DURHAM, N.C. - Duke's first Atlantic Coast Conference basketball championship was a huge surprise - to everybody except first year Blue Devil coach Vic Bubas.
A half-century ago, Bubas led an unheralded team to the 1960 ACC Championship - the first of 17 ACC titles that have been won by the Blue Devils. Members of that historic team will be honored Sunday during Duke's 2010 ACC opener against Clemson.
Duke is currently the defending ACC champion, the top-ranked team in the ACC this season and one of the favorites to compete for the 2010 league championship. But a half-century ago, Duke was hardly an ACC power.
True, the Blue Devils won five Southern Conference titles under Eddie Cameron and Gerry Gerard between 1938 and 1946, but with the arrival of Everett Case at N.C. State in 1947, Duke's championship days seemed to be a thing of the past. Case's Wolfpack dominated the league between 1947 and 1956, winning nine conference titles in 10 years. And when the challenge to Case's juggernaut finally came, it came not from Durham, but from Frank McGuire's budding powerhouse at the University of North Carolina.
Duke coach Harold Bradley was the Herb Sendek of his era. He consistently fielded solid, winning teams, but could never get past the State-Carolina superpowers atop the conference. Frustrated by his status as an ACC runner-up, Bradley took a lucrative offer from the University of Texas after the 1959 season and bolted for Austin.
Blue Devil athletic director Eddie Cameron received 135 applications for the vacant coaching job, but the former Duke basketball coach always insisted that his first choice was Case's right-hand man in Raleigh.
Bubas was one of Case's early "Hoosier Hotshots" a talented guard who helped the Pack to the 1950 Final Four, then stayed in Raleigh as an assistant coach. He proved to be a revolutionary recruiter, expanding Case's recruiting base beyond the Indiana state line. "He taught us all how to recruit," UNC's Dean Smith later said.
Bubas beat Adolph Rupp for Denver sensation Ronnie Shavlik and traveled to Duke's prime recruiting territory in Philadelphia and landed heralded big man John Ritchter and unknown point guard Lou Pucillo. And when Cameron first called in the spring of 1959 to set up a job interview, Bubas was in Lexington, Ky., stealing sharp-shooting guard Jon Speaks from under Rupp's nose.
Earlier, Bubas had turned down head coaching opportunities at Clemson and South Carolina - two schools that he didn't believe would make the commitment it took to be successful in the ACC. But when Cameron offered him the Duke job, Bubas saw a sleeping giant.
He would wake it up.
"It would be foolish of me to crawl out on a limb and make any predictions," Bubas told some 25 reporters at his introductory press conference, "but I will say I like the potential of this squad. I promise to give 100 percent to the program ... we will make a credible showing."
Despite his optimistic words, the expectation was that Bubas would revive the Duke program by recruiting the best players in the country, not by leading the holdovers from a 13-12 team to greatness. And the energetic coach quickly confirmed those expectations when he promptly stole Art Heyman - the nation's top prospect - from McGuire at North Carolina.
But freshmen couldn't play varsity basketball in those days, so Bubas would have to wait until the 1960-61 season to make use of the Long Island schoolboy sensation. He'd have to make do in 1960 with the players he inherited from Bradley.
It wasn't a bad group.
Carroll Youngkin, a 6-foot-6 forward from Winston-Salem, was the top returning scorer. Howard Hurt, a 6-foot-3 sharpshooter from Beckley, W.Va., had showed his skill with a 28-point performance in the 1959 ACC Tournament opener against Wake Forest. And Bubas saw a lot of potential in slender 6-foot-9 center Doug Kistler.
The new Duke coach enjoyed some success early in his first season - winning six straight in December, including impressive wins over Alabama and Navy (a strong basketball program in those days), in the Birmingham (Ala.) Classic and a 63-52 upset of No. 6 Utah and All-American Billy "The Hill" McGill in the opening game of the 1959 Dixie Classic.
Unfortunately, reality came crashing down on Bubas and his Blue Devils 24 hours later in the semifinals, when North Carolina - playing without star Doug Moe - dominated Duke 75-53. One night later, Dayton hammered Duke again in the third-place game.
The Devils bounced back to win three straight to open the new year, but a homecourt loss to Maryland precipitated a real slide - seven losses in 11 games down the stretch, including a 26-point loss to UNC in Chapel Hill, 17- and 19-point losses to Wake Forest and concluding with a humiliating 75-50 loss to UNC in Durham - Duke's third loss by 22 or more points to the Tar Heels.
Could anybody have predicted that Duke (12-10, 7-7 ACC) would win the ACC Tournament?
Well, one person did - Bubas.
On the Monday before the 1960 ACC Tournament opened in Raleigh, Bubas startled Durham Sun sports editor Hugo Germino with the prediction: "I'm picking Duke to win."
Nearly half a century later, Bubas could only laugh at his presumption.
"Being honest about it, I don't know what possessed me to say that," he said. "Maybe I was trying to give my team a little confidence."
He did suggest that there was perhaps a tangible reason for his bizarre prediction - the improvement of Kistler in the post.
"We worked so hard with him with his back to the basket and how to maneuver around the basket," Bubas said. "And he was getting better at it. And he was starting to pick up fouls and he was a good free throw shooter. He always was good facing the basket, but he needed work with his back to the basket. He gave us a lot more confidence."
Duke, seeded fourth in the eight-team tournament, would need it. To the rest of the ACC world, the only question is whether No. 16 North Carolina (17-5, 12-2 ACC) or No. 18 Wake Forest (19-6, 12-2 ACC) would win the title.
"It looks like North Carolina and Wake Forest in the finals of the ACC Tournament," Durham Morning Herald sports editor Jack Horner wrote. "While tournament basketball is as unpredictable as the weather, there's no denying the fact that the Tar Heels and the Baptists have the most powerful quints in the conference."
Horner was right about the weather. A late winter storm dumped more than eight inches of snow on the Raleigh area in the 24 hours before the game, leading conference officials to ask WRAL-TV to broadcast the games to encourage ticket-holders to stay off the icy roads.
There were still 10,500 fans in the stands at Reynolds Coliseum to see sixth-seeded N.C. State (playing on its home court) upset No. 3 Maryland in the tourney opener. The next two games went as expected with No. 2 seed Wake Forest routing No. 7 Clemson and No. 1 seeded North Carolina overcoming a slow start to beat No. 8 Virginia handily.
There was one significant moment after that game, when Virginia coach Billy McCann - who had applied for the Duke job the previous spring - was asked about his team's early lead over the powerful Tar Heels.
"It was having Christmas come in March," McCann said.
He would not be the last ACC coach to use those words during the 1960 ACC Tournament.
The final first-round game matched No. 4 seed Duke against No. 5 South Carolina (10-16, 6-8 ACC) - a team the Blue Devils had twice beaten in the regular season.
Bubas' confidence in Kistler was justified when the junior big man poured in 26 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the 82-69 victory. Hurt added 21 points, while Youngkin chipped in with 11 points and 16 rebounds. Duke amassed 16 assists - an astounding total in that era, when assists were often unmeasured and, even when they were counted, were usually handed out grudgingly.
Careful observers noted that Bubas switched his starting lineup for the game, going back to a small lineup that he used early in the season. It wasn't that small - the 6-foot-9 Kistler and 6-foot-6 Youngkin were an effective pair of post performers. The 6-foot-3 Hurt had played guard for much of the season, but moved back to forward in the new alignment, while 6-foot Johnny Frye and 5-foot-11 Navy veteran Jack Mullen formed the backcourt. The players called themselves "The Birmingham Five" because that was the lineup that had started in the pre-Christmas Tournament in Alabama.
But as impressive as their first-round victory over the Gamecocks was, it did little to change the perception that Duke would be fodder for the powerful Tar Heels in the first semifinal game Friday night.
Bubas didn't agree with the conventional wisdom.
"I like the psychological spot we're in," Bubas told the writers before the game. "We've got all to win and nothing to lose."
McGuire's 1960 team was loaded with stars. The 6-foot-5 Moe was probably the best all-around player in the league, a tenacious defender and rebounder and a powerful offensive force. He missed the first semester (and the Dixie Classic) due to academic probation, but he was back at full speed by the March tournament. His early absence allowed Lee Shaffer to expand his role and the 6-foot-7 senior ended up leading the ACC in scoring and earning ACC Player of the Year honors. The two frontcourt stars were ably supported by All-American guard York Larese, who was regarded as the best shooter in the ACC.
A sellout crowd made its way over the still-icy streets to pack Reynolds Coliseum for Friday night's semifinals. Many had to dodge mountains of snow piled up in the N.C. State parking lots to reach the smoke-filled arena to watch the all Big Four doubleheader.
For the second night in a row, McGuire's powerful Tar Heels fell behind in the first half. Duke, getting a career-best performance from Youngkin in the post, opened up a 35-19 lead just before intermission. The Blue Devils seemed in control when UNC's Shaffer picked up his fourth personal foul at the start of the second half.
McGuire elected to keep Shaffer - and forward Ray Stanley, also in foul trouble - in the game and not to protect his big men on the bench. The strategy allowed Youngkin to go wild against the cautious post defense of the Heels, but it also allowed Shaffer to do damage at the offensive end. The Tar Heel senior scored 21 points, which along with 25 from Larese, powered North Carolina back into the lead. McGuire's team actually led by four points on three occasions, but Duke tied the game at 63-all with just over a minute to play.
Hurt put the Blue Devils ahead with a shot from the left corner. After a Tar Heel miss, Hurt got the ball back and was fouled. His two free throws gave the Blue Devils a 67-63 lead. Two more free throws by Hurt and two by Frye clinched Duke's unlikely 71-69 victory.
The victorious Duke team had to fight its way off the court. Blue Devil fans poured onto the floor, pounding their heroes and even leaping onto the shoulders of the happy players and coaches.
"It's like Christmas in March," Bubas exclaimed, echoing the words Virginia's Billy McCann had uttered the day before. "I can't single out one boy to credit. They were all great. The victory belongs to all of them."
Youngkin, who sat out the 1958 season rather than miss the first semester for academics, finished as the leading scorer in the game with 30 points.
"I didn't have any idea during the game that I was scoring 30 points," Youngkin said. "The fellows just fed the ball to me and I was open a lot."
Bubas revisited Everett Case's old mantra about how hard it is to beat a team three times in a season ... or, in this case, four times.
"Frank had a tough situation," Bubas said. "They had beaten us three times this season. Believe me, when you do that, it's tough to get the boys up for a fourth time."
UNC's McGuire also talked about the difficulty of beating the same team over and over in one season.
"That's the price of the tournament," he said. "I don't care who you play four times. It's very hard to beat them. Duke had everything to gain and nothing to lose. You can't beat a team like that four times."
The Tar Heel coach complained about the foul trouble that plagued his big men and Duke's ability to hit some tough shots. During a lull in the press conference, he offered a very bitter comment: "A lot of teams will be glad we're out."
One of those teams was Wake Forest, which had to be confident of its ability to beat a Duke team that it had routed by 17 and 19 points during the season.
The Deacons were thought to be the ACC's new power after adding the sophomore inside/outside duo of Len Chappell and Billy Packer.
Both players were major recruiting targets for Duke. Deacon coach Bones McKinney used to tell the story that he only learned of Chappell and Packer when he visited Duke's Bradley and saw their names on a blackboard in his office.
Like most of Bones' stories, it combines truth and fantasy. In fact, Chappell was one of the nation's premier recruits as a prep senior at Portage, Pa. - the 6-foot-8, 240-pound giant later said he received between 50 and 75 scholarship offers. McKinney, hoping to impress the lad with his credentials as a big man coach, got former NBA colleagues such as Red Auerbach, Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy to write Chappell with letters of recommendation.
But Chappell said that he ended up picking Wake Forest because he liked Bones and because he wasn't sure he was good enough to play at Duke.
"When I finished high school, I didn't have any confidence in myself," Chappell said. "I went to Wake Forest where I felt I'd get to play."
Packer was a different story.
A lightly recruited guard from Bethlehem, Pa., the 5-foot-10 Packer grew up idolizing former Duke star Dick Groat. His dream was to play for the Devils.
But Bradley and his staff weren't sure that Packer was good enough for the Devils. Assistant coach Fred Shabel told the young guard that they were trying to decide whether to use their last scholarship on Packer or on Wisconsin guard John Cantwell.
That made Packer mad and he vowed to get even with the Devils. He said that he signed with Wake Forest because he knew that the Deacons were in the same conference with Duke and he'd get two or three chances a year to stick it to the Devils.
As it turned out, Packer got his first chance to prove Bradley wrong in the 1959 Dixie Classic, when he won MVP honors while leading the Deacons to their first and only Dixie Classic title. He was a second-team All-ACC pick as a sophomore in 1960 and would be first-team his next two years.
Chappell was even better - one of the great players in ACC history in fact. He was the leading vote-getter on the All-ACC team in 1960 and would win ACC player of the year honors in his last two seasons, averaging 24.9 points and 13.9 rebounds in his career.
Chappell was too much for N.C. State in the semifinals, although with Packer missing 8-of-9 shots from the floor, the Pack hung tough until the closing minutes.
The Deacons managed to hold the lead, thanks to some good foul shooting down the stretch, and seemed to be on the verge of clinching a spot in the finals when all hell broke loose. It started when Wake's Dave Budd poked N.C. State's Russ Marvel in the eye, scratching his face and drawing blood. Moments later, Wake's Jerry Steele - a self-described hatchet man - also gave Marvel a shot.
Case was furious, later claiming Budd's blow was, "a deliberate foul ... clearly deliberate. It's unfortunate, but that guy Budd has been involved in so many of these things."
He was involved in another of "these things" with 18 seconds left, when the Wake Forest senior and N.C. State's Anton Muehlbauer traded blows under the N.C. State basket. Both players were ejected and watched from the bench as Wake Forest played out its 71-66 victory.
Budd's ejection triggered action by ACC Commissioner James Weaver, who had put the Wake bully-boy on probation after his role in the Wake-UNC brawl of 1959 - just one of many on-court confrontations by the Deacon big man. Weaver was actually not on hand for the Friday night fight - the Commissioner left the State-Wake game early to attend a postgame party. Weaver was expected to suspend Budd for the title game once he got the game report from the officials and from Footsie Knight, the former Durham YMCA director who was the ACC's director of officials.
Naturally, McKinney was hoping to avoid that. Claiming that he didn't see the fight, he defended his senior captain.
"It wasn't a dirty game," he insisted. "It was just rough, tough basketball. There's contact in every basketball game. There never has been - never will be - a pattycake game."
Even the possibility that Budd might not be able to play against Duke couldn't spoil Bones' delight at beating N.C. State.
"To say I'm happy is putting it mild," McKinney said. "I loved every minute we were ahead. Every second. Every split-second. And every timeout. It's been a long time since we came here to Tammany Hall and won."
The Wake Forest coach was asked if he was happy to be playing Duke in the finals, instead of North Carolina.
"I didn't want to play either one of them," he said, adding after the laugher died, "I'm very happy for Vic."
Unfortunately, the leadup to the championship game was overshadowed by the 24-hour debate over the status of Budd. As expected, Weaver met with Knight and game officials Lou Eisenstein and Red Mihalik Saturday morning to get their take on the incident. Just before noon, Weaver announced that Budd would not play in the title game.
But Wake Forest appealed the ruling to the ACC's executive committee, made up of the league's faculty athletic chairmen. They met for two and a half hours that afternoon before emerging at 5 p.m. and announcing that they were overruling Weaver "because of mitigating circumstances" (which were never revealed). Barely three hours before tipoff, McKinney learned that Budd would be allowed to play.
In hindsight, the Wake Forest coach said that the committee's decision was the worst thing to happen to the Deacons.
"We would have beaten the hell out of Duke without Budd," McKinney told author Ron Morris 20 years after the fact. He explained that the reversal of Weaver's decision changed his team's mental approach to the title game. Instead of being angry about Budd's dismissal, the Wake Forest players were disarmed by the reaction to his reinstatement.
"The last thing that I said to Dave Budd was that the fans were going to boo the hell out of him. When they called his name and threw that spotlight on him [some of the fans] started to boo. Then they started to applaud. Then they gave him a standing ovation. We were 20 points better than Duke, but that made pussycats out of us. Pussycats!"
Actually, the 1960 title game was one of the best ACC championship contests ever played. The two teams played at a high level, neither able to build a significant lead. Budd was terrific, finishing with 10 points and 15 rebounds, while Chappell turned in his third-straight strong performance with 19 points and 14 rebounds. But neither Deacon big man could counter Duke's Kistler, who hit 10-of-15 shots and finished with 22 points. Hurt, Youngkin and Frye also scored in double figures as the five Blue Devil starters played all but two of a possible 200 minutes between them.
Duke led most of the first half, but Wake's Twiggy Wiggins scored just before the break to give the Deacons a 31-30 lead. Neither team led by more than three points in the second half (until the final seconds). The game was deadlocked seven times in the second half - for the last time at 57-all with just over four minutes to play.
Packer, enduring his third straight cold shooting night of the tournament (he hit 2 of 11 from the floor and finished with five points), converted a free throw to put the Deacs on top, 58-57 with 2:36 to play. Bubas called timeout and set up a play for Kistler. The lanky junior canned a two-handed overhead shot to give the Blue Devils a one-point lead with just over two minutes to play.
With Duke packing its defense tight around Chappell in the post, Deacon guard George Ritchie was forced to throw one up from long range. His shot clanked away and Duke's Hurt pulled down the rebound. The Blue Devils were able to hold the ball until Packer fouled Frye with 57 seconds left. The little guard calmly made both chances to stretch the lead to 61-58.
Wake Forest, without the benefit of the modern 3-point shot, rushed the ball upcourt and this time got it in to Chappell. But before the powerful big man could complete his hook shot, he was fouled. Since the Deacs were not yet in the one-and-one, Chappell got just one free throw. Even after he made it, the Devils were still up 61-59 with possession of the ball. Frye went to the line again with 16 seconds left and when he made both shots, Duke not only had the largest lead of the second half ... the Devils had the game and the ACC championship.
"I had a hunch," a delirious Bubas said, referring to his pre-tourney prediction. "And I do think I have a horseshoe when it comes to this tournament."
Duke's 63-59 victory secured the first ACC title for the Blue Devils. It was the school's first conference championship of any kind since Ed Koffenberger led Duke to the 1946 Southern Conference title in the last tournament played in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium. Coincidentally, Duke's victim in 1946 was the same as in 1960 - Wake Forest.
"Gee, is this really mine?" Bubas asked when presented the championship trophy. "I've felt mighty good about the ones we won before [when he was an assistant at N.C. State]. But this one is all mine. I guess that makes it the best."
But the young Blue Devil coach did take time out to salute the man who brought him from Indiana to North Carolina.
"I am deeply grateful to Coach Case for the training he gave me that made this possible," Bubas said. "No words I can say will thank him enough. He put so many pages in my book, I can never call it my own."
By winning the ACC Tournament, Duke earned the ACC's single bid to the NCAA Tournament. It was just the second postseason trip for the Blue Devils - Bradley's 1955 team lost to N.C. State in the ACC finals, but got the bid anyway because the Pack was on probation.
That trip didn't end well as Duke lost a 74-73 heartbreaker to Villanova in Madison Square Garden.
The 1960 Blue Devils were scheduled to meet Ivy League champion Princeton in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night - just 72 hours after their triumph in Raleigh.
"It's not easy to tell yourself and the boys to forget yesterday and get ready for what's ahead," Bubas said on Sunday night, just before departing for New York City. "We met with the boys today and I can honestly say they are confident they can do a good job of representing the Atlantic Coast Conference in the nationals."
Duke's NCAA performance was likely to have a major impact on the perception of the ACC Tournament. The league finished the regular season with two strong national contenders - No. 16 North Carolina and No. 18 Wake Forest. But the victory by Duke - the first true Cinderella team to claim the title - denied both powerhouse teams a chance to compete for national honors. If the Blue Devils let the league down, it was certain to raise questions about using the tournament to pick the league's representative in the NCAA Tournament.
But Duke put that debate on hold with an impressive 84-60 victory over Princeton in the NCAA's opening round.
"We're not a real powerful team, but we believe now that we can beat anybody," Bubas said after Kistler, Hurt and Youngkin combined for 57 points to destroy the Tigers. "We're coming along fast and we just hope we can maintain this momentum."
Only one thing was able to slow Duke down. A second powerful snowstorm struck the Raleigh-Durham area while the Devils were in New York, dumping a new 14 inches of powder on Tobacco Road. Bubas' team was stuck at the Washington airport for hours before the Duke coach was able to get his team on a train to Raleigh. Then he had to charter a bus to get the Blue Devils to Charlotte for the East Regionals.
Despite the double-shot of snow, a capacity crowd of 11,666 packed the Charlotte Coliseum on Friday night for the regional semifinals. North Carolina governor Luther Hodges, a huge basketball fan, addressed the Duke team before the game, telling them that in addition to carrying the banner for their university and their conference, they were also carrying the hopes and pride of all North Carolinians.
The Blue Devils had to wait for the night's first game - New York University's Violets beat Jerry West and West Virginia in overtime, delaying the start of Duke's game with St. Joseph's until almost 10 p.m.
Duke's battle with the Hawks turned into a classic NCAA encounter. The Blue Devils never trailed after breaking a 14-all deadlock seven minutes in, but they never built a comfortable lead either. Both teams played zone defenses and that slowed the game down to a crawl. The way the game was going, Duke's 56-50 lead with 1:40 left looked huge.
But Jack Ramsey's Hawks scored three times in the next minute and were only down 58-56 when Johnny Frye went to the free throw line with 17 seconds left. Frye, who was so deadly in the clutch in the ACC Tournament, missed the clinching free throw in Charlotte, giving St. Joe's one last chance to tie. As the Hawks pushed the ball upcourt, Duke's Hurt slapped the ball out of bounds. Under today's rules, the clock would have stopped until the ball was inbounded. But in 1960, the clock usually ran during out of bounds plays, although the refs had the chance to stop it if the ball was lost in the crowd or something else impeded play.
Referee Max Macon quickly retrieved the loose ball and tossed it to St. Joe's captain Paul Westhead. The future NBA coach, apparently unaware that the clock was still running, held the ball, looking for a perfect opening under the basket. The ball was still in his hands when the buzzer sounded.
Ramsey rushed the floor, charging Macon, chest-bumping him, then stalking him to the scorer's table - screaming his case in the ref's ear all along.
"He should have called time when the ball sailed out," the St. Joe's coach told reporters. "The last of a game like that should be played - and not run out on the clock. If we had been allowed those last few seconds, we might have won the game."
Macon, a former Major League baseball pitcher for the Cardinals, Dodgers and Braves, claimed, "The ball wasn't far enough out of bounds to require a time out. It didn't go back into the stands. It bounced right back to the sideline and I picked it up. I didn't know how much time remained - that's not my job."
Bubas was just happy to escape with a victory.
"Brother, we fought, we burned, we twisted, we scrambled," he said. "That last 10 minutes must have lasted four hours. They wouldn't give an inch. I didn't think we'd ever get it over with."
Duke, which got 22 points from Youngkin and 15 from Hurt, found itself just one game away from the Final Four.
"We were lucky to get that one out of our system," Hurt said. "We'll do better against NYU."
That didn't happen. The Blue Devils were never in the Saturday night game against the Violets. Bubas' weary team, playing its sixth game in 10 days, trailed by nine at the half and were down 20 points five minutes into the second period. Duke got 20 points from Kistler, but that was not enough to offset the 22-point, 16-rebound performance by NYU center Thomas "Satch" Sanders.
"We met a great club on a great night," Bubas said after his team's 74-59 defeat. "Their shooting was just too much for us. We might not have been too sharp tonight, but the way NYU was playing, it would have taken our best effort to beat them."
Bubas wanted to make sure his listeners understood what Duke had accomplished.
"I'm real proud of our kids," he said. "They gave us all they had and we came a very long way. I'm very happy with my first year as coach."
Even better years were ahead for Bubas and the Blue Devils, but 1960 would remain a landmark season for the Duke basketball program.