What if…Coach K had been fired from Duke after his third season?

This is the seventh post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.

Today, he is a household name – maybe the most famous and popular head coach in all of American sports.

One can almost list his resume with looking:

  • Most wins in NCAA Division One History.
  • 79 Tournament wins – most ever.
  • 11 Final Fours
  • 4 NCAA Championships
  • 5-Time ACC Coach of the Year
  • 2-Time National Coach of the Year
  • Olympic Gold Medalist

It’s easy to forget that after three years at Duke, he was 38-47.

What if…

Coach K had been fired from Duke after his third season?


Coach K during a timeout. (Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Wikimedia Commons)

The History of Duke Basketball

What’s interesting is that most people assume that Coach K made Duke into what it is today.  Many people believe that Duke was nothing before Mike Krzyzewski stepped onto campus.  A lot of people are wrong.

In fact, before Coach K came to Durham, Duke already had a proud basketball heritage.  They were one of only eight schools that had recorded 1,000 victories.

Eddie Cameron had led them through the Depression Era and finished 226-99.  Gary Gerard and Harold Bradley had continued the tradition with a strong record.

Their greatest success had come with Vic Bubas in the sixties.  Interestingly enough, while Bubas was at Duke, the Blue Devils won more conference championships than the Dean Smith-led North Carolina Tar Heels.  They also went to just as many Final Fours (3) and more Elite Eights (4-3) than their hated rival.

Of course, the school went through a rough stretch.  From 1970-1975, they were a .500 ball club, but that once again changed when Bill Foster came into town.

Foster led them to the National Championship game in 1978 where they lost a close game to Kentucky.  They started out 1979 as the nation’s preseason #1-ranked team.  They won a share of the ACC Title, but unfortunately injuries plagued the season and kept them from reaching their potential.  In 1980, the Blue Devils rose to #1, won the ACC Championship, and lost in the Elite Eight.

Interestingly enough, Foster was not happy in Durham, and he decided to go succeed Frank McGuire at South Carolina.  Duke needed a new coach, and they took a chance on a young guy that had been coaching at West Point.  He was a Bobby Knight disciple and had great energy.

Of course, that young guy was Mike Krzyzewski.

After “leading” Bill Foster’s recruits to a disappointing 17-13 record, Coach K would proceed to go 21-34 over his next two seasons.

Remember, Duke was a national powerhouse.  While they had never won a championship, they had consistently been one of the top 10 teams in the country for over 40 years.

Coach K was a young guy with no big-time coaching experience.  He had taken a program that had come within a monster David Givens game from a National Championship…to floor mats of the ACC.

Duke didn’t have to stay with him.  In fact, you could easily make the argument that Duke shouldn’t have stayed with him.  After all, this was Duke.  They could have had their pick of the litter of coaches across America.

But what if they had fired him after the 1983 season?  What would have happened?

Johnny Dawkins probably doesn’t have the career that he had.

Dawkins was a freshman during Coach K’s third season and had been a highly-touted recruit from Washington, D.C.  To say that the 1983 season was a disappointment is an understatement of understatements.

But Coach K loved Johnny Dawkins, and stuck with him through thick and thin.  If Coach K had been fired, it’s possible that the new coach would have come in and wanted to make an impact.  Would he have kept Dawkins around?  Probably.  Would he have been anywhere near as loyal to somebody else’s recruit?  Definitely not.

As it turned out, Dawkins became one of the greatest players in college basketball history and set ACC scoring records that stood for 20 years until JJ Redick and Tyler Hansbrough broke them recently.

If Coach K got the ax in 1983, Dawkins’ career would have inevitably been different.

But not only would Dawkins’ career have been different, Duke’s reign would probably not be so great.

While this is a seemingly obvious statement, I did want to park here for a minute.  The reason that this “What if” is so high on the list is because of the number of championships that it may or may not have swung.

First of all, Coach K has led Duke to 11 Final Fours – a level of excellence that is almost other-worldly in this day and age of parity.  There simply aren’t dynasties in college basketball anymore.  To be this good this often is unbelievable.

It’s easy to argue that without Coach K at Duke, four national championships from the last 25 years could be different:

  • UNLV almost certainly goes back to back and finishes 1991 undefeated.  They would have been held up forever as one of the greatest teams of all time.
  • Maybe Michigan would have won in 1992.  A title for the Fab Five?  IN THEIR FRESHMEN YEAR?  I get chills just thinking about this.
  • Maybe Arizona and Lute Olsen get another title in 2001.
  • And then there’s my favorite…. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 NCAA Champions…the Butler Bulldogs!

Coach K’s presence in Durham easily swung four college championships. But the impact is likely far greater than that. It may have also swung six additional championships.

Maybe Michael Jordan’s career would have been different as well.

What’s crazy about year 4 of Coach K’s reign at Duke is that it almost didn’t save his job.

Even though they finished 24-10, they were only 7-7 in ACC play and had lost to UNC twice.  If Duke did poorly in the ACC Tournament, and lost to their hated rival again, many people think that Coach K would have been fired after year 4.

But somehow, they beat a UNC team led by Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, and some guy named Michael Jordan.

Most accounts of the game say that Jordan was a shell of himself.  It was almost like he was going through the motions and he expected UNC to win.  It was only when he realized late in the game that they were in danger of losing that he tried to turn it on, but it was too little too late.  UNC was never the same that season.

If Coach K was fired before the season, maybe they don’t beat UNC in the ACC Tournament.

If UNC doesn’t lose to them, they probably walk right into the NCAAs unscathed and confident as ever.

If UNC walks into the NCAAs confidently, they may win another National Title.

And if Michael Jordan had won two titles in three years at UNC, maybe he would have become a little complacent.

And if Michael Jordan had become complacent, maybe he doesn’t lead the Bulls to six rings.

And if…well, you get the idea.

But seriously.  The way it really happened, Jordan tasted greatness as a freshman and then had to go almost a full decade before reaching the mountain-top again.  As you well know, Jordan used every single slight and shortcoming from his life to drive him to greatness.  If UNC had won it all in 1984, maybe Michael Jeffery Jordan’s career is eternally different.

Wow.  I think we can all agree that it turned out for the best.

Thank you, Duke, for giving Coach K one more year.

What if…?


Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)

10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?

About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.


  1. brotha_man says:

     Duke would be irrelevant 

  2. sptrfn sptrfn says:

    If Jordan wins two titles in three years, and if he starts to show his potential in the 84 Final Four, Blazer GM Stu Inman may have re-evaluated his draft pick. I heard something about how Bobby Knight called him during the Olympic Trials and telling him to take Michael. Stu told him that they needed a center, and Knight screamed “Well play him at center, then!!”

    After giving Sam a seven hour physical, and after evaluating Michael’s Final Four performance and what Knight said, the Blazers realize that Bowie may not be the center that they need for the long haul, and they decide to take MJ and trade Clyde Drexler, Calvin Natt, and their 1986 #1 pick to the Clippers for SF/PF Terry Cummings, who upgrades their rebounding.

    MJ leads Portland to several World titles, and is an icon in the city.

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