Documentary tells story of how one recruiting class saved the Duke career of Coach K

Duke basketball’s brotherhood, coach Mike Krzyzewski said, began decades ago, long before players even entertained thoughts about being one-and-done players.

The ACC Network’s debut Thursday night includes an original program that backs up Krzyzewski’s proclamation.

“The Class that Saved Coach K,” is the new network’s feature-length documentary that reveals how Duke’s 1982 recruiting class improbably came together.

The show, scheduled to debut on the ACC Network at 9 p.m. Thursday night, examines how the six-man class headed by Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson was recruited and ultimately transformed the Blue Devils from ACC also-rans into champions.

In doing so, even Krzyzewski admits in the film, those players kept him employed at Duke when the school’s big-money boosters were openly making plans for his ouster.

The Duke bench erupts in celebration as Duke clinches a victory over UNC in Cameron Indoor Stadium March 3, 1986. Jonathan Wiggs News & Observer file photo

Scenes from a Duke dinner

Jonathan Hock, known for his excellent work on several ESPN Films documentaries, including the 2013 story of NC State’s 1983 NCAA championship team “Survive and Advance,” directed this Duke documentary.

It includes plenty of game footage and interviews from the film’s time period from 1980-86, along with present day interviews from the players and Krzyzewski.

Interspaced throughout the film are scenes from a dinner held earlier this year at the University Club, atop the 17-story University Tower in Durham.

The dinner featured Krzyzewski along with players from the 1986 team that went 37-3, winning Krzyzewski’s first ACC championship and playing in his first Final Four before losing 72-69 to Louisville in the NCAA final.

A 1984 photo shows Dukehead basketball coach Mike Krzyewski and point guard Tommy Amaker in Cameron Indoor Stadium. 1984 News & Observer file photo

The 1982 recruits were senior stars on that team but it also featured players who followed them to Duke, like Tommy Amaker, Danny Ferry, Quin Snyder and Billy King.

But the six players who were recruited in 1981 and arrived in 1982 are the main focus.

The film takes viewers back nearly 40 years to a time when Cameron Indoor Stadium was half-full for most games and Krzyzewski was an unproven coach with a name few outside the Triangle could pronounce.

Bilas plays a main role in the film as an executive producer along with John Dahl and Sandy Montag. Bilas, who’s currently an ESPN basketball analyst appears on camera often.

Together Bilas, Dahl and Montag importantly paint a picture of the college basketball hierarchy at that time in the ACC and the Triangle.

UNC, NC State win NCAA tournaments

North Carolina played in the Final Four in 1981 and won an NCAA championship in 1982. Duke continued to miss out on top recruits, Chris Mullin most notably, and languished near the bottom of the ACC standings.

Far from the household name he is now, Krzyzewski set about putting together what would be the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class by drawing players from around the country.

Bilas came from California, Alarie from Arizona, Bill Jackman from Nebraska, Weldon Williams from Illinois, Dawkins from Washington, D.C., and Henderson from just up the road in Warren County.

Even after those players arrived on campus, things got worse before they got better.

The Blue Devils went 11-17 overall and 3-11 in the ACC in their freshman season. Duke suffered a humiliating 109-66 season-ending loss to Virginia in the 1983 ACC tournament.

A few weeks later, another Triangle rival, N.C. State, won the NCAA championship to increase the pressure Krzyzewski faced.

Jackman transferred back home to Nebraska, which Bilas admits angered him at the time. The filmmakers don’t shy away from this, interviewing Jackman on camera about his choice.

Boosters want Coach K fired

Also in the film, the players reveal they knew boosters wanted Krzyzewski fired. But Duke’s administration, led by athletics director Tom Butters, stood by their coach.

From there, the film covers the next three seasons as Duke made steady steps toward becoming the powerhouse program it’s been ever since.

Duke’s Mark Alarie grabs a rebound during a 1986 game. Scott Sharpe News & Observer file photo

The 1983-84 Blue Devils finally beat Michael Jordan and UNC in the ACC tournament on the way to making their first NCAA tournament under Krzyzewski.

In 1984-85, Duke went a step further, claiming Krzyzewski’s first NCAA tournament game, a 72-65 win over Pepperdine in the first round.

That set the stage for the breakthrough 1985-86 season when Duke charged on to the national scene, only to fall a few points short of joining neighbors UNC and NC State with NCAA championships in the 1980s.

That Final Four trip was the first of 12 Duke has made under Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils brought home five NCAA championships from them.

Still, Bilas said he wouldn’t trade his Duke experience for that of any other Blue Devils player because he was part of the group that went from nothing to something big.

The players’ interactions at dinner in the documentary show their shared experiences have kept them close over the years. That’s why Krzyzewski said that class started the brotherhood mantra that Duke uses as a marketing slogan today.

It’s also why Krzyzewski admits the 1986 championship game is the one game in his Duke career he’d like to go back and coach again.

The class that saved him, he said, was worthy of winning a national championship.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski hugs UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins before Duke’s game against UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Class that Saved Coach K

When: 9 p.m., Thursday

Watch: ACC Network

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.