Johnny Dawkins Knows What Program-Building Is All About

Feb. 4, 2009

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    In the last of three vignettes for, veteran Cardinal broadcaster John Platz reflects on the college playing career of current Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins, and how Dawkins was instrumental in establishing Duke as of one of the nation's top programs.

    Stanford men's basketball fans - those that go back more than two decades - know that patience is part of the deal. And first-year Stanford head basketball coach Johnny Dawkins knows it too. He lived through a patience-testing period as a Duke player.

    Once upon a time, at least as far back as the early 1980s, there was no Coach K. Just a relatively young, new basketball coach at Duke whose surname was difficult to pronounce.

    This new coach had inherited a Duke program in the fall of 1980 that was a lot like the Stanford program in the fall of 2008. It was a Duke program that, as of 1980, had enjoyed recent NCAA Tournament success. It was a Duke program that had solid but not superstar players, except for the occasional, once-or-twice-in-a-decade All-American player. It was a Duke program that had done reasonably well in a very tough, high-major Division 1 basketball conference, despite the presence in that conference of multiple perennial Final Four-caliber programs such as North Carolina and North Carolina State.

    Into this challenging situation strode young Mike Krzyzewski in early May of 1980. Duke had been to three straight NCAA tournaments, including appearances in the 1978 Final Four and the 1980 Elite Eight. Duke fans wondered whether the new young coach from Army- whose career as an Army player had helped him get the Army head coaching job but who had not been a Division 1 coach anywhere except at Army- could possibly equal the successes of his NCAA-Tournament-reaching coaching predecessors at Duke.

    Does this scenario sound familiar, Stanford fans?

    The first Krzyzewski season, 1980-81, the new head coach faced a situation similar to that faced by the new Stanford head coach in 2008-09. Two key starters from the Blue Devils' 1980 NCAA Elite Eight team- including second-team All-American center and NBA first-round draft pick Mike Gminski- had departed following the 1979-80 season. There was but one roster returnee who had ever been selected to an All-ACC basketball team: forward Gene Banks. Major talent had been lost, though some good talent returned to help the new Duke coach in his first season.

    Sound familiar, Stanford fans?

    The strength of the ACC in coach Krzyzewski's first year was forbidding. Perennial powerhouse North Carolina would reach the NCAA championship game that very 1980-81 season, and would win the NCAA title the following year. Virginia's program, featuring All-American center Ralph Sampson, was good enough to be within three years of a Final Four appearance. North Carolina State had several underclassmen that were good enough to later become cornerstones of the Wolfpack's 1983 NCAA championship team. It was a pretty daunting slate of conference foes for a new coach to have to face in his first year on the job.

    Sound familiar, Stanford fans?

    Coach Krzyzewski did not, in fact, win much that first season at Duke. From a 24-win season during the 1979-80 campaign in Bill Foster's final season, Duke notched a 17-10 record in 1980-81 under Krzyzewski.

    The second year was even worse, record-wise, for Duke basketball. The Blue Devils in 1981-82 won just 10 games overall and managed just a 4-10 record in ACC play. By Krzyzewski's second season, all of the key players from the 1978-80 NCAA Tournament teams had moved on, leaving the Duke basketball talent cupboard significantly depleted.

    Blue Devil fans were impatient, some might say spoiled, by the program's exceptional late-1970s NCAA tournament success. New coach Krzyzewski, and those around him, had to deal with something new for them and for the program--much more losing than they had previously known. But wiser heads sought patience with the new coach, and asked fans to take a closer look.

    During those first two years of his Duke tenure, while struggling through the losing and moderate amount of public criticism and pressure, Krzyzewski was logging some long hours behind the scenes on the recruiting trail, laboring to build a foundation for future Duke success. Krzyzewski had faith that the high school players he was targeting possessed the basketball skills, work ethic, competitiveness and inner fortitude to weather the hard road from losing to winning.

    Krzyzewski spent those first two coaching years--in the evenings after practices, on hotel room phones after games, in the gymnasiums at summer all-star camps--trying to woo four specific high school players: Arizona's Mark Alarie, Los Angeles' Jay Bilas, North Carolina's David Henderson and a prolific scoring guard from Washington, D.C. named Johnny Dawkins. They were very good high school players, recruited by multiple major programs but not necessarily the big names such as North Carolina or Indiana. Still, it was not easy to get this geographically, ethnically and basketball-stylistically diverse group of players to all agree to come to Durham, N.C. Somehow, Krzyzewski got them to come.

    The third Krzyzewski year, in 1982-83, those four freshman entered Duke and became starters. This freshman-dominated Duke starting lineup did not win much: 11-17 overall, 3-11 in the ACC. That made Krzyzewski's three-year record 38-47. Sad to say, would that kind of coaching start allow a coach to survive these days, in the 2009 coaching environment?

    Happily for Duke fans, coach Krzyzewski was granted patience and did survive, and the rest is college hoop Hall-of-Fame history in Durham, N.C.

    Many say that the biggest reason for Coach K's and the Duke program's rise to elite status was the choice of, and the rapid development of, those four 1982-83 Duke freshmen. It is hard to imagine a group of freshman having had, collectively, a greater career impact on a program. From an 11-17 record as freshmen that 1982-83 season to, three years later as seniors, a 37-3 overall record, a 12-2 ACC regular-season record and a spot for Duke in the 1986 NCAA championship game.

    One of those four Duke freshmen in 1982-83 had a front row seat to this amazing Duke improvement from mediocrity to elite-level winning. That former Duke player witnessed a new head coach under the stress of having very young players, and he observed the discipline with which that young coach handled the stress and managed his players' development. That former Duke player also experienced firsthand how that coach demanded hard work and accountability.

    That former Duke player, now the first-year coach at Stanford, is Johnny Dawkins.

    While Coach Dawkins is not predicting that he will be as fortunate as Coach K was, to reach a Final Four within his first six years coaching at a school, or to recruit a player talented enough to become a 2,500-plus point career scorer--like, say, a Johnny Dawkins--the new Stanford head coach knows very well what the first five years of program-building at a high-major Division 1 school can be like.

    Johnny Dawkins knows that it takes time and patience to recruit, to impart a work ethic, to cultivate an attitude of winning. He knows the yearnings of Stanford players and fans to see a return of Stanford to elite-level excellence in college basketball, to NCAA Tournaments and Sweet 16s and even maybe Final Fours. And he knows that, while there are no guarantees, there is no prohibition against dreaming big for Stanford basketball and working hard to make those dreams come true.

    Johnny Dawkins knows all this because he lived it once under a young coach, and he is now trying to live it again as the young coach himself.

    - John Platz
    - Photos courtesy Duke Athletics

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