John Drescher

Drescher: When Dean, Jimmy V and Coach K ruled Tobacco Road

UNC Coach Dean Smith, left, shakes hands with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils in the first game in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center on January 18, 1986.
UNC Coach Dean Smith, left, shakes hands with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils in the first game in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center on January 18, 1986. Robert Willett

Mike Krzyzewski’s first Duke-Carolina game was, like most games in the series, hard-fought and close. As the ending neared in that 1980 game, Duke was down by two points and had the ball out of bounds.

UNC coach Dean Smith, even then at 49 considered one of the best coaches ever, believed the game was over and extended his hand to Krzyzewski, 33, who ignored Smith’s attempted handshake, saying, perhaps as only Krzyzewski would, “The g--damned game’s not over yet, Dean.”

When the officials said the clock had expired, Krzyzewski extended his hand – and wouldn’t let go of Smith’s. He pulled Smith toward him. “At least acknowledge that it was a hell of a game,” the younger coach said.

Smith was not happy. “I’m going to remember this,” he said.

“Good. I hope you do,” Krzyzewski said. The two coaches glared at each other before parting.

John Feinstein, a longtime writer for the Washington Post and the author of 25 nonfiction books, recounts that and many other Tobacco Road battles in his new book, “The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry.”

The News & Observer will publish excerpts from the book in Sunday’s print Sports section. Feinstein will discuss the book Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books at Ridgewood Shopping Center in Raleigh.

In the 1980s, the Atlantic Coast Conference was the premier college basketball conference. The Triangle neighborhood rivalries, driven by three talented coaches, were simultaneously passionate. Never have all three programs been so strong at the same time. UNC won the national championship in 1982, NC State in ’83 and starting in ’86, Duke went to the Final Four in seven of nine years.

Feinstein, 59, graduated from Duke in 1977 after Duke had finished last in the ACC four years in a row. At Duke, Feinstein wrote an admiring column for the student paper about UNC’s program – a column noted by Smith, who was an avid reader of sportswriters across the state.

Feinstein was fascinated by Smith, whom he writes was “brilliant, driven, generous, manipulative, protective, private and challenging.” Smith was media shy but always granted Feinstein interviews when he was at Duke and later at the Post.

Feinstein also had frequent access in the 1980s to Valvano and Krzyzewski, each of whom he’d met in his prior coaching job. After State games, Feinstein would hang out in Valvano’s office with the coach’s friends. When they cleared out at 3 a.m., Feinstein served as Valvano’s therapist. “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Valvano would say.

“It was amazing I was able to get to know all three of them the way I did and spend the time I did with them,” Feinstein told me this week.

Feinstein traces the coaches’ relationships with each other and how the professional rivalries changed into personal friendships. Krzyzewski and Valvano grew so close that Krzyzewski was in the room with Valvano when he died of cancer in 1993 at age 47.

As for Krzyzewski’s relationship with Smith, that also changed starkly from its hotly competitive beginning. In August 2013, Krzyzewski and his wife visited Smith and his wife at the Smiths’ beach house. Dean Smith was in a wheelchair and, stricken with a neurological impairment, mostly unresponsive.

Krzyzewski congratulated Smith on his Presidential Medal of Freedom and told Smith of his admiration for him.

The Krzyzewskis lingered for a while. Krzyzewski then walked to Smith and took his right hand, forming it into a handshake so different from the acrimonious clasp in 1980.

Krzyzewski put his left hand on Smith’s shoulder and whispered, “Coach, I love you.”

Smith squeezed Krzyzewski’s right hand and smiled.

About 18 months later, Krzyzewski wore a Carolina blue tie to Smith’s funeral.