A series built on great coaches
Posted February 16
The term "rivalry" is often times overused. Army-Navy is a football rivalry built through honor and service and respect and love of country. The Yankees and Red Sox are tethered to each other thanks to more than a century of competition, 2,156 games and one of the truly awful player transactions in the history of sport -- the selling of Babe Ruth by Boston to New York -- which completely turned the fortunes of each franchise upside down. Then, there is, of course, college basketball's Hatfields and McCoys; Duke vs. North Carolina.
These are stand alone games. On those days and nights the records are secondary to the uniforms and arenas. They're contested in historic venues like Charmichael and Michie and Fenway, by legendary figures like Air Jordan and the Splendid Splinter. And, the stories grow more elaborate -- and, at times, more distant from the truth -- the further removed we get. These are the rivalries that will never disappear, for each side lives a little bit for the existence and prominence of the other.
In most cases, however, the word "rivalry" is employed where "series" really belongs. This is where Duke vs Maryland resides, as a "series" that was relatively one sided, but with such a legendary chapter that it feels as though it was more lasting than it actually was. Duke has 115 wins over the Terrapins, more than against any school other than Wake Forest, NC State and Virginia. But Saturday night's 69-67 nail-biter at Cameron Indoor Stadium will be the final regular season meeting -- at least until seismic forces detonate the foundation of college conference affiliation again.
Yet somehow, as the Atlantic Coast Conference entered the age of expansion and made-for-television theater, these two schools became attached at the hip (pun not intended). In truth, the Maryland-Duke "rivalry" is based on just four years, 11 games and two Hall of Fame head coaches who grew to respect each other and eventually became friends.
Gary Williams became Maryland's head coach prior to the start of the 1989-90 season amid a black cloud of turmoil and coming NCAA sanctions left behind by former coach Bob Wade, who was fired after just three seasons. From then until the end of 1998 Duke was 17-4 against the Terps with two of those losses coming during the Pete Gaudet-era. It was clear that, for whatever the reason, beating Duke was more challenging than any of the other conference schools for Williams and the tension was obvious. However, from 1999 through 2002 the series was enough to warrant it's own ESPN Classic week. Every single meeting saw both teams in the national rankings, five of them when each was in the Associated Press top five. There was the almost unthinkable, final-minute comeback in College Park. The ACC Tournament semi final thriller the following year. And, of course, the historic 2001 National semi final in Minneapolis that saw the Blue Devils rally from a 22-point, first half deficit.
But, there were also back-to-back Maryland wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium, including one on Shane Battier's senior night that was a bitter pill to swallow even in a national championship season. Surprisingly, even over those four years, Duke still easily had the upper hand on the scoreboard, winning eight of the 11 games. But, it was the manner in which those battles were fought, and the characters who waged them, that created this legend. "You had Steve Francis, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Terrence Morris and Lonny Baxter…all guys who played in the NBA," said Duke's 2000 conference player of the year Chris Carrawell. "There were just so many great players on both teams that it made those games special."
Maybe the most significant of Maryland's players over that span was scoring sensation Juan Dixon. He played in all eleven games, doing as much to elevate the series as anyone else in sneakers. "In my four years at the University of Maryland the rivalry went to another level", Dixon, now a special assistant at Maryland, told me after the Blue Devils narrow win Saturday night. "I have the utmost respect for for Coach K and his program, he's simply one of the best coaches ever."
There was also a unique bond forming between Dixon, one of the greatest players in Maryland history, and Duke. Dixon's story was well-documented, undersized and skinny coming out of high school, the son of drug addicts who both died of AIDS before his 17th birthday, his career was built on hard work and determination. In those consecutive road wins at Cameron, Dixon averaged 29.5 points on nearly 65% shooting from the floor, and left an indelible mark on both the player and the coach who tried to stop him. In fact, Dixon still carries a hand-written note from Krzyzewski congratulating him on a remarkable college career.
The year following Dixon's graduation, Duke hosted an NBA charity All-Star game at Cameron, featuring former Blue Devils against an array of notable NBA players who went to other colleges. As the teams were introduced to a mostly sold out building, Dixon was announced as a member of the "home" team. I'm not sure how you can possibly show more respect to a player who played his heart out against you than to want him on your side, albeit just in an exhibition. But, the crowd at Cameron went one better. Ask anyone in attendance that night, as I was, and they'll tell you that only Grant Hill received a louder, more sustained ovation than Dixon. It was also obvious that this was the orchestration of Krzyzewski, whom Dixon credits for inspiring him to enter the coaching profession. "I admire who he is and how he runs his program. I'm glad I had the opportunity to play for Coach Williams, who belongs in the Hall of Fame, and I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to compete against Coach K."
Unfortunately, this series came to an end Saturday night. Krzyzewski was on the sideline, coaxing enough out of his team on a night in which Duke didn't play their best basketball but had just enough to win. Williams was probably at home in Maryland, watching, and maybe sweating just a little bit, as his alma mater was on the brink of closing this final chapter with a stunning upset. It's really a shame that Gary wasn't in Durham for the finale because Duke vs. Maryland was just another great conference series until Williams and Coach K started throwing figurative hay-makers at each other over those 11 games.
Yes, the series is over, but maybe Raleigh native Dez Wells, who nearly carried the Terps across the final finish line, was right when he said, "at the end of the day, the Duke-Maryland rivalry will never end."
Unfortunately, it will continue only in our memory.