Duke excels in precarious balance of making grade on, off court

November 17, 1991|By Tim Layden | Tim Layden,Newsday

DURHAM, N.C. -- A baggy gray sweat shirt droops from a plastic hanger, right near the blue pitchforks and Final Four videocassettes in the cluttered Duke University student union. "HARVARD," shouts the top deck of the printing, and beneath it the punch line: The Duke of the North. And for only $34.95, you too, can debate intellectual superiority with the acknowledged paragon of American higher education.

Today we tweak the Ivy League, tomorrow we cuss out Bobby Cremins. Is this great? A killer education by day, ESPN by night. Hey, Knight Commission, check us out! No guilt, no hypocrisy ... just future captains of industry and The Road to Wherever on CBS every March. No. 1 in The Associated Press poll, right in front of Indiana and Arkansas. No. 7 in U.S. News and World Report, right behind MIT and just in front of Dartmouth.

"If everybody could do it like we do it, that would be a very good thing," said Duke political science professor Thomas Spragens. "Of course, everybody isn't in a position to do it like we do it."

Here is what Duke does:

In an environment of suspicion and hostility toward big-time college sport, it flourishes. Its basketball team has been to four consecutive Final Fours and five in the last six years (consistency that is second only to UCLA's dynasty of the late '60s and early '70s), and last April 1 beat Kansas to win its first national title. All without the slightest taint to its sterling academic reputation.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has gathered in one place a singular collection of -- dare we say it? -- student-athletes who, despite appearing on television roughly as often as Maury Povich, meld into the Duke population, attend classes and are all pointed toward graduation (in 11 years, only two of Krzyzewski's recruits have failed to earn degrees). They avoid robbing banks, mumbling incoherently into microphones and most other activities that would embarrass their school into evaluating the worth of high-powered sport.

It is a station that Krzyzewski skirts like a man avoiding hot coals. "We have to be careful that we don't go around beating our chests too much," he said. "Most schools do it the right way." For instance, Stanford and Northwestern (Nos. 3 and 14 on the U.S. News and World Report list) also play Division I sport. "And they win in other things," Krzyzewski said. But not in the billion-dollar NCAA basketball tournament. Not in prime time.

And not with these players, the kind that everybody wants.

"They've always gotten those types of kids, you know, the student council kids," said Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo. "But lately they've been getting kids that are also absolutely the best basketball players in the country."

Players like 6-foot-11 senior center Christian Laettner, a future NBA lottery pick from a small private school in Buffalo. Or 6-8 sophomore forward Grant Hill, son of former NFL running back and Yale graduate Calvin Hill, who was recruited by everybody but only looked seriously at Duke. Or 6-3 high school senior Chris Collins of Northbook, Ill., the son of former Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins and one of only three players Duke seriously considered in the fall signing period. He committed verbally in early October.

How does it all happen? Three ways.

Recruiting: Duke chases only the very elite among gifted athletes, those who are also solid students and good people. It so happens that many of them also court Duke, and find easy kinship when they arrive.

Peer and academic support: Duke basketball players have the respect and support of their fellow students and their teachers. Such an environment encourages academic success and personal growth. "The perfect thing would be to be just another student," Laettner said. "That's impossible because of who we are. Therefore, your relationship with your professors and peers is very important and very delicate." Tommy Amaker, assistant coach and former Duke point guard said, "You're expected to blend in here."

Tradition: Duke has always had a good basketball program. Cal-Berkeley couldn't just start winning national titles tomorrow.

It all begins with the recruiting. "We try not to recruit a vast pool," Krzyzewski said. "We want to make sure that they fit into our school, into our basketball program. We limit ourselves and you could call that dangerous, because we don't recruit backups. But we come up with some very, very good kids. And if we get them, it's a fantastic fit."

What is most unique about Duke's recruitment process is the time spent by recruits with current players. There are no pre-arranged outings, no escorts arranged. "They do what we do," said senior forward Brian Davis. And when the visit is finished, the players evaluate the recruit. They have veto power.

"There's at least one case I can remember," said Davis, "when a few of us went to Coach K and told him we didn't think a particular player would fit in. He didn't come here."

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