Flashback: A Classic Recruiting Battle

A few days ago, we argued that Gene Banks was the most important recruit Duke has had. We might have made two distinctions. First, Art Heyman was probably, overall, the more important, because his arrival really marked Duke's arrival on the national stage. Banks, though, was the key modern recruit. In the Krzyzewski era, though, the key recruit was probably someone more recent.

A few days ago, we argued that Gene Banks was the most important recruit Duke has had. We might have made two distinctions. First, Art Heyman was probably, overall, the more important, because his arrival really marked Duke's arrival on the national stage. Banks, though, was the key modern recruit.  In the Krzyzewski era, though, the key recruit, in many respects, was probably Danny Ferry.

Obviously, getting Johnny Dawkins onboard was huge, and Alarie and Amaker were really important as well.  But in many respects, Ferry was where Krzyzewski earned his stripes, because it was his first really big battle with Dean Smith - and he took one away from the master. 

Today, when everyone is feting him and saying what a genius he is, best coach of all time, it's harder to remember that there was a time when he was the young guy, and not just the young guy, but the young guy not many people were sure of.  Duke had improved, to be sure. When Amaker arrived, the Devils started winning, and by the time Dawkins & co. were seniors, and Amaker a junior, they were truly a powerhouse, going 37-3 on the season and falling just short of the national title.  But up until that year, despite considerable success, Krzyzewski was still questioned by many.  And to make matters more difficult, in Raleigh, Jim Valvano had already won a title.  Bobby Cremins had built a powerful program in a big hurry in Atlanta. And then there was that Smith guy.

Krzyzewski, you may remember, earned a lot of points for challenging Dean and how he was handled by the league after Smith pounded the scorer's table and added a bunch of points to the scoreboard, all without a technical.  His contract was extended that week, despite concern among some Duke fans about his ability.

That was the background, then, for this epic battle for Danny Ferry, one of the great recruiting battles in Triangle history. The fight for Randolph was not nearly as pitched, frankly.

There was a near-daily guessing game in the local papers, constant updates - and all this without the Internet or e-mail.  You'd hear rumors one way one day, then the other the next.  Our favorite was that he was waiting to see what Jeff Lebo would do, because, the rumor went, there was no way he was playing with Jeff Lebo. Supposedly he couldn't stand the guy. Was it true? Who knows. But that's what we had to hold on to at the time.

The press conference wasn't like it is now, choreographed, with teases of multiple hats or T-shirts (a trick started, incidentally, by Shane Battier) before putting the final choice on. The only time we had ever heard anything like live coverage of a recruit's announcement was when Ralph Sampson announced for UVa, which was followed by cheers, and, a breath later, Sampson saying "unless I go to Kentucky!" which was followed by groans and cursing.

In Ferry's case, we really didn't have that much advance knowledge about what was going to happen.  When he announced, though, it was pretty clear it was a new day.  Duke had gone toe-to-toe with UNC for Heyman, and various other recruits, getting some, losing others.  But that was all a long time ago by 1985. Dean Smith had long since become the dominant coach in the ACC, and in the country, really, with only Bob Knight as a legitimate rival.  Moreover, he was a tremendous recruiter.  He had the state of North Carolina locked up, he had strong ties in New York, Pennsylvania, and Northern Virginia from the Tidewater area up to D.C.  Smith was an exceedingly powerful man in his world at that time, and Krzyzewski was a guy who had been to the NCAAs twice and had a really hard name to spell.

So when the news came through, we Duke fans pretty much freaked.  Imagine Matt Doherty taking, say, Shane Battier away from Duke, and that's a fair comparison, because Ferry seemed to fit well into the Smith scheme of things, pretty much the same way Battier fit in at Duke.  At the time, it wasn't supposed to happen.

But it did, and Ferry was the key player who kept Duke going after that one big class graduated. Dawkins & co. really set the groundwork at Duke, but Ferry was the one who announced that the Krzyzewski era was not going to be a flash in the pan, and after bowing out in the Sweet 16, Duke made it back to the Final Four in his junior and senior years.   

Other players  followed - Billy King, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill, Grant Hill, Wojo, Trajan Langdon, Brand, Battier, Williams, Dunleavy, and now Randolph, Redick, Williams, Thompson, Melchionni, and Dockery.  It's hard to see how Duke would have managed to do as well had Ferry not been such a huge get, and had he not led Duke to such significant success.


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