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Ahead of His Time
Courtesy: Jim Sumner, GoDuke the Magazine
Release: 05/08/2018
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By Jim Sumner, GoDuke the Magazine

Vic Bubas became Duke’s head basketball coach on May 5, 1959.

He coached his last game at Duke on March 8, 1969.

Not long to establish a legacy.

But Bubas, who passed away April 16 at the age of 91, was no ordinary coach. He turned Duke from a regional power into a national power, accomplishing feats the Duke program had never before achieved, producing records that held up for a generation.

Victor Albert Bubas was born January 28, 1927 in Gary, Indiana. After graduating from high school and serving in the military, Bubas was discovered playing AAU basketball by N.C. State coach Everett Case. Bubas went to State because Case told him he would teach him how to coach.

As a player, Bubas was a prototypical coach on the floor, a smart playmaker who helped the Wolfpack win four Southern Conference championships and finish third in the 1950 NCAA Tournament. He graduated in 1951 and took over as the head coach of the N.C. State freshmen team.

He became Case’s top assistant a couple of years later. Players referred to Case and Bubas as “Pete and Repeat.”

Bucky Waters played at State when Bubas was a Wolfpack assistant. In fact, Bubas recruited Waters from New Jersey, beginning a friendship that lasted more than 60 years.

“He wasn’t much older than us,” Waters says. “But it seemed like he was. We all knew he was going to be a head coach.”

Bubas was Case’s heir apparent. But he became restless and pursued other jobs, including Ohio State, which hired Fred Taylor instead.

After a few such rejections, Bubas considered leaving coaching. Then Eddie Cameron called. Harold Bradley left Duke for the head job at Texas shortly after the end of the 1959 season. Cameron claimed that he had more than 100 applicants. But the Duke AD went with the 32-year-old Bubas.

You’ve heard the adage “don’t work harder, work smarter.” Bubas and his staff worked harder AND smarter. Before Bubas, Duke had largely recruited North Carolina and the urban northeast. No more. Waters says Bubas’ message was, “We’re Duke and we can recruit anywhere.”

Bubas approached recruiting differently. Dean Smith said that Bubas “taught us all how to recruit.” Duke evaluated players earlier than anyone, relying on their own assessments instead of go-betweens.

And they worked at it. When Duke twice defeated two-time defending national champion UCLA at the beginning of the 1965-66 season, John Wooden was asked if he had tried to recruit Duke center Mike Lewis.

“We tried,” Wooden dead-panned. “But every time we called the Lewis home, Bucky Waters answered the phone.”

Lewis was from Missoula, Montana. You had work to get from Durham to Missoula.

Bubas recruited players from Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Maine, while not ignoring Duke’s traditional hunting grounds. He recruited Jeff Mullins from Kentucky, practically under Adolph Rupp’s nose.

Jay Buckley was one of Bubas’ first recruits, a 6-10 center from Maryland.

Buckley gives an example of Duke’s professionalism.

“A lot of the schools recruiting me didn’t seem to even know the way to the academic departments,” explains Buckley, a superb student who eventually earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. “But Duke gave me an excellent tour, had me talk to the right people. They allowed the university to sway me.”

Buckley also disputes the notion that Bubas’ success was just recruiting.

“I was 6-10 and had a hook shot. But I was skinny and could barely walk and chew gum at the same time. They worked with me, nurtured me, developed me.”

Buckley ended up as a double-double machine for Duke’s first two Final Four teams.

Fred Shabel was an assistant coach for Bubas. “He approached coaching as if Duke was a national brand and he and his coaches were sales managers,” he once said. “We had to get on the road and sell our product.”

“He was relatively formal in his attire,” Buckley adds. “He was always organized. He was positive in practice, always showing us ways to do something better. He wasn’t a screamer, he wasn’t a curser.”

That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be tough. He once suspended four starters after they missed a New Year’s Eve curfew.

Fred Lind played for Duke in the late 1960s. “He always told us if we got hurt, get back up and play,” Lind recalls. “‘If you want sympathy, I’ll visit you in the hospital.’ He would back you up but he expected you to do your share.”

Bubas scheduled nonconference powers like UCLA, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia. He installed a fan- and recruit-pleasing fastbreak offense. His 1965 team averaged 92.4 points per game, still a school record.

Bubas used his considerable talent-evaluation skills to bring in young, hungry, tireless assistant coaches, like Waters, Chuck Daly and Hubie Brown.

“He gave people opportunities and didn’t get in the way,” Waters recalls.

Ironically, Bubas’ most important recruit fell into his lap. Art Heyman decommitted from North Carolina after a disagreement between his stepfather and Frank McGuire. Bubas had just taken over at Duke and he quickly locked up Heyman.

But freshmen couldn’t play varsity in those days and Bubas struggled with Bradley’s holdovers, going 7-7 in the 1960 ACC. It was a rebuilding year — until the ACC Tournament.

Bubas learned from Case, a master of tournament play: Figure out what you do best, simplify, focus.

Duke stunned the ACC universe with wins over South Carolina, North Carolina and Wake Forest. It was the school’s first ACC Tournament championship.

Duke followed with wins over Princeton and Saint Joseph’s, Duke’s first two NCAA Tournament wins, then lost to NYU in the East Regional finals.

Duke returned everyone of consequence for 1961 and added Heyman. Duke started 15-1 and reached third in the AP poll, the school’s highest ranking to that point. But Heyman was suspended for three games after his infamous fight with UNC’s Larry Brown and the season lost momentum.

Duke lost to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament title game and lost the following season in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

It all came together in 1963, Heyman’s senior year. He and Mullins combined for 45 points and 19 rebounds per game, as Duke ran off a 20-game winning streak. Heyman became the first Blue Devil to be ACC Player of the Year, consensus national player of the year and first pick in the NBA Draft.

He also keyed Duke to its first Final Four, a run that ended with a semifinal loss to Loyola, a three-point game when Heyman fouled out late on a charge call.

Duke ended the 1963 season with a 27-3 mark, a school record for wins not bettered until 1986.

Duke did even better in 1964, making it all the way to the final game, where they lost to an undefeated UCLA squad, Wooden’s first national title. Mullins emerged as the ACC Player of the Year and later that summer became Duke’s first U.S. Olympic basketball player.

Duke again finished first in the ACC in 1965 but was upset in the ACC Tournament by N.C. State.

Bubas always claimed that his 1966 team was his best. Jack Marin and Bob Verga became the first Duke players to be named All-America in the same season. After beating UCLA, Duke ascended to the top spot in the AP poll for the first time.

Duke got payback for 1965 by defeating State in the ACC Tournament and defeating Saint Joseph’s and Syracuse to advance to their third Final Four in four seasons.

Kentucky was next. But Verga — a sharp-shooting guard leading Duke with 19 points per game — came down with strep throat. He gave it a try but could muster only four points and Duke fell 83-79. Bubas long maintained that Duke would have won it all with a healthy Verga.

The 1966 season ended a remarkable six-year run in which Duke went 141-28, 71-13 in the ACC, 58-3 at home.

It also was his high-water mark. Duke didn’t return to the NCAA Tournament until 1978.

Bubas started losing recruiting battles, especially to that school eight miles to the west. Dean Smith had learned how to recruit all too well, bringing in Duke targets like Larry Miller, Charlie Scott and Bill Bunting.

Duke walkon C.B. Claiborne became the first African American basketball player in the Big Four in the 1966-67 season. But Duke struggled to bring in top-tier black players, a problem that lingered into the 1980s. Waters says rival recruiters played up Duke’s stereotypes as a whites-only country club, with impossible academics.

Duke didn’t drop too far, going 18-9 in 1967 behind Verga and 22-6 the following season, behind Lewis.

But Lewis was the last of the All-Americans. Bubas’ last four recruiting classes produced only one All-ACC player, center Randy Denton, a sophomore in 1969.

Lind was a senior on that 1969 team. He says he was stunned when Bubas told the team that this would be his last season. Duke responded to the news with a 122-93 win over Wake Forest but lost three of its next four, before rallying to make the ACC Tournament finals. They lost to Scott and UNC, ending the season at 15-13.

Bubas finished his career at 213-67, 106-32 in the ACC, 22-6 in the ACC Tournament. His ACC winning percentages are still the best in conference history.

Why did Bubas retire at age 42?

He always said he had other things to do.

“Basketball couldn’t contain him,” says Waters, adding that Bubas told him he “didn’t want to get on another airplane to chase another high school kid.”

Lind remembers talking to Bubas about coaching as a career option. Bubas told him about the time demands of recruiting, the increasingly cut-throat nature of recruiting, and entitled prospects who demanded guaranteed starting spots.

So Lind went to law school.

Bubas stayed at Duke as an administrator, eventually becoming a vice-president. Waters says few know of Bubas’ behind-the-scenes efforts to improve Duke’s relationship with neighboring Durham school N.C. Central and Durham’s African American community.

Bubas left Duke in 1976 to become the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, a position he held until 1990. Always an innovator, he was an early proponent of the shot clock and the three-point shot.

And he didn’t forget Duke. Both Bill Foster and Mike Krzyzewski would get a call from Bubas during their early struggles, with a simple message: Don’t pay attention to the critics, you’re on the right track, stay the course.

His best behind-the-scenes work may have come as the chairman of the NCAA Tournament Basketball Committee, where he advocated for an expanded tournament and a more fact-based evaluation process.

He didn’t get his name in the papers. But when he talked, people listened.

Waters, Lind, Buckley and dozens more of his closest friends gathered in Durham last January for his 91st birthday. It wasn’t intended as a farewell. Waters says they were planning on a 92nd.

“He was so top-drawer,” Buckley says. “My appreciation has grown over time. I was very lucky to be part of that.”

“He changed our lives,” Waters sums up. “His hand was on everything. He was positive, intelligent, caring. He could have run General Motors. He showed what leadership could do in college basketball.”

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