miss class the day before a region semifinal game to fly in for an open practice and a news conference at the region site.

Friday, Krzyzewski was asked about the fact that nine players in his team's semifinal Saturday against West Virginia are from New York or New Jersey. His answer wandered from that subject to his belief the NCAA should allow coaches to work with their players during the offseason, to a lecture on his daughter taking piano lessons.

"If my daughter takes piano lessons, you don't cut her off from her teacher from April to September," he said. "Players shouldn't be cut off from working with their coaches from April to September either."

He made perfect sense. Smith always made perfect sense, too. At his last Final Four, which was here in 1997, he turned a question about Shammond Williams's poor shooting into a commentary on Larry Brown becoming a father again at the age of 56. Friday, Krzyzewski worked his seven grandchildren into a question about Duke being considered evil.

There's an old saying in the ACC: ABD -- Anybody But Duke. Of course that old saying replaced an older saying: ABC -- Anybody But Carolina. Smith always said that ABC was a compliment because it meant his team had been good for a long time. Friday, Krzyzewski said this: "It's good that people talk about us being back at the Final Four because it means we're here and we've been here before."

Yes they have. Krzyzewski has now reached 11 Final Fours -- as many as Smith. He's also won 12 ACC titles -- one less than Smith. He does have three national titles to two for Smith but that's because he gets all the calls. Oh wait, it was Smith who got all the calls.

Confused yet?

The point here is this: Becoming more like Dean Smith isn't a bad thing; it's a good thing. Smith was not only one of the greatest coaches who ever lived; his program stood for all that was good about college basketball. Krzyzewski has built a similar program at Duke, regardless of what people who have never met him write or say about him.

"We're not going to apologize for being good, for going to class and for wanting to win," Krzyzewski said. "I think doing all that is a good thing."

Smith's teams won games, went to class and wanted to win. Smith retired with 879 wins. Krzyzewski now has 866.

Of course their politics were always very different. Smith is a liberal Democrat, someone who took part in antiwar marches during the Vietnam War, took part in protests advocating a nuclear freeze and actively campaigned for years against Jesse Helms, the conservative former senator from North Carolina.

Krzyzewski is a lifelong Republican who voted for Ronald Reagan twice and for Bush, father and son, twice each.

Smith was thrilled when President Obama was elected in 2008. So was Krzyzewski.

He voted for Obama, too.

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