Is Coach K Bad for Basketball?

Adam Packer at In the Agora has addressed an entire post to me because I am a Duke fan (the contributors to that site are almost all Indiana fans) and we've had some go-rounds in the past on the subject. Adam writes:

Attention Ed Brayton: Sportsline writer Gregg Doyel dressed down Duke University men's hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski in a recent column, and in doing so, put into the mainstream the thoughts and snickers many college basketball fans (including some right here at ITA) have circulated amongst themselves for years. The thesis: Coach K works and berates the refs all game, and by the end, they are so worn down by his stature and his cusswords that their calls can't help but favor the Dukies. His actions ultimately hurt competitiveness and, as a result, the game. As an ambassador of college basketball, he needs to class up his act.

I have many responses to Doyel's article, which I'd read before Adam pointed me to it, but let me start first with this disclaimer: I am a Duke basketball fan, but I am emphatically not what I call an uber-fan. The uber-fans drive me crazy. They are the ones who think that Duke basketball is pure and holy and never does anything wrong, the ones who think that Duke alone follows every rule, eats all their vegetables and says their prayers every night. Duke is the dominant program in college basketball (though frankly, UConn is right there with them over the last 7 or 8 years) and as a general rule they do things the right way, but the same kinds of things go on at Duke that go on in every major sports program in the nation. So let me fess up to that right up front.

Yes, Duke players undoubtedly get the 50 dollar handshakes from alumni after the game or around town. Yes, Duke players undoubtedly get those cushy summer "jobs" in someone's office during the summer where they get paid $500 a week as an "assistant" to someone who happened to graduate from Duke and they rarely if ever actually show up. Yes, when a Duke athlete gets in trouble, he's treated better than an average student would be in the same situation (though never has a Duke player done anything nearly as bad as UConn's Marcus Williams committing felony robbery and been allowed back on the team).

Yes, the relatives of Duke players can find a job at a company owned by an alumni if they move to the area, undoubtedly with the assistance of the program (Chris Duhon's mother did this). These things go on at every major, and most minor, sports programs in the nation and they always have (my father tells the story of his roommate in college in the mid 1950s who was a football player and had a "job" that paid him $50 a week to turn the sprinklers at the stadium on and off once a day; he wouldn't even have known where to find the sprinkler controls if his life depended on it).

I'll also say that despite being a Duke fan, I agree with those who say that Duke gets too much butt-kissing in the media. If you're one of those people who calls Dick Vitale "Dukie V", I'm on your side. He's so bad that I often have to turn the sound down when he does a game to avoid this constant slobbering all over not only Duke, but virtually anyone. Anyone who has ever scored 20 points in a game is a "PTPer" and every coach that ever had a 20 win season is a "hall of famer". And yes, he crosses the line when it comes to Duke. It's one thing to praise a great team and another thing to nominate them for sainthood. Give it a rest, Dick. And how about paying attention to the actual game for once rather than blathering on about who picked up the check at dinner and all the famous people you know?

Now let's take a look at Doyel's article and see if it adds up. His thesis, as Adam said, is that Coach K berates the refs all game long, sometimes with - egads! - profanity and that because he's so powerful they just can't help themselves but make calls Duke's way at the end of the game. He writes:

Name the five most powerful people in basketball. Coach K has to be on that list. He's the head coach of the NCAA's top program over the past 25 years; he's the head coach of the next U.S. Olympic team; he could be the head coach of any NBA team he wanted, most recently the Los Angeles Lakers. He's enormous.

Game officials? They're human. They spend two hours getting worked over by Krzyzewski, and like a boxer absorbing gut punches for 14 rounds, the impact is crushing. It has to be. Krzyzewski is an immortal. Officials aren't.

For two hours twice a week, Krzyzewski preys on that stuff. That's how the FSU-Duke officials buckled and gave Johnson a bad technical. That's how two straight 50-50 calls in the final seconds went Duke's way against Boston College and then FSU. Coach K spends two hours winning those two seconds.

Krzyzewski says things, abominable things, that other coaches can't. Listen to him. Read his lips. Coach K gets away with it because he's Coach K.

This is, of course, a very common complaint among Duke's critics. But there is a bit of irony in this complaint about the double standard because Doyel himself is engaging in such a double standard. The paragraph before what is posted here says the following:

Not that ugly is the problem. Most coaches work officials. Gary Williams looks deranged. Jim Boeheim looks ill. Karl Hobbs looks persecuted. But Krzyzewski is different: He's Krzyzewski.

So Doyel is admitting that other coaches work the officials all game long too. And if he thinks that other coaches don't curse and swear at them, he's residing in fantasy land. Virtually every coach works the refs to get the close calls to go their way and virtually every coach curses and swears on the sidelines. So why is this an issue only with Coach K? Because, Doyel says, he's so "powerful". But what kind of power does he have? Is it real power or the mere perception of power?

Coach K can't do anything to the refs, he doesn't have the authority. In fact, if the refs make bad calls as a result of Coach K's badgering of them they risk what happened last week, when the officials for the Duke/FSU game were suspended for a game after blowing a technical foul call in the game (and they really did blow the call). So tell me, which "power" is more influential, the threat that a coach is going to curse at you - as all coaches do - or the threat of losing your job or getting suspended? There is imagined power and then there is real power.

The other irony is that, as anyone who watches Duke basketball (and I rarely miss a game, watching at least 25 games a year) can tell you, Coach K has mellowed out a lot on the sidelines. Since he had the serious back and hip problems a few years ago, his demeanor has changed significantly. He spends a lot more time during the game sitting down and a lot less time standing up and yelling at the refs. In fact, a lot of fans on message boards have noticed this and interpreted it as a sign that he just doesn't care as much as he used to.

Yesterday's Maryland game was a good example. If you have the tape of the game, you would see that, more often than not, when the camera was on Coach K he was sitting down silently. There were a few times when he was up on his feet working the refs, but I bet if you put a camera on both him and Gary Williams the whole game, you'd find that Williams was working the refs a lot more than Coach K was and that he did so a lot more angrily as well. That Coach K doesn't yell and scream on the sidelines nearly as much as he used to do has been obvious enough that the fans have noticed it and talked about it on message boards and radio call in shows. I think he really has mellowed a lot as he gets older. And you never hear him do what Bobby Knight has done throughout his career, which is bash the referees in press conferences and to the media.

The fact is that every great coach and every successful team in every sport throughout history has been the subject of such accusations. Everyone said that Dean Smith got all the calls and was treated with kid gloves because he was such a legend. And yes, as Doyel quotes, Coach K himself made this very accusation at Dean Smith as a young coach in 1984 when Duke was struggling to reach Carolina's level of success. He also recanted that accusation, which Doyel doesn't bother to say. In an interview a couple years ago, Coach K said:

When I said that, I said it because I believed it. But there's no question that I said it through Duke-colored and Krzyzewski-colored glasses. Carolina did what it did because Dean was a great coach, and he had great players. My guess is they didn't get as many calls back then as I thought they did. And I'm pretty convined we don't get as many calls now as people think we do.

I would also add that when he made his accusations, the Carolina fans dismissed them as patently ridiculous and false. The fact remains that great programs will always tend to get close calls just because the reputation of the team plays a subconscious role in the ref's mind. That's inevitable and unavoidable and there's nothing anyone can do about it. But the other part of that equation is that once someone is convinced that Duke (or any other team) gets all the calls from the officials, that becomes a filter through which they view the games.

Every basketball game is going to have probably half a dozen blown calls by the refs, at a bare minimum, with an average probably more like 10 a game. Some of them will be very close judgement calls, particularly charging vs blocking fouls, and some will be just obviously bad calls. But for those who are already convinced that Duke gets all the calls, they will only notice the ones that go Duke's way and they'll filter out all of the bad calls that go against them.

In yesterday's game at Maryland, for example, there were several calls that went Maryland's way that were bad. There were also several calls that went Duke's way that were bad. The worst one was against Duke. James Gist was over the back on a rebound against Sean Dockery and both players wear #15. The refs made a mistake and called the foul on #15 red instead of #15 blue and Gist ended up getting free throws. The commentators noticed it (no, I didn't have the sound turned down yesterday) but the refs blew it. And there was absolutely no question about the foul, Gist literally came over Dockery's back and threw him to the ground. So Gist ends up shooting free throws and avoids his 4th foul and Dockery ends up with an extra foul.

The other thing that goes on is that people only tend to notice what happens at the end of close games. Last week, Duke was in two very tight games, one with Boston College and one with Florida State. They won them both but could easily have lost them. And at the end of both games there was what Doyel calls a "50/50 call" to make, both involving Shelden Williams and a possible blocking foul for body contact on a drive. These are about the toughest calls to make in basketball. And both calls could have gone either way, to be sure.

But that fact alone doesn't mean much. You have to also consider, for example, how the game was called up to that point. In last night's game, the refs were calling everything on the perimeter and nothing in the paint, but that was true on both ends of the court. If you were in the paint, they were allowing a lot of physical play and a lot of body contact, so if that same play happened and they didn't call the foul, would it be a case of giving Duke the call because Coach K berated the refs? No, it would be consistent with the way they had called the game on both sides.

The other thing that has to be considered is that there were undoubtedly other calls earlier in the game that went the other way, but no one noticed them. If you really want to support this charge, it's not difficult to do. Tivo or tape a set of 10 games or so and go through them, noting how many bad calls went both ways during the game. Then do the same thing with other top teams and see if the results are really out of line. I'd be willing to bet that they aren't out of line at all.

You often hear from the same people how unfair it is that Duke often makes more free throws than their opponent takes, but this ignores several key factors. First, good teams will tend to foul less than mediocre or bad teams simply because they're better, and worse teams will have to foul more just because they're outmatched and can't defend the better players. Second, if a team wins 25-30 games every year as Duke does, they're going to be ahead near the end of the game a lot and teams are going to have to foul to stop the clock and hope for a comeback. That's why the shoot more free throws, and that's why the top teams always shoot more free throws.

This accusation of favoritism from the refs was made of the great Kentucky teams of the 50s and 60s. It was made about John Wooden and UCLA in the 60s and 70s. It was made of Dean Smith in the 80s and 90s. And now it's Duke's turn. But instead of anecdotal stories focusing on a couple of calls in a couple of games, let's hear the critics do some real studies to determine the truth.

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Talking only from personal experience, witnessing nearly fifteen years of the very best of UCLA basketball under John Wooden, i can offer this anecdotal evidence. Wooden was a master of the process of berating officials. If you ever saw games from that period, you will notice that he always (i mean always!!!) carried a rolled-up program in his hands. He used this quite often to offer suggestions to referees as they walked by him. Refs would spin around and glare at some of those now famous assistants (Crum, Cunningham) assuming, mistakenly, that they were the ones who said really terrible things. But it was Wooden, and it was meant to be disarming and disconnecting. Getting the refs to pay attention to things other than the game, opened up play to some extent. The things i heard him say were so completely out of his public persona, out of character, but not out of his very real and very personal goal of getting everything to work to get to the top of that pyramid. I can't imagine Coach K not doing everything he needs to do to achieve that degree and level of success. Taunting refs is just part of the nature of the game of which most officials, who work the same conferences year to year, are fully aware.

Wooden also worked with the eminent acoustic physicist Verne Knudsen (a UCLA prof) to design Pauley Pavilion in such a way to focus all of the crowd noise down to the center of the floor. Great for his basketball program, really crappy for those of us interested in using it for music. Would Coach K feel it appropriate to have input into designing his basketball arena? Of course, again it is part of winning.

Good post, Ed. I'll second your assessment based on my own experience. I did scoreboard operations in Pauley Pavilion for 24 years (sadly, none of them with Coach Wooden in charge -- I was a freshman two years too late!) I've seen many, many coaches, good, bad and indifferent and they all worked the refs in some way or another.

I've seen Bobby Knight up close and personal several times, including the 1984 Olympics, and he makes Coach K look like an amateur. Watching Knight provoke the refs in the gold medal game to get a technical was something else. The refs, though, knew exactly what he was doing and thought it was funny. He finally got his 'T', but long after it would have helped as a motivator.

I've also been a soccer ref and one of the first things that you do is learn to tune out as much of the crowd as possible -- if you can't stay focussed, you'll blow a lot more than 6-10 calls in a game. A ref who is easily rattled won't last very long.

Finally, as you note, there's the problem of selection bias. You notice the calls that go against you and discount the calls that go for you (even if they are bad calls.) When talking to new coaches about getting along with the refs, we ask: "When was the last time you left a game thinking 'wow, that ref won the game for us'?"

Methinks thou dost protest too much, Ed... :-)

Hey, I'm a Tar Heel. I despise Duke. I wouldn't say Coach K is "bad for basketball," but I would say he's a self-aggrandizing schmuck.

But like I said, I'm a Tar Heel; my opinion of K is pretty representative of Heel fans everywhere. I do like things better when Carolina, Duke and State are ALL good, though. It makes wins much more meaningful all around.

As far as this year's Duke team goes, I don't really mind them all that much. But they'd better find some offense beyond Reddick and Williams, or their season will end prematurely. Team D will win them a lot of games, but sooner or later they'll run into a deep, fast athletic team that will simply outscore them.

john wrote:

Hey, I'm a Tar Heel. I despise Duke. I wouldn't say Coach K is "bad for basketball," but I would say he's a self-aggrandizing schmuck.

And you'll find that many Duke fans have the same opinion of Dean Smith (I don't, incidentally, I think he was not only a great coach but a great man; his work on behalf of civil rights in a place and time where it could well have cost him his job or worse was brave and ought to be applauded). You'll find that many Duke fans today hate Roy Williams. They think his "aw shucks, I'm just not that dadgummed good" routine is calculated affectation and his on-again off-again flirtation with the Carolina job when he was at Kansas was just a ploy to make himself into a savior, making him every bit as "self-aggrandizing" as you think Coach K is (and here again, I disagree with those fans. I think Roy was genuinely conflicted over two universities and teams that he loved, between his loyalty to his mentor and alma mater and his loyalty to the place he'd called home for 15 years - who wouldn't be conflicted over that?). The point is that it's all too easy for a fan to view their rivals through, in this case, light blue or dark blue colored glasses.

I've just never been that kind of fan, I guess. I'm able to root for my team without making the rival team out to be the bad guys. I think Roy Williams is a great coach and I thought that before he won the championship last year (all that talk of choking in the big games was nonsense, they said the same thing about K and Dean Smith and lots of other coaches too). I was happy when he went back to Carolina to coach because I knew that his return would take the Tar Heels back to where they're supposed to be, at the top of the ACC and the national standings, side by side with Duke, battling it out year after year. And if Roy Williams isn't the ACC coach of the year this year for what he's done with a team full of freshmen, there ought to be an investigation.

And man, am I looking forward to next year in that rivalry. Carolina adds Brandon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and 2 other top 100 recruits to their young team. Duke adds Gerald Henderson, Brian Zoubek, Jon Scheyer and hopefully Lance Thomas to a team that starts two freshmen. Both teams should be ranked in the top ten to start the season, with Carolina ranked higher most likely. Duke already has two top players signed for 2007 and Carolina is in with several top players from that class, so it looks like from here on out every year is gonna be a dogfight for the ACC and national championships.

Ed, I agree with every word you just posted. Much of my dislike for K comes from the fact that he's Duke's coach, and that he's a very good coach. Nothing breeds contempt like success.

But the universe is back in equilibrium with Roy at UNC. :-)

BTW, I recently read "A Coach's Life," by Dean Smith, and it reaffirmed everything I thought about him. Quite a remarkable human being.