Hated to love him, loved to hate him

Published 9:46 am Monday, April 23, 2018

Another ACC basketball icon has made his way to glory, and this time when God looks down the bench he won’t see someone with a microphone like Woody Durham, but rather somebody with a clipboard.

Former Duke University basketball coach Vic Bubas passed away on Monday. He was 91.

Bubas was Coach K before Coach K was Coach K, and with a little bit of Dean Smith thrown in.

Like Smith, who succeeded a legend in Frank McGuire at UNC, when Bubas was first hired in Durham it created a small firestorm. No, make that a raging firestorm. Unlike Smith, he was never hung in effigy on campus, but it took a while for Blue Devil fans to warm to him.

Bubas was a protégé of the great Everett Case at NC State whom he’d played for and learned under, including on the Wolfpack’s 1950 Final Four team. Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron reportedly offered Bubas less money to be the Devils’ head coach than he’d been making as an assistant with Case.

Still, Cameron had interviewed over 100 candidates for the job, and he felt the then-32-year-old upstart was the right man for the task.

Lacking both head coaching experience and coming over from a hated rival in Raleigh, Bubas had a steep hill to climb to win over the Duke faithful.

But it didn’t take long.

In Bubas’ first season the Blue Devils made the East Regional Elite Eight with a record of 17-11. They followed that up with his first ACC Tournament title, beating Carolina and Wake Forest to claim it. Two years later, Bubas had Duke in the Final Four, where they were a staple for three of the next four years. The ‘62-‘63 team went 14-0 in the ACC and finished with 27 wins, the most Duke would register for the next 15 years.

One of his recruiting highlights: stealing the great Lexington, Kentucky native Jeff Mullins right out from under the nose of Adolph Rupp. Mullins helped anchor those title teams from 1961-64.

Bubas was also an artful recruiter, earning praise from no less than Smith, whom he sometimes out-competed for talent.

“Vic taught us all how to recruit,” Smith later related. “We had been starting on prospects in the fall of their senior years while Vic was working on them their junior year. For a while, all of us were trying to catch up with him.”

Ten years after first setting foot on East Campus, Bubas walked away from the stadium named for Cameron having amassed four ACC regular-season titles, four ACC tournament championships and three Final Four appearances.

Not bad for the guy nobody wanted.

Bubas retired from coaching at the tender age of 42, a time nowadays when most coaches are just reaching mid-life.

He went on to serve first as a Duke administrator in the early 70’s, rising to become vice-president of the university.

In 1976 he returned to athletics as the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference and held that post for the next 14 years, overseeing that league expand from seven schools to 10 when he finally retired, this time for good.

In 2007 Bubas was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, in the same class with another Duke player: a fellow by the name of Lefty Driesell.

“Duke Basketball lost a true legend earlier today,” current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Monday. “When I first arrived, Coach Bubas told me to be myself and to focus solely on Duke, while not getting caught up in everything going on around us. He was a terrific coach, and more importantly, a special leader who will be missed greatly.”

‘Just focus’ were two words Bubas used to tell his players in the huddle during time outs.

‘Just focus’: that’s not a bad epitaph.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.