Vic Bubas helped set the stage. Not just for Duke, which he conceded was a “good” program before he arrived at Durham, but for the ACC, which he and two other fledgling head coaches lifted to elite basketball status.
Like Bones McKinney, his rival at Wake Forest, Bubas, who died last week at age 91, was a graduate of a Triangle-area school before anyone applied geometry to naming the region. Like Dean Smith, his rival at North Carolina, Bubas went directly from assisting a Hall of Famer to establishing a rare level of consistent excellence in his first job directing a program.
The three new coaches, all in their 30s, took over at their respective schools within a five-year span. Historians rarely render them as a group, as happens with the comparably youthful Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Jim Valvano at N.C. State, who arrived within a year’s span some two decades later.
Yet the earlier trio had a similar, and more profound formative impact on the ACC, sending seven representatives to the Final Four in an eight-year span from 1961 through 1969. All came from Wake (1) or Duke (3) -- firsts for both schools -- or UNC (3). “I think we helped to advance the ACC to a position to where we were recognized at a pretty good level no matter which ACC team was in there,” Bubas told me in 2002.
Still, it took ACC schools eight fruitless forays to the Final Four before Norm Sloan’s 1974 Wolfpack matched the ’57 Tar Heels with a national championship. And, while Duke and Carolina continue to compete for NCAA titles, combining for 28 Final Four visits and 10 championships since '60s, the Demon Deacons reached their highwater mark during McKinney’s eight-year tenure. Bubas’ Blue Devils blocked the narrow path to the game’s summit before Wake could sustain its rise; since then the Deacs have not returned to the Final Four, made only three trips to the ACC tournament finals in more than a half-century, and only sporadically contended for ACC supremacy.
McKinney, among a handful of military veterans who suited up to play basketball for the Wolfpack and Tar Heels straddling World War II, became Wake’s head coach in 1957-58. Within a few years the ACC’s balance of power shifted as Everett Case’s N.C. State program waned and Smith tried to gain traction at Chapel Hill following Frank McGuire’s 1961 departure. That left the way open for Bubas and McKinney to slip to the front of the line.
McKinney was a cross between raconteur, ordained minister, and irrepressible showman. Add Penfield, then Duke’s radio announcer, described him as “a gangly, sometimes wild-eyed and often zany showoff.” Chastened by ACC commissioner Jim Weaver for his bench decorum, McKinney had a seatbelt temporarily installed to restrain his expressive impulses. He kept a bucket of drinking water by his bench, and once cast a ladle-full onto the court to force a stoppage when Wake exhausted its timeouts.
The former pro player also knew the game. By 1960, his third season at Winston-Salem, the rebuilt Demon Deacons were the league’s only 20-game winners, McKinney the conference’s coach of the year, and his team in the ACC tournament final.
Back when a single member of each league got an NCAA bid, the ACC championship contest was the last hurdle to reaching the NCAA tournament. McKinney got teams that far five straight times, winning the ACC title in 1961 and 1962. That long a run has been duplicated or exceeded just twice, topped by Duke under Krzyzewski from 1998 through 2006.
McKinney’s 1961 club won the ACC tournament and reached the NCAA regional final. His 1962 team was better, finishing first during the league’s regular season, winning the ACC tournament and advancing to the Final Four. Both squads were led by big man Len Chappell and guard Billy Packer.
But even as Wake gained momentum, so did Bubas and Duke.
“The only thing that was lacking at Duke, and I don’t know why, the teams back then didn’t seem to advance,” Bubas said of the program he inherited. Upon moving in 1959-60 from N.C. State, where he‘d played and worked for Case, Bubas went about remedying Duke’s postseason shortcomings with mastery of fast break basketball, tournament acumen and promotional ingenuity that mimicked his mentor. “He was very influential in my thinking, selling the team at the same time we were building one,” Bubas said.
Bubas shocked the league by taking his first Blue Devil squad to the ’60 ACC title, edging Wake in the final. The next year the rising programs clashed again and the Deacs prevailed, winning the first of two consecutive ACC championships, a feat the school duplicated once -- in the mid-1990s behind Tim Duncan and coach Dave Odom.
Meanwhile, with the exception of 1962, Duke returned to matching Wake step for step in reaching the tournament ‘s deciding game, securing wins in ’63 and ’64.
The statistical footprint left by Bubas’ program was noteworthy. Six of his first eight teams reached the ACC tournament final, including a streak of five straight from 1963 through 1967, matching Wake for the second-longest run ever. In all, eight of Bubas’ 10 Duke squads reached the ACC championship contest, winning four titles. His tournament winning percentage (.786) remains the best in league history.
Persistent success landed Duke in the AP top 10 every season from 1961 through 1966. In three of those years – 1963, 1964 and 1966 – the Devils advanced to the Final Four. When Bubas retired following the 1969 season, convinced he could no longer give the job his all, his teams had won 76.1 percent of their games, career efficiency bested only by Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Smith among ACC coaches.
News of Bubas’ death accented the fleeting nature of acclaim; he and McKinney, once key figures in elevating the conference’s profile, had gradually been forgotten by all but ACC diehards.
“Time has a way of getting away from you, and we all, rightfully so, live in the present,” Bubas told me years ago. Speaking of Case, but easily describing his own career, he added, “He probably deserves more credit than he got.”