One on one with Jay Bilas

Widely considered one the top broadcasters in college basketball, former Blue Devil player and coach Jay Bilas is virtually everywhere this time of year. Last week we were lucky enough to sit down with the Duke alumni to discuss his career, his relationship with the program, and much more…

I want to start with a similar question that I posed to Jay Williams in our earlier interview…Looking back, did you ever imagine you’d be where you are with ESPN both in terms of your career and the voice you have with college basketball?

I didn’t imagine how it would come about, but I do remember thinking that someday I would like to try this. It’d be something I’d envision doing and I always thought back then that someday I would like to get into the communications business, to do broadcast work—I just didn’t know what it would entail. I thought it’d be cool, but I had no idea how to do it.  

For you, what are the motivating factors for the stances you take in your ESPN platform?

I think when you first start doing this kind of work, you’re just worried about doing the individual games and then — I’m older now — I’ve seen a lot of different things. All of us, we all have different opinions on things and I have a platform to be able to share them. You try to do the best you can in putting your thoughts out there while realizing that it’s just one opinion out of many. Any opinion that I do have I want it to be informed and reasoned and I respect the opposing views. Everything I say I have thought out.

What are your thoughts on fan reaction to the things you say or, specifically, things you should do like some who say that Jay Bilas should be the next leader of the NCAA, etc, etc?

That’s fine, I don’t have any problem with it. I get to say what I want and fans get to say what they want, that’s the way it goes. As far as people putting you up for jobs that either A) don’t exist or B) aren’t available, I don’t really think about that stuff. But I don’t have any problem with people who are, whether it’s fans or media who are critical of something you say or of you personally, it really doesn’t bother me personally. Everybody has the right to say what they want, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t argue with compliments, I don’t see why I should argue with criticism.

How much does your prior basketball experience inform your current viewpoints you espouse via ESPN?

It’s the whole thing really, I mean I learned the game under arguably the greatest coach of all time. I was lucky enough to play for him and even more fortunate to coach under him as a grad assistant. So that was a wonderful learning experience and then I’ve learned so much in this job as well. You get to go to practice before the games you do and some coaches will let you in the film sessions, see how they do certain things. So you learn a lot from that about how coaches approach their job and the way they approach the game.

The way I learned it was great, but it’s not the only way, so I’ve learned the views of other coaches that are also really successful and that’s been really helpful. It’s been really helpful in explaining the differing views of the game and the different ways that teams play. Because really that’s what we do, we try to explain, here’s what this guy or this team is trying to do, here’s what their philosophy is and then watch it unfold in the game and hopefully have a good time while we’re doing it. I mean it’s not a clinic.

Were there certain people or experiences that really helped you develop in your ESPN role?

Oh yeah, the people I’ve worked with like Rece Davis and some of the guys you’ve had that have helped you along the way. Whether it be with working with College Gameday for a number of years with guys like Lee who is an executive producer for ESPN College Basketball who helps you realize how saying the right thing at the right time in the right tone and when it’s appropriate to be clinical or to have fun, all that stuff Lee’s got a great feel for. And working with Rece Davis, he’s the best in the business with all the different guys he’s worked with, he always strikes the right balance. And it’s fun, our job is fun, we get to go to basketball games for a living, we’re not breaking rocks here or lifting heavy equipment, it’s a fun job. There are times where there are serious topics and you treat those with the appropriate level of respect but there are other times where it’s just time to cut it up and have a good time. People come into these games not taking notes, they are here to watch it and enjoy it and I try to think about how I watch football when doing this job. When I watch football I’m not coaching the teams, I’m not going to play football but when people point out things that can help me enjoy the games, I think that’s really good and important and I just love watching it and I hope that I’m same way with basketball.

I’ve noticed that Coach K seems to encourage you to have a voice and a bit of platform with some of his teams over the year with talks you’ve been able to have with them. Two part question for you with that if I may—1) what does it mean to you to have opportunity to influence those guys because Coach K appears to want you there doing that and 2) what’s the approach you take being a former player in talking with those guys ? What kind of influence or example do you try to set?

Wow, I didn’t really look at it that way. He’s asked me a couple of times over the past 30 years since I’ve been gone to say something to the team or to a player but it’s not; like this past year I talked with the team about social media. They had an orientation, it was really a cool idea, they basically did a Duke Basketball Orientation where they went over the Duke program and they brought in a bunch of different people to speak on different things and they brought me in to discuss social media with them. I don’t do a lot of sorta interacting with the team, a lot of teams will ask you if you wouldn’t mind saying something to my guys and I do that and I know a lot of other guys do that too. But I haven’t really thought of myself in that way though.

Coach K has asked over a period of time that we’ve been gone from there, when we are back he’ll say to us hey, touch the players. I think that he thinks that if you have been through it that you might have some words of encouragement for them because it’s not easy. Guys are going through different things and everybody that’s played for him has been through it. So if a kid is having a struggle, a good word can help them. People did that for us, you know Mike Gminski did it for us, Kenny Dennard and Bob Bender and you know who was really great to me was Dick Groat. Dick Groat was phenomenal for us, just very supportive and you could tell how much he loved it and he still loves it. Those things are nice things and it kinda shows the continuity of the program. Coach K calls it a real brotherhood and I think that’s right, all the guys that have been through it share something in common and I think that’s really great.

Knowing that your teams fought through some adversity in your time at Duke Jay, if you were around the team now with the adversity they have been going through this season—what do you think you’d be saying to them?

It’s different now, it’s way different for these guys. They, it’s almost like they can’t or aren’t allowed to lose. They aren’t allowed, you know they are 17-3 and everybody treats it like it’s a crisis. Some of these Duke fans, it’s not a crisis. You look at who you played and when you played them. They’ve played in the eight games in the ACC after this game tonight and that will have been a brutal schedule of games. Playing at Louisville, at Notre Dame, at Virginia and all of that stuff in a row. At NC State and the schedule is going to ease up and then it will get really difficult again. So what difference does it make when the losses came, win four and lose one during the season. What would have happened if they lost at Wisconsin instead of winning? So what, they don’t hand the trophy out now and I think this team can be really good in March and they are really good now and I think they can be as good as anybody in March. You just gotta keep plugging and it’s easy to say that but it’s really hard to actually do that. You don’t have to be perfect, go out and take a swing at somebody and at the end of it, move on. But they don’t get that luxury.

We were lucky in that we had the innocent climb in that we got better and everybody loved it. Then we got even better and people still loved it and then we got great and everybody loved it. So it was not this kinda, now you win 30 games and a lot of people might be disappointed, like they will say you are 17-3, what’s wrong ? I say what’s wrong, really? What’s wrong, I mean a lot of other programs would love to be where Duke is at record wise. Coach K’s average season record wise over the past however many years would be a career year for a bunch of coaches and it’s the same thing with some of these players. What some of them are doing would be a career year for other guys. So don’t take on all that extra stuff, all that baggage.

I love fans, they can do whatever they want, they can do and say whatever they want but the truth is that what they say, what we say as commentators, it really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what’s said amongst the team and that’s why you hope that what you do pay attention to as players is knowing that nobody cares about you, even the fans, they say they do but nobody cares as much about you as the other guys in the locker room.

You’ve touched on it a bit with the fan discussion or criticism as it relates to you and other ESPN guys and the viewpoints they take. I’m curious, how do you handle it when fans have expectations of you being a former Duke player regarding things you say in your ESPN role?

I don’t care, I don’t care what they think. I don’t care. Think about it for a second. I’ve heard some of it and when I heard it, it’s so unreasonable, I just shut it off. I don’t look at all that crap anymore and it’s almost laughable. When I first heard people say that he’s just saying that to give the appearance that he’s not overly biased. So what you are saying is that I’m biased AND I’m lying? Or he’s just picking against Duke and I say, why would I pick for or against somebody based on that, I’m just trying to pick to be right. So and first of all, I don’t know who is going to win the game. I could pick either Duke or Virginia for tonight’s game, I don’t know who is going to win tonight’s game. If I did know, I’d go to Vegas but you make an educated guess based on all the things that you know.

What you can do is say here’s the keys, here’s what’s going to be important in this game, all the matchups, how they use their guys, you can analyze all that stuff. What would it mean if you always picked Duke or always said that Duke is the best team, it wouldn’t mean anything because they aren’t always the best team and when you do say something about them, nobody would listen to you and that’s fine. Turn on the radio broadcast, do whatever you want, it doesn’t bother me one bit because I have too much respect for the ways other teams do it. The other teams and coaches want to win just as much as Duke does and the other coaches put just as much heart into what they do as Coach K does. I would think that would be shameful not to honor that, that would really be bothersome to me. I don’t really worry about that anymore. When you first start and you are sensitive to it, like I didn’t want to step on anybody toes or something like that. I’m not analyzing foreign policy in the Middle East, I’m analyzing a basketball game and if you don’t like it, turn the channel.

Switching gears, what was going through your mind when you saw Coach K win his 1000th game recently?

I was really proud and really grateful. Obviously proud of what he has accomplished and what all he has done. And I’ve been really grateful to be a part of not only the 4 years that I had there at Duke and then the time I had as a grad assistant but it’s also been all the other years after that that I’ve still known him. 34, 35 years of a relationship that has been as meaningful or more as any relationship that I’ve had outside of with my wife and family. All of the things that have come from that and all the friends that I’ve made from guys I’ve played with, I met my wife at Duke. Everything good in my life has really come from that and a lot of that was you thought about when 1000 was happening which made it really nice thing. I was joking around, I texted Coach K, brought it up yesterday and I texted him after the game and said congratulations and said sorry it wasn’t on Monday when you had Pitt but we lost that Wagner game, it was a bummer, sorry about that, haha. Just trying to have a good time because it’s so different now. Just looking at the locker room and the facilities and him, I mean who could have ever imagined this, as great as you thought he was even back then, who could have imagined this level of accomplishment. It’s really mind boggling.

Having played and coached under Coach K—how do you think you have seen Coach K change since you first started got to know him?

He’s just better in every way. He’s a better coach, he’s a better communicator. I think he’s got a better feel for everything and it was great even back then. You say that and you hope people don’t take it the wrong way because he was great back then, it’s a profound compliment. I can’t get over that he’s in his 60s and he doesn’t look at this like it’s old hat, this is a new thing for me, a new year, a new team, a new experience. He’s energetic, passion is an over-used word but he’s passionate, he gets fired about winning and it hurts to lose. I think it’s a really cool thing to see him grow.

It’s obvious his recruiting process has changed some as well—what are your observations Jay of how Duke recruits now and how it’s changed over time?

Everything’s changed, it’s totally different. You have to recruit year to year now unlike when I was playing, you recruited whole classes, now you recruit specific players and you have to recruit over guys as opposed to before where you could really plan it out and you knew that this position would be solidified for this amount of time and then we need to get somebody new in when he’s a sophomore, stuff like that. You didn’t have to recruit a great point guard every year but now you do, it’s a different deal now. He’s adapted to that and instead of complaining about it, you can’t change it, so he’s dealing with it and he’s doing things his way according to his standards and that’s great. I don’t have a whole lot of patience when people say I don’t like these one and done players and I say ok, that’s fine. But that doesn’t move me, the guys he’s recruited that stay one year or four years or three years, that’s all great. What would these folks complaining do if they were the players? They would do the same thing, they would do the exact same thing.

  Thanks for your time Jay, we really appreciate it.

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