I've avoided the hype over Gene Wojciechowski's new book The Last Great Game, even turning down a free review copy, because life is just too short for however many pegs there are lionizing Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino. I did catch the excerpt ESPN published on Christian Laettner, which went a long way toward cementing my already-drawn conclusion that neither he nor Krzyzewski is anyone I'd like to spend time with. But if you can stomach your way through it, there's an interesting tidbit in the story of his recruitment:
But Laettner, despite his mother's wishes and the family's Catholic background, wasn't interested in playing for the Fighting Irish. And as much as he respected Knight, he wasn't interested in the Hoosiers, either. The reason was simple: Laettner considered himself a basketball purist, and the finest, most elegant form of college hoops, he decided, was played in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). He would make official visits to only three campuses: Virginia, Carolina, and Duke.
In 1986 and 1987, the years Laettner would have been winnowing down his school choices, there were eight ACC coaches, and it's sad how many I can reel off by name. Dean Smith, of course, was raised and mentored in Kansas, but by this point his roots were almost irrelevant. If there was an ACC stye, he would be one of the main architects of it. Lefty Driesell was at Maryland, until the LenBias tragedy at least, and had been since 1969. He played college at Duke – which has to rankle Terps fans – and then started his college coaching career at Davidson. There he coached a young Terry Holland, who would take the job at Virginia in 1974. Bobby Cremins had been at Georgia Tech since 1981; he had played college under, and had been a young assistant for, Frank McGuire at South Carolina.
Wake Forest was suffering through a series of forgettable coaches. Around this time it was Bob Staak, who played and got his first assistant job at Connecticut, and was a head coach at Xavier before coming to Wake. He grew up playing ball in and around NYC, however. Jim Valvano was at State, naturally. He played at Rutgers, and bounced from Johns Hopkins to Bucknell to Iona, before arriving in Raleigh – another New York City kid. Mike Krzyzewski is actually an outlier, here, coming from West Point and being mentored under Bob Knight, the same coach Laettner eschewed in favor of the ACC.
Finally, there was Cliff Ellis, whose teams never really fit the ACC mold, even then, and eventually decamped to Auburn, where his SEC style of play was the norm.
So there you had "the ACC style." Born in New York, with Everett Case and McGuire, passed along through Norm Sloan, Vic Bubas, and Dean Smith until it blanketed the state of North Carolina, and scattered through the conference by the '80s, either through coaching trees or more transplants from NYC. And let's face it, the refereeing probably helped, not allowing physical play when the top-flight teams weren't playing that style or advocating for it during games.
Contrast that with now. There's twelve teams instead of eight. Krzyzewski is still around, unfortunately, and Roy Williams studied at the feet of Dean Smith. But everyone else? Mark Gottfried at State grew up in the Midwest, played in the SEC, and coached most prominently in the Pac-10 and SEC. Jeff Bzdelik grew up in the Midwest too, and if there's any logic to his coaching career it's just as inscrutable as his hiring at Wake in the first place. Tony Bennett was also from the Midwest and refined his glacial pace at Wisconsin and Washington State. Mark Turgeon at Maryland is another Midwest transplant, though at least one mentored by Larry Brown. Brad Brownell at Clemson? Also a Midwesterner, as was Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech.
Throw in Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, both who had long-term coaches (at least until last season with BC) playing in their more physical style, and Leonard Hamilton, who played at Tennessee-Martin and assistant coached at Kentucky, and there just aren't that many coaches who came out of the North Carolina style. (And by North Carolina style, I mean the state, not the school.) In fact, one of the more faithful coaches to that stye of play might be Jim Larranaga, another guy to come out of the Bronx who was first an assistant under Holland at Davidson.
ACC coaches have been almost completely supplanted by folks who grew up immersed in the stodgy style of the Big Ten, or the brutalist play of the Big East. And once you get a critical mass of those sorts of styles, refereeing shifts to favor it, and soon you're left with, well, a hollowed-out conference with a few good teams and no recognizable style of play. Is that what's happening here? It's a bit of a judgement call, but I'm not getting the emotional attachment to a lot of ACC game like I was ten or fifteen years ago, and I'm beginning to wonder if this is the reason.
Anyway, one final bit from that excerpt, for the folks who made it this far in the post:
On the November 1987 night he made his decision, Laettner stayed at his coach's house and called Holland, Smith, and Krzyzewski each with the news. He wanted to make the calls himself, rather than have his father or Kramer deliver the decision. Then he called his mother. She burst into tears.
"Why are you crying?" said Laettner, baffled by his mother's reaction. This was supposed to be one of the best moments of his life -- he was going to Duke on a full scholarship. Duke! -- and his mother was inconsolable.
"Because I love Dean Smith," she whimpered.
UNC. It doesn't matter where you end up, your mom will always have a thing for us.