Tar Heels and Wolfpack fans applaud Coach K - for two weeks every four years

lkeeley@newsobserver.comAugust 18, 2012 

— When Mike Krzyzewski’s commercial flight arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Monday night, he was happy to be home and twice thanked the crowd of around 100 for coming to welcome him.

“Great Britain did a fabulous job hosting,” he said, wearing a Team USA tracksuit as he stood at a podium and addressed the media in Terminal 2. “It was a spectacular Olympics. But I’ll take Raleigh-Durham.”

And Raleigh-Durham will take him, too.

“State fans everywhere were very proud of how the team represented the United States and are very appreciative of the job coach Krzyzewski did on behalf of all of us,” said Bobby Purcell, the head of N.C. State’s booster group, the Wolfpack Club. “He represents all of us when he coaches our Olympic team, and we were pulling for him.”

The Tar Heels, also, were able to appreciate what Krzyzewski did.

“Even the folks that have at the very core a disdain for Duke, the Olympics are such a special event that I think that trumps those feelings,” said Eric Montross, a former UNC national champion who shed blood against Duke’s Christian Laettner in 1992 and now works as a Tar Heels’ broadcaster and employee for their boosters, the Rams Club. “And it would surprise me to find a perspective that says otherwise.”

The idea that Krzyzewski is reviled in North Carolina, as he coaches at a small, private school situated in the middle of Tar Heels and Wolfpack territory, is waning.

Since 2008, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling (PPP) has annually surveyed North Carolina voters in the spring on their rooting interest in the Duke vs. UNC matchup. The initial poll — before Krzyzewski led Team USA to a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics — showed 40 percent of voters pulled for UNC, 24 percent for Duke. In 2012, that margin had shrunk to 41 percent UNC, 31 percent Duke.

And in the 919 area code, shared by all three Triangle ACC schools, the most recent breakdown was 42 percent for UNC, 40 percent for Duke. The poll’s margin of error was 3 percent.

“As coaches and players have success, the more success you have, the more respected you are, that’s just the nature of humanity,” Montross said. “I don’t think anyone would dispute that he is an excellent coach. And that doesn’t really waver in the perspective of whether you’re a Tar Heel fan or Blue Devils’ fan.”

The receptions like the one Krzyzewski received at the airport have become more common during the past few years.

“It’s been neat to see the ways that he has been received,” Duke assistant coach Chris Collins said.

“Whether you cheer for Duke or you don’t cheer for Duke, when you see what he’s been able to do in his career, his accomplishments and the way he’s done it, it definitely brings respect.”

An iconic figure nationally

Nationally, the Olympics provided a large boost for Krzyzewski’s image, too.

The Q Scores Company measures the consumer appeal of programs, brands and personalities, including between 400 and 600 sports figures every year.

The average coach, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores, gets a positive Q score (the percentage of fans that said he was one of their favorite sports personalities) of 18.

In 2004, Krzyzewski was recognized by 43 percent of sports fans nationwide and received a Q score of 27. In 2006, his awareness rose to 48 percent and Q score to 35 — a, “significant,” jump, Schafer said.

In between those measurements, in 2005, Krzyzewski was named the head coach for the national team — at the suggestion of legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith. He forged tight relationships with Kobe Bryant, who has said he would have gone to Duke if he went to college, and LeBron James, who gleefully poured two water bottles on Krzyzewski’s head and embraced him in a bear hug after Team USA beat Spain for the gold one week ago.

In the most recent measurement, taken this year before the Olympics, Krzyzewski’s awareness was at 55 percent with a Q score of 31 — in the same range as Joe Montana and Magic Johnson.

Nolan Ryan, Hall of Fame pitcher and president of the Texas Rangers, is the only sports executive or coach ranked higher than Krzyzewski.

“An iconic figure, more or less,” Schafer said of Krzyzewski.

“As far as any kind of negative reaction, it’s so low that it’s not even worth talking about,” Schafer added. “He’s not polarizing in any way.”

No love in February

Just because Tar Heels and Wolfpack fans appreciate the work Krzyzewski has done for Team USA doesn’t mean they have abandoned their respective rivalries.

“I think like and respect are two different things,” said Bucky Waters, who played at N.C. State in the 1950s and was Duke’s head coach from 1969-1973 before becoming a broadcaster.

Purcell, the head of the Wolfpack Club, echoed that thought.

“We want to beat him every time we play him,” he said. “But there is a respect for what he’s done.”

Duke associate director of athletics Jon Jackson said Krzyzewski was traveling and unavailable for comment.

As for the Duke-UNC rivalry, it never ends.

College basketball’s most storied duel entered its modern phase in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 1961, when both the freshman and varsity games featured fights. The most notable brawl occurred at the end of the main event when 10 Durham policemen attempted to break up a stadium-wide melee after North Carolina’s Larry Brown punched Duke’s Art Heyman (a former UNC commit) after a hard foul.

Since then, there has been more literal bloodshed — Montross’ face in 1992, and, more recently, Gerald Henderson’s elbow that connected with Tyler Hansbrough’s nose in 2007. Add in the nearly-unbelievable comebacks, such as UNC’s eight points in the final 17 seconds in regulation en route to a 96-92 victory in 1974, and the Blue Devils’ rally from 14 down in 2011 to stage their biggest halftime comeback since 1959 with a 79-73 win.

Both schools have unofficial fight songs that refer to the other in unflattering terms.

And then there are the shots. Jeff Capel’s running 30-footer to force overtime in 1995, and, of course, Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer over Tyler Zeller in Chapel Hill last season, hours after two UNC alumni held a book signing for their title, “Duke Sucks.”

Still, of the voters who identified UNC as their favorite college team in the state, 46 percent had a favorable impression of Krzyzewski while 27 percent found him unfavorable. An additional 27 percent said they weren’t sure.

As Waters said, there is a difference between respect and like.

There’s also a significant difference between Duke coach Krzyzewski and Team USA coach Krzyzewski.

“We’re all citizens of this country,” Montross said. “but we’re not sharing jerseys in February.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556

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