Exactly Who Is In Charge at Duke
On June 28, 2004, three days before the start of his tenure as the ninth president of Duke University, Richard H. Brodhead was mentally unpacking his bags in his office in Allen Building, on the main quad of Duke’s stately West Campus, when Joe Alleva, the university’s athletic director, burst in on him with some momentous news: The men’s legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, known to all as Coach K and the one force at Duke seemingly as immutable as the school’s soaring Gothic cathedral just outside Brodhead’s new office, was thinking about leaving to coach the Los Angeles Lakers.
It turned out that a few days earlier Krzyzewski had been at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the 2004 NBA draft and had watched, disheartened, as the team’s future seemed to go up in smoke. Coach K’s first loss to the NBA that evening was Shaun Livingston, a high school senior from Peoria, Illinois, who had committed previously to Duke as the team’s point guard. But he decided to skip college and turn pro. The Los Angeles Clippers made Livingston the fourth overall pick. Three picks later, the Phoenix Suns drafted, and then traded to the Chicago Bulls, the prodigiously talented freshman Luol Deng, who had just completed his first year as Duke’s small forward, averaging 15 points per game.
The outcome of the draft had put Krzyzewski in a foul mood, and again lamenting the state of college basketball, where the lure of big money in the pros had repeatedly proved too tempting to young players unable to fully appreciate the long-term benefit of a college degree, at least when compared to an immediate cash infusion of millions of dollars. Krzyzewski favored a minimum age requirement to play in the NBA. But Krzyzewski knew, too, that this change was not going to happen on his say-so, even though he had reached exalted status not only at Duke but also nationally and internationally. At fifty-seven, Krzyzewski had compiled a 621–181 record at Duke, a winning percentage of 77 percent, leading the team to national championships in 1991, 1992, and 2001. By 2004, under Coach K, the Duke basketball team had secured ten Final Four appearances, eight Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships and ten conference regular-season titles. His Duke teams had been ranked number 1 in twelve different seasons, including each of the last seven. With his team’s success on and off the court, Krzyzewski—like John Wooden at UCLA and Dean Smith at North Carolina—had become the personification of Duke basketball and one of the more powerful members of the Duke community.
In December 2004, the basketball court in Cameron Indoor Stadium was named Coach K Court in his honor and the patch of bluegrass outside Cameron—known as Krzyzewskiville—is where the faithful camp out, often weeks in advance, in order to watch a live game. In October 2005, he was named the coach of the U.S. national team that would compete (and win a gold medal) at the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2010, Duke won its fourth NCAA basketball title under Krzyzewski, and then, early in the 2011–12 season— his thirty-second year at Duke—Krzyzewski became the all-time winningest coach in Division I men’s college basketball. In 2012, he again coached the Olympic basketball team to a gold medal. “Sports has often been likened to the front porch of a university,” observed sportswriter Liz Clarke in the WashingtonPost. “Hardly the most significant part of the structure, but the part that nonetheless forms the first impression. For the past three decades, Duke has basked in the splendor of a front porch embodied by the Duke Blue Devils basketball team and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who, when not leading the team to national championships, can be found extolling the virtues of character and leadership in national TV commercials and in books.”
Coach K had a “lifetime” contract at the university, which was then paying him around $2 million annually, more than double Brodhead’s approximately $800,000. He also earned millions more in endorsements and from his various media enterprises, including book writing and hosting his own radio and television shows. He was also a professor at the Duke business school and a “special assistant” to the president of the university. To put it mildly, at Duke, Krzyzewski was at the center of his own solar system. “It is clear that his is the national face of Duke University,” Keith Brodie, a former Duke president, explained following the news of the Lakers’ offer. “No one can get in the New York Times like he can. He has become a symbol for us and for all of college athletics.”
As Krzyzewski watched Livingston and Deng slip into the ranks of professional athletes at Madison Square Garden, Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager and a former forward at Duke’s archrival, the North Carolina Tar Heels, sidled over to him and asked if Coach K would be interested in doing the same thing. In the wake of Coach Phil Jackson’s recent announcement that he was going to leave the Lakers, Kupchak was in the market for a new man. Did Krzyzewski want the job? Coach K was not only one of the best college basketball coaches of all time but was also the preferred choice of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ prima donna, who had specifically recommended Coach K to Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Like Livingston, Bryant, too, had jumped from high school directly to the NBA. Had he decided to go to college, he would have played for Krzyzewski at Duke. Adding to the intrigue of Kupchak’s question was the fact that Krzyzewski had considered coaching in the NBA twice before: once in 1990 for the Boston Celtics, and then again in 1994 for the Portland Trailblazers. Both times, he decided to stay at Duke, despite a personal appeal from the Celtics’ legendary leader Red Auerbach and the unlimited checkbook of Paul Allen, the Trailblazers’ owner and Microsoft cofounder.
This time, Joe Alleva, Duke’s athletic director, was sufficiently concerned that Krzyzewski might make the jump that he rushed into Allen Building to see Brodhead, who had been the longtime undergraduate dean at Yale University and was a scholar of nineteenth-century American literature. “The first day he was in his office, I had to go in there and tell him that Coach K was talking to the Lakers,” Alleva recalled. “His first day on the job.” Brodhead remembered the moment as being somewhat “hilarious” because he had been in his office all of one hour that morning, passing the time “very pleasurably,” when Alleva demanded to see him. “Well, maybe he just wanted to say hello,” Brodhead recalled, “but he gave me my first news about the Lakers. I had been president of Duke for about five hours when all of a sudden this crossed my bow.”
In the days that followed, there was the usual wooing, with Kupchak coming to Durham, North Carolina, where Duke is located, to meet with Krzyzewski and his wife and closest adviser, Mickie, and to take them to dinner and talk about the idea. Then there was the money. The Lakers had offered Coach K a five-year, $40 million contract, or $8 million a year—seriously big money, and multiples of what Duke was paying him at the time (and a third more than the Lakers had been paying Jackson). “It was intense,” Brodhead said later. “It wasn’t the week I’d been expecting. And yet, I have had university administrative jobs for years, and the main thing you know about them is that you never can know on any given day what’s going to happen.”
Inevitably, news this hot leaked out. After keeping the conversations quiet for nearly three days, on the afternoon of June 30, the Duke student newspaper, the Chronicle, broke the story. When asked by Michael Mueller, a Chronicle reporter, about the rumors swirling around campus, Alleva confirmed that the Lakers had contacted Coach K, and the team and the coach were in “serious discussions.” The Los Angeles Times further confirmed that Kupchak had flown to North Carolina and offered Coach K the job that day. “It’s his for the taking, his job to lose,” a Lakers source told the paper.
Alleva then released a statement, evidence of his growing concern that Krzyzewski might actually leave. “We have long believed that Mike is the best coach in the country,” he wrote. “The Lakers’ interest in him merely confirms what we have known. We hope that Mike will decide to stay in college coaching at Duke, a place that has been so special to him throughout his outstanding career. Mike has been an incredible asset to our institution, and on a much larger scale, to the sport of college basketball.” He noted that he and Brodhead had met for dinner with Krzyzewski “to express at the highest level our desire for him to finish his coaching career at Duke.”
Later that afternoon, Alleva also held a press conference at Cameron Indoor Stadium, one of the nation’s meccas of college basketball. Seth Davis, a 1992 Duke graduate and a writer at Sports Illustrated (and the son of Lanny Davis, a former legal counsel to President Bill Clinton), would later refer to Alleva’s press conference as a “farce” because the press release about the “serious discussions” under way had already conveyed all that was going on. “It may have been a gesture, on Alleva’s part, to demonstrate to Coach K how much they want him to stay, but I think it was unnecessary,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what Duke was thinking.”
One thing that was clearly on Alleva’s mind that afternoon was getting Krzyzewski to stay. “Obviously, when you have the best coach in the country, it’s not unusual when one of the best franchises in the country comes after him,” he said. “He has meant so much to Duke basketball, and so much to college basketball, that obviously we’re going to do everything we can to keep him in college basketball.”
Later that Thursday night, one hundred summer-session students—as well as Brodhead—attended a candlelight vigil and rally at Krzyzewskiville that had been organized using social media. For ninety minutes, the students cheered for Coach K, in absentia, and urged him to stay. At one point, Brodhead picked up a bullhorn to lead a discussion with the students about the crisis and then joined with them, sitting on the grass strewn with beer cans, to form a giant K by linking arms. For his part, Krzyzewski and his family were sequestered at their house in Durham, trying to decide what he should do.
The third time seemed like it was going to be the charm for Krzyzewski and professional basketball. He had become good friends with Kupchak. He greatly admired the skills of Kobe Bryant. He respected the family and team values espoused by Lakers owner Jerry Buss. The money was of course seductive, even though he had often spoken about how little money mattered to him. Once again, though, he had to think about whether his true calling was as a professional basketball coach or as the world’s best college coach. Word was that Coach K would take the weekend to decide what he wanted to do. “He’s going to have to measure what the opportunities are in front of him in L.A. against what a quarter of a century has provided him here,” Tom Butters, the former Duke athletic director who had hired Krzyzewski from Army in 1980, told the Chronicle. “If he were to leave and go to the Lakers and win twenty championships, he will always be associated with Duke basketball.”
Over the weekend, Coach K’s nerve-racking decision was the top news story in the country. ESPN couldn’t get enough of it. The media speculated that his growing frustration with the ease with which the pros picked off his best players would lead him to make the move to the NBA. (Of course, there was no mention of the irony that now he was potentially in the process of being picked off by the pros, too.) Prior to the 1998–99 season, no nonsenior Duke player had ever gone pro; since then, eight had done so, with Livingston becoming a professional without ever having set foot on Coach K Court. “What he loves the most—it’s not beating people—it’s taking an eighteen-year old kid and producing a twenty-two-year-old man,” Chris Kennedy, Duke’s senior associate athletic director, explained that weekend. “To have these polished, accomplished, admirable individuals come out of our program—that’s what he’s seen as his central mission. Now it’s sort of leaking away… . What bothers him more than anything else is the way things have gotten so out of kilter.”
He got plenty of unsolicited advice. Pat Forde, a columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal, urged him to reject the offer. He wondered if Coach K had“LOST YOUR FLIPPIN’ MIND?” and then observed: “Mike, you love all thatrah-rah stuff—the stuff that makes Duke everything that the NBA isn’t. Youbuilt Duke’s corny camaraderie—the coaches love the players, who love thestudents, who worship you like some kind of ancient god. It’s basketball setto the Barney theme song: I love you, you love me … Annoying, but apt. Thecloying word that envelopes your program is ‘special.’ And it’s true. Duke issmug, Duke is sanctimonious … but Duke is special.”
He also received an e-mail from Duke undergrad Andrew Humphries, from Waynesboro, Virginia, that supposedly influenced his decision. “Duke basketball is the reason I came to this university, plain and simple,” Humphries wrote Coach K over the weekend. “One of my essays was about [1990s team member] Bobby Hurley’s assist record and watching [Hurley’s teammate] Thomas Hill cry his eyes out. Without knowing it, or perhaps fully knowing it, you have been an integral part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who you’ve never actually met. We watch you coach, we come to Cameron and hear you speak … and most of all, we admire you. We admire you because you take kids from all over the country and you make them into a family that seems second only to your actual family in your life. We admire you because you taught us that five people together is a fist, while one person is just a finger. We admire you because you are just an old Polish guy in the dark, looking for some heart. And you always find it.”
Humphries wrote that while he had dreamed of playing for Krzyzewski when he was a kid growing up, he knew that he didn’t have a prayer. “And then I got to Duke,” he continued, “and discovered that, yes, I am going to play for Coach K. I am going to be his sixth man. We hear about it on TV, how the Crazies are like a team member, and we think: Sure. We’re a team member as soon as we [make] a jumper. But then we get to Duke, and we watch players from all over the country stare wide-eyed at us as their jumpers start to clang off the back iron. We get to Duke and we hear you speaking, imploring us to be louder, try harder, to give 100 percent. We get to Duke and we realize you are our coach. Not just the coach of our team, but you are also our coach, because you believe that we give you something no one else can and we know that you give us something that no one ever could. Please still be my coach. I know that we can find more heart to offer an old Polish guy in the dark next year.” Soon enough, Humphries had his fifteen minutes of fame.
The consensus seemed to be—not surprisingly—that there would be no way for Duke to compete with the Lakers financially for Krzyzewski’s services but that on the margin the school could improve life for him—for instance, by building a new practice facility for the team that Krzyzewski had long coveted and continuing his various ancillary roles around the campus. “My heart tells me that he’ll stay, but evaluating everything that’s been going on, and everything the Lakers can offer him, and his own kind of thirst—he’s a very, very competitive guy,” Chris Kennedy continued. “And I think that maybe in the back of his mind for a long time he’s thought, ‘I could compete with Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach or whoever you think of as a great NBA coach.’ … But from time to time, he’s had to have wondered how he would do on that stage.” In the end, it seemed it would come down to his wife Mickie’s counsel. “Mike places a lot of stock, and rightly so, on what Mickie thinks,” Kennedy said. “If Mike comes to her and says, ‘We have a great life here and a great home and people love us and we’re secure, but this is something we have to do,’ then Mickie’s going to say, ‘Follow me, I’m going to lead us out there.’ ”
Late Sunday night, Krzyzewski and his family made the decision to stay at Duke. He called Kupchak first. “I figured the person that I was not going with needed to be told first,” he said. Then he called Brodhead and told him of the decision. Then Krzyzewski told his players.
On Monday morning, word began to leak out that Krzyzewski would stay at Duke. That afternoon, Mickie Krzyzewski left a message on Andrew Humphries’s phone. “You don’t know me, we’ve never met, but my name is Mickie Krzyzewski. I’m Coach K’s wife,” she said. “I read your e-mail to him, and he read it too, and I wanted to let you know on his behalf that he is still your coach and we are staying here at Duke. There’s going to be a press conference over at Cameron at 5 [p.m.] in the media room, and if you’re available at five, I would love to say something to you. I don’t want you to go out of your way to do that, but I wanted to let you know, and I’d love to say hello to you. Thank you for your e-mail, it meant a lot—and he’s your coach.” Needless to say, “when Mrs. Krzyzewski called,” Humphries recalled, “I got goose bumps. I was tearing up a bit. It was unbelievable.”
At the five o’clock press conference on July 5, both Brodhead and Alleva flanked Krzyzewski. Clearly relieved—but in a rare public display of inarticulateness (it was his first moment on the national stage since coming to Duke)—Brodhead heaped praise upon the coach. “So early in my appointment do I have the happy task of confirming the news that Mike Krzyzewski, the famous Coach K, will be staying on at Duke and hopefully finishing his career here,” Brodhead announced at the start of the news conference. “When I say that this is a great pleasure, you will note why: it partly has to do with this man’s records and achievements as a coach—all those games won, all those great seasons; but I must say that in … my own personal sense, that this is a man whose success as a coach has to do with far more than the strings of victories he’s compiled.” He noted Krzyzewski’s excellence as a teacher who espoused the importance of character, teamwork and integrity. “I’ve been here a great deal in the last six months, and I must say that I have learned even more, and every visit here I see that you embody so many of the kinds of values that this school prides itself on,” he continued. “You are a person that has competed at the highest level year after year [and] that level of competition has always been associated with maintaining the highest level of integrity, dignity and many other virtues.” He announced that Krzyzewski would remain an assistant to him, and that “I’ll be relying on you in lots of ways.”
Brodhead’s relief was palpable. “It’s not surprising that a person on this level would be gone after by a range of people, most recently by the L.A. Lakers, and I’m sure I don’t even know a half or a tenth of what the last week has been like for you,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to decide what choice is best for you. You have one life to live and where is it going to be best lived and where are you going to give what’s best in you to give. I had to face the fact that I might arrive here just in time for you to leave. If that’s the choice that you decided you needed to make at this time, I would have had to respect that and urge this community to thank you for your good work here and prepare themselves for the post–Coach K years. I must say that I am enormously excited that, at the end of the day, you decide[d] that your place was in college basketball.”
Alleva, too, was nearly giddy with the news, as he had been since he first heard it. “Thank you all for being here today because this is a happy day,” he said. “It’s a happy day for Coach K and his family and it’s a great day for Duke University and college basketball.” He praised the Krzyzewskis for “the way they have handled this situation,” especially since “it’s human nature in this world, when they had an opportunity of the magnitude that they had, for things to go through their mind” like taking the money and moving on to the NBA. Instead, they decided to stay, in Durham. “It’s a real tribute to Mike as a man and to Mickie as his spouse the way that they handled this situation,” he said. He then praised his new boss. After recounting how he had had to disturb Brodhead on his first day, he said, “He handled this situation with great leadership and great vision. Let me assure you that, in the Duke world, this university is in as good hands as our basketball program is.”
When Alleva turned the stage over to Coach K, he was his usual gracious, public self. He thanked the Lakers for the opportunity and Duke for letting him explore it thoroughly, which he took as a sign of institutional strength. He said he took the opportunity seriously because, at fifty-seven years of age, the time had come to reflect upon where he had been and what the future likely held for him. In the end, though, he said the decision was easier for him than he’d thought it might be. “You have to follow your heart and lead with it”—a reference to the title of his first bestselling book, Leading with the Heart, published in 2000—“and Duke has always taken up my whole heart,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate in my adult life to be part of something bigger than me. Obviously I’ve been that with my family and my faith, but I’ve always had that with being a part of the United States Military Academy, with Duke and with college basketball. Those three entities are bigger than any individual, or any group of individuals.”
He also mentioned Humphries’s e-mail and how it reinforced the idea of the bond between the team, the coach, and the fans—and moved him to tears. “That’s the type of relationship that has made this place just different, where it’s not just been our team,” he continued. “It’s been OUR team, with everybody involved. And hopefully we can keep that going.”
By all accounts, Brodhead had passed his first major test at Duke. And he seemed to know that he had dodged a bullet, one that came out of nowhere. “Yale has wonderful athletics, and I was a devotee of them and I was a very good friend of the athletic director there,” Brodhead recalled of this experience. “But, of course, nothing prepared me for competition at the level that would soon be my daily life. Let’s just say the L.A. Lakers weren’t trying to recruit anyone from Yale.” Asked a few years later if anything he had experienced at Yale had prepared him for the firehose that he was drinking from after Alleva barged into his office, Brodhead conceded that when it came to a sports-related crisis, the answer was no. “I admired the level at which sports are played down here,” he said, referring to when he was at Yale and thinking about Duke. “It’s not just basketball—that’s our most famous—but Duke had soccer teams, lacrosse teams, cross-country teams, golf teams in the national championships last year, and it’s all part of this sort of culture of excellence, of people trying to do things at a very, very high level. And, of course, when you get into that level, then all of a sudden there are new kinds of pressure, but there weren’t when you play in a less competitive league. What did I have for preparation? All I’m going to tell you is, if anybody wants preparation for the job of a university president, you have to be prepared for the unprepared to come up every five minutes or so.”
But it didn’t take long for the cynics to point out the irony of the situation: to wit, that in his first week as the university’s president, Brodhead, who had been selected in part because of his world-class intellect and impeccable academic credentials—with the expectation they would rub off on Duke and help the school continue its long march into the very top tier of the world’s elite universities—had been confronted with the potential loss of the school’s most high-profile and important icon: its basketball coach. And Brodhead had not even been Krzyzewski’s first call after he had made the decision.
Many sportswriters believed that the coach had played the university and its new president like a Stradivarius. Krzyzewski “could have listened to the Lakers’ offer, then quietly and politely declined the same day,” observed Phil Taylor in Sports Illustrated. “But then he wouldn’t have been in the headlines for the entire weekend, with each speculative story raising his profile even more, not to mention his public speaking fees and his endorsement possibilities. It wouldn’t be surprising if he parlayed the Lakers’ interest into a few more perks from the Duke administration. Stretching things out was a great career move. All in all, Coach K played this situation out as masterfully as any game he’s ever coached.” Added Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock, “It was a great score. It was old-school. Coach K never raised his voice or his hand, but he let his new president know exactly who runs things on Tobacco Road”—the way locals refer to the area around Duke and Durham. “He also sent a similar message to basketball recruits across the land: Coach K is the unquestioned king of amateur hoops. Check SportsCenter and USA Today if you doubt it… . Coach K, without uttering a word or meeting face-to-face with owner Jerry Buss, had us all believing he might uproot his family and move to the West Coast for the privilege of coaching a young man”—a reference to Kobe Bryant—“who is scheduled to stand trial for rape this year. I feel stupid for falling for it. Brodhead shouldn’t. He had no other choice.”
Whitlock expanded this observation a few days later, after Kupchak had leaked the news that Roy Williams, the new coach at Kupchak’s alma mater, had quietly turned down the Lakers job, too. “When you’ve just lost your two best teenage players, this sort of free publicity can be very beneficial on the recruiting trail,” he wrote. “And when your number one rival (UNC) has recently backed up a Brinks truck to land the coach of its dreams, a little public flirting with the Lakers is the easiest way to modify your ‘lifetime’ contract, the one Krzyzewski signed in 2001. ‘We were able to do a few things for Mike in his contract,’ Alleva sheepishly = acknowledged on Monday. And Krzyzewski was able to let his new school president, Brodhead, know exactly who is in charge at Duke.”
But it wasn’t only outside observers who got the message about the starring role athletics played in the Duke firmament. The symbolism of the pas de deux between Krzyzewski and the Lakers, and the humbling part Brodhead was expected—indeed, forced—to play in it, resonated powerfully inside the Ivory Tower, too. “What you saw there was the lay of the land,” explained Orin Starn, a Duke professor who specializes in the anthropology of sports. “The fact is that it’s the basketball coach, Coach K, who’s the most powerful person at Duke, and in Durham, and maybe in North Carolina—much more powerful than the college president himself. So Brodhead—I mean, there was almost this kind of ritual humiliation, this ritual obeisance, or fealty, that was required of him.”
Krzyzewski clearly got what was going on—“I am Duke every second of my life,” he has said about the essential role he plays at the university, even as he feigns modesty. “Duke basketball is not the most important thing here,” he explained to Duke magazine in 2012. “I know that. I work for Dick Brodhead and [new athletics director] Kevin White. But Duke basketball is the biggest marketing arm of the university.” He then likened the basketball program at Duke to a street-level, Christmastime window display at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. “You look at them and say, ‘Wow!’ ” he continued. “ ‘How did they do that?’ So you walk in the store and you go to the first floor, the sixth floor, the seventh floor. Well, we’re the window of our university. We bring a lot of people in, and then they find out what’s happening in medicine, law, business, history, English. As long as we understand that, and use it, it’s nothing but good. I’ve understood that from the get-go. Getting the right people to come in the door opens up development, research, enrollment—it opens up everything. We know we’re part of that team.”
But the good news about Coach K masked deeper institutional problems at Duke about the often uneasy relationship between academics and athletics. Three days before Alleva burst into Brodhead’s office in Allen Building with the news that Krzyzewski might actually be leaving Duke for the Lakers, another Duke administrator and professor of medical psychology, Robert Thompson— then in his fifth year as the dean of Duke’s undergraduate program—received a two-page, single-spaced, letter from Peter Wood, a longtime Duke history professor and former Rhodes scholar. Wood, then sixty years old, had been teaching history at Duke for nearly thirty years and briefly coached the women’s lacrosse team when it was a club sport. In his letter to Thompson, Wood worried that during the previous decade “mission creep” had occurred “regarding the time demands of student athletes.” He noticed that “slowly” and “sport by sport and year by year” it had become “more acceptable and common for players to miss classes and spend inordinate time on the road.” Why, Wood wondered, were injured athletes required to travel with their teams? Why were nonconference, midseason games scheduled in western time zones? And why were varsity coaches allowed to call a “required” practice during “morning class time in the last week” of the semester? “I was shocked to lose at least a dozen students for this reason this spring,” he wrote Thompson, “during the important last week of class. They had no option. Needless to say, even when such drills are billed as voluntary, students on athletic scholarships feel that they must give their first allegiance to coaches, not to professors.”
Wood wrote that he found “even more troubling” the second trend involving the “attitudes of some varsity athletes toward their professors and their schoolwork generally,” who are “part of a larger minority of disaffected, uninterested and openly hostile students.” He made clear this wasn’t just a conclusion he had reached based on his own personal experience—although he had been confronted with the attitude in his own classes—but had heard the same from other professors and teaching assistants, too. “Unfortunately, this trend may well dovetail with the increasing centrality of sport for some at Duke,” he concluded. He mentioned that at an alumni reunion event in 2003, he was “surprised” to hear a varsity coach “downplay the importance of course work and academic majors.” He professed his hope that with “adequate leadership from all of us,” he could see “no reason why this troubling antiacademic attitude cannot be addressed and repaired.” Still, he ended his letter on an ominous note: “In my experience, we have gone beyond the ‘few bad apples’ stage.”
Wood had been prompted to write the letter to Dean Thompson after the end of the spring semester in 2004, during which he taught a class in Native American history. There were sixty-five students in the class, ten of whom were varsity lacrosse players. He was reviewing his teacher evaluations and read the following comment from one of the students: “I wish all of the Indians had died; then we wouldn’t have had to study them.” Wood suspected that the author of this comment was a lacrosse player. He had become increasingly convinced that “the play-hard cohort was poisoning the campus culture” at Duke, “and that lacrosse players were at the heart of the problem.”
Wood never heard back from Thompson. But it was not hard to see why Thompson did not respond. And why Brodhead, in his first week as university president, had no choice but to indulge Krzyzeswki in his very public flirtation with the Lakers. Duke had seemingly become the embodiment of a still-credible aspect of the American Dream: the ability to have it all in just four quick years. There was the first-rate education; the top-notch Division I athletics; the seemingly infinite job prospects upon graduation, especially on Wall Street; the gorgeous campus; the handsome student body; and the temperate climate. Who could ask for anything more? “Duke’s rapid rise to prominence over the past several decades was perhaps without precedent in academia,” observed Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair.
But Wood’s warning about the shifting priorities of student-athletes at Duke would be driven home—for good—less than two years later, when Duke confronted its worst crisis in a history that traces back 175 years.