“BRENT, THAT ARTICLE WAS FULL OF [EXPLETIVE DELETED],” KRZYZEWSKI SAID
Krzyzewski’s relations with the press, particulary the local newspapers, often appeared positively Nixonian--the Nixon of 1972, for instance--assured of a landslide in the presidential election and yet so paranoid that he authorized the White House plumbers to break into a suite at the Watergate Hotel. I had long heard about a famous encounter he’d had fifteen years ago with the sports staff of the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle, in which he had invited the reporters to the locker room under the guise of giving them a close-up look at the program and once they had assembled, proceeding to rip his captive audience of journalists. I wondered to what extent the story was apocryphal. And, of course, I was always assembling my bill of indictment. I went to the Duke archives to read the Chronicle for that period.
When they were finished, Krzyzewski launched into an eight minute profanity-laced tirade. “He started to yell and rant and rave,“ Peele said. One of the reporters had carried a tape recorder inside his backpack and recorded the entire address. “I just wonder,” Krzyzewski told the journalists, “where your mindset is that you don’t appreciate the kids in this locker room. I’m not looking for puff pieces or anything like that, but you’re whacked out and you don’t appreciate what the [expletive deleted] is going on and it pisses me off…and I’m suggesting that if you want to appreciate what’s going on--get your head out of your [expletive deleted] and start looking out for what’s actually happening.”
“Ah yes, the newspaper you’re interested in seems to have disappeared,” the archivalist said. “We do have a copy around here somewhere.” He disappeared into a room full of cardboard boxes and didn‘t come back that day.
I decided I had better track down the Chronicle sports editor at the time, and through a hour or two of Internet sleuthing, I had my man. “What really happened that day?” I asked Rodney Peele, a native of Fort Washington, Maryland, now a lawyer for the American Podiatric Association in Bethesda.
Speaking cautiously and precisely, in the manner of his profession, as if giving a deposition, Peele told me.
In January, 1990, Duke was 12-2 when Peele, then the sports editor of the Duke Chronicle, received a call the afternoon of Tuesday, January 16 from Krzyzewski’s secretary Donna Keane.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Donna Keane to call. When Peele or a member of the Chronicle sports staff needed a comment from Krzyzewski, they often went through Keane rather than the sports information department. “Coach would like for you and your staff to meet with the team this afternoon after practice,” she said. “He wants to introduce you to the players and for you to get to know them better.”
Peele and five or six of the Chronicle sports department--the ones who covered the basketball team--headed over to Cameron around five or six. The team was just finishing practice. After the players went into the locker room, Krzyzewski invited the Chronicle reporters to join the coaches and the team there. In the locker room, chairs for the reporters had been arranged in a row at one side. Ringing the room and the writers were the players, either standing or sitting at their lockers. Because one of the Chronicle staffers was female, they weren’t changing, all still dressed in their practice garb. Krzyzewski himself stood about ten feet from Peele, on the other side of the room. He was wearing blue shorts and a white polo shirt imprinted with “Duke.”
“Since you guys know who all the players are, but the players don’t necessarily know who you are, why don’t you introduce yourselves?” the coach suggested. The Chronicle writers did as requested.
Several recent articles irked him. One writer present, Brent Belvin, had written an evaluation of the team’s performance thus far, giving the Devils a “B+” overall. The headline to his piece read “Solid overall play makes Duke the ACC frontrunner.” In the text, Belvin distributed an assortment of grades, ranging from an “A” for sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley to a “C+” for small forward Brian Davis. As a whole, two players racked up grades in the A range, five a variety of B. Belvin wrote that “if given a chance to predict where Duke would be after 14 games at the start of the year, I would have said 12-2, with the Blue Devils splitting against Syracuse and Michigan and losing to Georgia Tech. Though the route Duke has taken has been slightly different, the results are about what I expected.” He applauded Hurley’s role in the offense, praised the team’s free throw shooting, and worried about Duke’s tendency to “play soft on the boards.”
In the locker room, Krzyzewski turned to Belvin. “Brent, that article was full of [expletive deleted],” he said. He added “this is an insult to me. Each team is new. And this is a very young basketball team, and maybe you think it should go undefeated or whatever it should do, but to me if I graded my team right now, I would give it an A-.”
Krzyzewski also complained about the Chronicle’s preview of the Maryland game, an article that had referred to the talented Maryland swingman Walt Williams by his nickname, The Wizard. “I opened up the Chronicle,” the coach said, “and all I read about was ‘the [expletive deleted] Wizard.’” In addition, Krzyzewski told the young reporters that their paper had missed the boat on its coverage of the recent Georgia Tech game, not sufficiently crediting the performance of Duke junior Greg Koubek.
As the blistering continued, some of the Chronicle writers exchanged looks with the players who were watching attentively. “I think the players felt two ways about the moment,” said Peele, who knew all of the players and was particularly close to the Duke guard Phil Henderson. “They felt Coach K was making good points and that he was speaking up on their behalf, although I never felt that they themselves were complaining about the coverage. At the same time, I had a sense that the players were glad that we got to see how Krzyzewski can be when he wants to be. They might even have been tickled that he was yelling at someone else for a change.”
Peele was not surprised that the coach regarded the newspaper’s coverage as irritating--he suspected that Krzyzewski considered the Chronicle an adjunct of the team, not an independent publication. “It was part of his philosophical complaint with us,“ Peele said. “He felt that the student newspaper should be with the team. And we actually were more sympathetic at times than we might have been because we were talking about our classmates and our friends.”
Peele also knew that the head coach didn’t much care for the media in general, “even though,” Peele said, “he was very good with the press and they were very good to him.” The Duke coach was adamantly opposed, for instance, to the sort of media luncheons that the football program sponsored, where coach and players mingle with reporters to generate more coverage. “Even though he would have been great at it,“ Peele added. The editor found himself astonished, however, by Krzyzewski’s approach with the Chronicle sports department that January afternoon-- “bringing us in and yelling at us about it.”
“When he caught his breath,” Peele said, “I asked him if that was it. And so we left.”
The rest of the reporters returned to the Chronicle office to discuss what had just happened. “We were all shocked,“ Peele said. The editor, however, waited outside the locker room for Krzyzewski. Peele and the coach retreated to Krzyzewski’s office where they spoke for fifteen to twenty minutes. “He questioned whether I or other people at the Chronicle rooted for Duke,” Peele said. “He wanted to know whether we liked other players better. I told him I liked his team but I liked it less than the other teams at Duke--the football team, the soccer team, and so on.” During this conversation, Krzyzewski was still angry, Peele said. “He was pissed off. He wasn’t yelling. He was glaring.”
The next day, January 17, The Chronicle ran a story of the encounter, featuring choice excerpts from the tape. The local dailies picked up the story as well. The resulting outcry brought athletic director Tom Butters into the fray. “If The Chronicle chooses to make an issue out of it,” said Butters, the man who hired Krzyzewski, “then I’m gonna look at it very, very closely and somebody’s gonna come out the loser.” After hearing two reporters’ descriptions of the incident, Butters said he suspected that what Krzyzewski “has done with you is say as clearly as he can, ‘hey we’ve got a problem here.’”
On Thursday or Friday of that week, the staffers again met with Krzyzewski. “He said he couldn’t apologize for what he said,” Peele said, “but that if he had it to do over again, he would do it differently.”
The dressing down of the Chronicle staff “affected individuals in different ways,” Peele says. “The rest of the season, we continued to do the best coverage that we could do. We had other conversations with the coach that were much more civil. But in the back of our mind, the question was always, ‘were we being unfair?’”
The imbroglio complicated Peele’s view of the coach, though it didn’t completely change his prior sense of him. “Then and now, Krzyzewski was promoted as a great educator and coach. But I never saw him as a member of the faculty. Those of us at The Chronicle never bought into the idea that Coach K was an angel who walked on water. We had a sense that his program was not the Shangri-La it was portrayed as. That said, he still has one of the best if not the best programs, and is one of the best if not the best coaches. He would look at things philosophically more than other coaches, and I really admired him for that. I see him as a basketball coach in the way Phil Jackson or Jimmie V. were basketball coaches. People like Dick Vitale go too far in their remarks about Krzyzewski as an educator of men.”
In speculating on Coach K’s outburst, Peele considered the local context at the time. In the late Eighties, he said, the Research Triange area had two other coaches with huge personalities. “As good as Krzyzewski could be with the media,” Peele said, “he never had them eating out of his hand like Jimmy Valvano at North Carolina State. His press conferences at Cameron following State’s games with Duke were worth the price of a ticket.”
And eight miles away loomed the abiding shadow of Dean Smith at North Carolina. “With Dean Smith,” the former editor said, “you had someone who’d had tremendous success. Remember that he and Valvano had both won national championships at that time. K had not. Sometimes we were envious of what was going on at Chapel Hill, and I think the Chapel Hill people were envious of what was going on at Duke. We wanted to beat Smith and UNC badly. They’d had success for twenty or twenty-five years. We weren’t used to that kind of success. We didn’t know how long it would last. The Carolina people may have felt the future was with Duke, but we didn’t know if what we’d already had was it. We knew that in 1986, we’d had the best team and we lost. Back then, the Chronicle would pick Carolina to win because of Dean Smith, and the Daily Tar Heel would pick Duke to win because of Krzyzewski.” He laughs at the idea.
These days, Peele didn’t follow Duke basketball as much as he once did. “I have friends and colleagues from the Chronicle who do,” he said. “But I’m really busy.”