UCF coach now must try to deconstruct Duke dynasty he helped build
COLUMBIA, S.C. — If you had to choose the two most most important figures responsible for building the Duke Blue Devils into the most dominant, dynamic, dynastic program in the modern era of college basketball, who would they be?
One of them, of course, would be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But the other would have to be UCF coach Johnny Dawkins.
“Johnny meant everything,” Krzyzewski said as he prepared for his coaching matchup Sunday against Dawkins, his former star player and long-time assistant coach. “He was the first great player that believed in us. He started it all.”
Which is why both Krzyzewski and Dawkins have dreaded this potential second-round NCAA Tournament matchup ever since the bracket was released last Sunday. Coach K traditionally refuses to schedule regular-season games against teams coached by his former players because of the emotional toll they take.
“Why would you want to?” he asked. “They’re family.”
Meanwhile, Dawkins calls it a “no-win situation when you’re playing your friend, your mentor and an alma mater that has meant so much to you.”
Even so, this is a once-in-alifetime opportunity for the Knights. From a branding and exposure standpoint, there’s no question Sunday will be the most important game not only in Dawkins’ coaching tenure but in the history of UCF’s program. This is sort of like what it would have meant if UCF’s football team had actually been given the chance to face Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff.
“It’s great to compete in a tournament where the national champion is actually determined on the court,” cracked UCF athletics director Danny White, perhaps the most vocal of all College Football Playoff critics. “… This is a program-building moment.”
Duke, the dynasty that has won five national championships and gone to 12 Final Fours under the legendary Coach K, is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The Knights have a total of one NCAA Tournament victory in their history, and that came Friday night against VCU.
This game is loaded with intriguing story lines, including a family rivalry among the school’s two athletics directors — UCF’s White and his father, Kevin White, at Duke. It’ll be the ultimate upstart in UCF against the ultimate champion in Duke. It’ll be the tallest player in college basketball (UCF’s 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall) against the biggest star in college basketball (Duke center Zion Williamson).
“I won’t allow him putting me on one of his highlight tapes,” Tacko said of Williamson’s penchant for embarrassing opposing centers with powerful, persuasive, posterizing dunks.
But the most captivating story line of all is the relationship between Duke and Dawkins, who 37 years ago signed with the Blue Devils and perhaps even saved Krzyzewski’s job. Without Dawkins, an argument could be made that Duke basketball as we know it might not exist at all.
Krzyzewski was a struggling young coach who had a 38-47 record during his first three seasons at Duke. Many Duke fans and boosters wanted Coach K fired, but former athletics director UCF coach Johnny Dawkins talks with guard B.J. Taylor, left, guard Terrell Allen (2) and guard Aubrey Dawkins, right. Dawkins will be leading the Knights against his alma mater Duke and mentor Mike Krzyzewski.
Tom Butters refused to bow to the pressure.
“I never paid attention to the wishes and whims of the fans,” the late, great Butters told me once after he retired and moved to a golf community in Central Florida. “You have to make decisions based on what you feel is right. In today’s world, I’d probably be fired for refusing to fire the coach, but you have to give a coach time to implement his system and recruit his players.”
Especially when one of those players was Dawkins, a transcendent high school talent from Macklin Catholic High School in Washington, D.C.
You see, Johnny Dawkins was Zion before Zion. A 6-foot-2 shooting guard, Dawkins led the
Blue Devils out of the wilderness, elevating them from 11-17 in his freshman season in 1982-83 to 37-3 and the national-title game during his senior season.
Dawkins finished his final year at Duke averaging 20.2 points per game and won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award.
“Mike signed some other bigname players [guys like Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas], but Johnny was the first transformational player,” said Mike DeCourcy, the renowned college basketball writer for The Sporting News. “Johnny’s the guy who launched the ship. He was an elite talent who could have gone anywhere. He chose Duke even though the program was struggling. If he doesn’t go to Duke, it’s a fair question to ask whether the program would have become what it has become.”
When I asked Coach K on Saturday about the recruitment of Dawkins, he recalled the summer day in the early 1980s when he went and watched Dawkins in a summer-league tournament game in D.C. An AAU coach who was at the same tournament convinced Krzyzewski to stay for the second game to watch Tommy Amaker, another McDonald’s All-American who would follow Dawkins to Duke a year later and is now Harvard’s coach.
“It was amazing that on that one day, I saw my [future] backcourt — one of the greatest backcourts in the history of the game,” Coach K said, smiling. “The basketball gods were good to me that day.”
But on this day — this surreal Sunday — 37 years later, the basketball gods have developed a warped sense of humor.
Former St. John’s coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla put it best in this tweet:
“In the minds of Jay Bilas, Tommy Amaker and Coach K himself, there might not be a Duke dynasty without the commitment of Johnny Dawkins to the Blue Devils in 1982. The hoops world will come full circle on Sunday.”
Duke vs. UCF.
Zion vs. Tacko.
Danny White vs. Kevin White. But, mostly, Johnny Dawkins then vs. Johnny Dawkins now.
UCF’s head coach now must try to take down the Duke dynasty he helped create.