I was in my second month with the Durham Sun when I covered Duke’s 88-78 victory over Virginia in Cameron Indoor Stadium on the night of Feb. 13, 1974.
I have little memory of that game. Checking the box score, I see that the Devils got double-doubles from Chris Redding, a tall, slender forward who bore a slight resemblance (both physically and in style of play) to Ryan Kelly, and Bob Fleischer, a burly power forward with bushy hair. Kevin Billerman, a point guard with more savvy than physical skills, added 19 points. Duke needed all of that, as well as strong contributions from Willie Hodge and Pete Kramer to overcome 29 points from Gus Gerard (one of the best ACC players that fans have forgotten) and 20 from “Wonderful” Wally Walker.
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In itself, the game between two second-division ACC teams wasn’t significant – as evidenced by the announced attendance of 5,600 fans – well under capacity.
But I do remember the night because of a small ceremony after the game to mark Duke’s 1,000th victory on the hardwood. That was a significant milestone – just five other schools had previously reached 1,000 victories.
However, the celebration was muted in recognition that Duke basketball had reached the lowest point since Cap Card put together the first Trinity team in 1905. The 1974 Blue Devils were en route to a 10-16 record (the worst mark in 47 years) under a coach who was interim in all but name.
At the same time, Duke’s Tobacco Road neighbors were enjoying fabulous success – N.C. State was en route to a national title with the incomparable David Thompson, while UNC was solidly lodged in the top five of the AP poll. Up in College Park, Duke grad Lefty Driesell — who had practically begged for the Blue Devil job five years earlier – had built a national power at Maryland and was en route to a No. 3 national finish.
Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron had hired Bucky Waters instead of the mercurial Driesell and the program, which had already started to hit a few rough spots in Vic Bubas’ final seasons, continued its decline. Oh, Bucky did have an excellent 1971 season (Duke was in the top 20 in the next-to-last poll of the season), but with the graduation of gifted big man Randy Denton (another of the ACC’s forgotten stars), his teams began to struggle, going from 20 wins in 1971 to 14 wins in 1972 to 12 wins in 1973 …
… to Waters’ resignation in the fall of 1973.
Reportedly, Waters had gone to athletic director Carl James and asked for an extension on his five-year contract. At the time, Duke had a policy of not firing coaches. However, national football league coach Tom Harp was let go at the end of his five-year contract in 1970 – technically, he wasn’t fired … he was just not renewed or extended. Waters could see the same fate coming and wanted some insurance, necessary to help him recruit.
When James, who had succeeded Cameron, refused to offer any guarantee for the future, Waters accepted a far more secure position raising funds for Duke Hospital.
The timing of his resignation put James in a bind. Where could he find a new coach in September, just as most college teams were preparing to start preseason practice?
James came up with a bizarre answer – maybe brilliant, maybe insane. He contacted former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. The Baron of Bluegrass had been forced into retirement after a 21-win season in 1972. Rupp didn’t go willingly and was still anxious to coach. He verbally accepted James’ offer to coach Duke – probably just for the 1973-74 season, although that was not clear at the time.
Unfortunately, before the hiring could be announced, Rupp’s farm manager died … and a massive storm hit the Lexington, Ky., area, leaving Rupp’s estate in desperate need of repair. The situation forced Rupp to change his mind about leaving Kentucky, but the storm damage was so severe that he couldn’t call James to let him know.
To cap the opera bouffe situation, Durham sports writer Art Chansky managed to get through to Rupp to check on rumors that he was going to take the Duke job. Rupp used Chansky to pass on the message to James that he was not coming.
One fascinating side note to the Rupp-to-Duke story. It opens up one of the most interesting “what-ifs” in ACC basketball history. It’s not that Rupp would have re-invigorated Duke basketball. Mostly likely he would have won the same 10 or so games that Duke won without him. Still that would have raised his career victory total to 886. Flash forward to 1997, when Dean Smith passed Rupp’s actual total of 876 and retired after getting to 879.
That raises the question – would Smith have retired at 879 wins if he were still seven wins short of Rupp? Smith always insisted that he didn’t care about the record, but it’s telling that he hung on to get the record, then immediately retired. If he had come back in 1998 and coached the talented team that Bill Guthridge took to the Final Four (and arguably screwed up with his alphabetical starting lineup), would Smith have won a third national title? Would he have then retired right away, leaving his successor with a very young, challenged team in 1999? Or might Smith have hung on for a few more years, totally changing the Smith-to-Guthridge-to-Matt Doherty-to-Roy Williams dynamic?
It’s fun to speculate about.
But it didn’t happen and with practice approaching and time running out in the fall of 1973, James didn’t have many options left. There were reports that Ken Rosemond, Dean Smith’s first assistant coach at UNC, who had been fired as head coach at Georgia the previous spring, wanted the job, but James decided to promote Waters’ assistant Neil McGeachy.
Again, the timing was unfortunate — until 1972, Waters’ top assistant was future Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who left to take a job in the national basketball association.
McGeachy was young, personable, but proved to be inadequate for the job.
Of course, he didn’t have much chance. Duke didn’t have a lot of talent and with his precarious job situation, he didn’t have much chance to recruit, At the press conference announcing McGeachy’s promotion, James refused to call him an interim coach … but he made a point to say that he was beginning a national search to find the best coach in college basketball.
The program was in shambles because of the defection of so many players under Waters. His first great recruiting class (a 16-0 freshman team) lost three prime talents – guards Jim Fitzsimmons and Jeff Dawson and swing man Richie O’Connor. His second class lost talented center Dave Elmer and forwards Ron Righter and Sam May.
The team that McGeachy inherited was loaded with forwards – Redding was a senior who had averaged 16.9 points and 6.4 rebounds as a junior; Fleischer was a powerful 6-8 bruiser who would average 15.7 points and 12.4 rebounds as a junior in ’74; sophomore Willie Hodge, who was to become the school’s first effective black player, was a slender 6-9 kid from San Antonio; Pete Kramer was a swing forward with a finesse game – he would average just under 10 points a game.
Unfortunately, the team lacked a true big man at a time when the ACC was loaded with the likes of Tommy Burleson, Len Elmore, Mitch Kupchak and Tree Rollins. And Billerman was overmatched by such ACC guards as John Lucas, Mo Howard, Monte Towe, Mo Rivers, Tony Byers and Walter Davis.
There were two freshman guards on hand in Durham. The one with all the promise was a prep star from Pontiac, Mich., named Edgar Burch. The 6-3 Burch played a key role early, averaging over 30 minutes a game for the first two thirds of the season. He had some big nights (20 points on 10 of 15 shooting against No. 1 N.C. State), but he was an erratic kid with some off-court problems. In the end, he couldn’t handle the academic work at Duke and left after one season.
The other young guard was an unheralded kid from Houston, Tex. Tate Armstrong barely played though most of the season, but by mid-February, he began to get Burch’s minutes. He averaged almost 16 points a game in Duke’s final four games. He would blossom into a star under coach Bill Foster, but McGeachy’s discovery of Armstrong’s skills came too late the salvage the 1974 season.
Duke got off to a decent start against a weak schedule, reaching New Year’s Day with a 5-2 record. But once conference play began, the Devils were overmatched, losing eight of nine ACC games before Virginia’s visit to Cameron.
Duke was just 8-11 going into that game and 1-8 in the ACC. The Virginia victory would be the team’s last hurrah in ACC play, although they followed that win with a homecourt victory over an abysmal Georgia Tech team (not yet an ACC member) to get to 10 wins.
But the ’74 Devils lost the final five games. The worst was the regular season finale in Chapel Hill. With just 17 seconds left, the Blue Devils seemed to be on the verge of a monumental upset, leading the No. 4 Tar Heels 86-78 with 17 seconds left.
But Duke led that lead get away as UNC’s Davis tied the game with a 35-foot shot at the buzzer. The Tar Heels won going away in overtime.
Five days later in the ACC Tournament opener in Greensboro, Duke went down without much of a fight to Maryland – which was just 48 hours away from its historic title game matchup with N.C. State (a.k.a the greatest game ever played).
I was in the Duke locker room after that loss and I listened to Bob Fleischer make an eloquent public plea to the school’s administration to keep McGeachy, despite his 10-16 season.
That was not to be.
James was already on the road, looking for “the best coach in America” (to use his words). He soon zeroed in on Utah coach Bill Foster, who had a reputation for rebuilding programs. James had to wait almost a month to hire Foster, who had Utah in the NIT championship game (back when the NIT meant something).
Foster inherited a program with 1,001 all-time wins. He would revive the Duke basketball program in the next six seasons, although it would take Mike Krzyzewski to elevate Duke to the point where it is now one of the handful of premier programs in college basketball.
I told that story to put this one into perspective. Duke is counting down to 2,000 all-time wins.
Wednesday night’s victory at Wake Forest was win No. 1,989 – meaning Duke needs 11 more victories to become the fourth school to reach that milestone.
Note: Since 1974, Duke has climbed past St. John’s and Notre Dame on the all-time victory list. The Devils still trail No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 North Carolina.
Another note about the number. I had to check that 1,989 is the official, up-to-the-minute total. According to the database at Goduke.com, the Wake Forest win was victory No. 1,991. But Duke basketball sports information director Matt Plizga confirmed that 1,989 is the officially recognized (by the NCAA) total.
Apparently the discrepancy lies with two AAU wins in the early 1950s. It’s a difficult subject to wade through, since in the early days of basketball, teams played a lot of non-collegiate opponents … and most of those wins count. In fact, the first victory on Duke’s list in 1905 came to something named Trinity Park.
Back in the early 1990s, when North Carolina briefly passed Kentucky on the all-time victory list, UNC coach Dean Smith tried to dismiss the subject by pointing out that a lot of the wins on those victory lists were against “teams like the Durham Y.”
That prompted me to study the issue and I found that Smithy was both right and wrong. UNC did have several wins versus the Durham YMCA, but, I learned that those were some of the most impressive wins the team had in the teens and ’20s. In fact, the first big game on Tobacco Road – the first to attract a huge crowd and major newspaper attention – was the 1921-22 season opener, which UNC lost to the Durham Y. Carolina would lose to the Durham Y again that season before going to Atlanta and winning the 1922 Southern Conference title. One reason the 1924 UNC team finished undefeated and earned that retroactive Helms Foundation national championship was that Carolina was smart enough not to play the Durham Y in ’24.
Obviously, wins over YMCA teams wouldn’t count today, but those were significant wins for both Duke and UNC. Kentucky and Kansas and everybody else has their share of such wins.
When I scan Duke’s victory list, I see that the 1922 Methodists (the Blue Devil nickname was still a few years away) didn’t do very well – just six wins in 18 games. But one of those wins came over the same Durham Y that swept the Southern Conference champion Tar Heels. That was a good win in its day – as were wins in the 1930s and 1940s over the likes of Hanes Hosiery or the McCrary Eagles – mill sponsored semi-pro teams loaded with ex-college players. And World War II games against the likes of Camp Butner or Carolina Pre-flight were like playing college all-star teams.
It’s tough to say with any certainty when a game with the Durham YMCA or with Haines Hosiery became non-worthy of inclusion on a team’s record. I’ll let the NCAA make that decision – and they have … Duke is at 1,989 going into Saturday’s game at Florida State.
The approaching milestone hasn’t gotten much attention. But I think it’s significant. So is Mike Krzyzewski’s personal climb up the victory ladder.
Obviously, Coach K already holds the record for most career victories by a Division 1 men’s coach. But he’s also fourth on the list of most wins at one school.
With 872 wins at Duke, he needs four more to tie Rupp (876 at Kentucky) for third place – and five to pass him. Krzyzewski needs seven more wins to tie Dean Smith (879 at UNC) for second on the list – and eight to pass him.
Duke and Krzyzewski should get those milestone wins before the end of this season.
Technically, victory No. 2000 could come as the regular season finale at North Carolina. That would assume that Duke won its next 11 games. With one or two losses in than span, the historic win could come in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro … or maybe in the NCAA Tournament on some distant court.
At any rate, victory No. 29 in 2013 is the magic number. If Duke stumbles down the stretch and doesn’t get to 29 victories this season, the milestone will have to wait until early next season.
The point is that the Devils will hit that milestone soon.
And when they do, I’ll remember that happy/sad night in 1974 and reflect on how far Duke basketball has come in the last 39 seasons.