Americans love college rivalries. It starts at the top with coaches, and the bloodstreams of various colors bleed through to the players and fans.
With another school year upon us and USA Basketball having returned from Rio de Janeiro with a third straight Olympic gold medal, this is as good time as any to tell a little-known story about the selection of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as the leader of USA Basketball.
It was Coach K’s rival at North Carolina, the late Dean Smith, who demonstrated that college rivalries stop at American shores.
As background, 11 years ago Jerry Colangelo was the newly appointed USA Basketball chairman. He called a meeting of basketball luminaries in Chicago in response to USA Basketball having reached the nadir of the 2004 Olympics.The Americans lost three games in Athens, including a 19-point decision at the hands of Puerto Rico, and settled for a bronze medal. This was two years after the ignominious 2002 World Championships on U.S. soil. The Americans finished fifth in Indianapolis.
Smith and Krzyzewski were among the 35 college and NBA coaches and former players gathered to right the good ship USS Naismith. Smith was retired by then, but he was still Dean Smith, the Hall-of-Fame Tar Heel coach, the 1976 Olympics gold medal coach, and the recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 2013 from President Obama.
Other legends in attendance included Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. They were Colangelo’s sounding boards on how to get American basketball back atop the Olympic medal stand.
I was fortunate to gain a phone interview with Colangelo, thanks to having met him through the legendary coach Pete Newell. This was shortly after Krzyzewski won his 1,000th career college game on Jan. 26, 2015.
Colangelo related to me the scene in Chicago. He had various names in mind as candidates to take over USA Basketball.
“As we discussed coaches, I had a group of college coaches up on the board and some pro coaches,” Colangelo told me. “But Dean Smith said, ‘Look, there is only one college coach on that board who can get the job done. And that’s Coach K.’”
Colangelo wasn’t surprised Krzyzewski was considered a prime candidate. His wonder was that Smith endorsed his school’s fiercest rival:
“Now that was a special moment. If you were a basketball fly, that’s the wall you wanted to be on that day. With all that discussion, with all the great basketball minds that were there that day, that was special – his biggest rival supporting him. That was a special moment for me.”
Think about that quote for a moment.
Colangelo’s career as a power broker in American business extends beyond former ownership of the Phoenix Suns in the NBA and the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. He’s taken in some scenes. It takes a lot for his jaw to drop.
If Colangelo was in awe, you should be, too.
Krzyzewski, we know by now, was the right choice, but as further appreciation for Smith, remember that in 2014 Kentucky coach John Calipari complained Coach K was using his USA Basketball success as a recruiting advantage. That scenario didn’t concern Smith when the first task was getting USA Basketball back atop the globe.
USA Basketball was in disarray in 2005 when Colangelo called together the “Chicago 35.” Twelve years and three gold medals later, Coach K has stepped down from coaching USA Basketball. Instead of the panic of 2005, there is order. San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was named Krzyzewski’s successor a year ago.
Dean Smith’s 2005 assist remains among the finest of his career, even if it doesn’t show up in a box score.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055