The biggest problem with this ideal coach we keep resuscitating, the thing that cripples my ability to enjoy the sports he’s been enlisted to redeem, isn’t the hypocrisy. It’s the hysteria. The ideal coach is the main prop in a whole structure of overcompensation. Cheerleaders randomly kicking the air, brightly grinning at nothing in particular. Student sections athrob with bunny-hopping undergrads. Color commentators gushing about kids competing for the love of the game. Slow pans of ivied quadrangles. And, crucially, brassy pep bands drowning out vague thoughts of recent arrests and altered grades, the coach’s bloated contract, his unique record of malfeasance, other things known only as “irregularities,” all those doubts that a skeezy contraption like the NCAA is fit to judge what’s irregular, and, finally, the suspicion that the real problem is what’s regular.
I always knew, deep down, that this pathology marked my favorite sport, college basketball, and that my team’s exalted coach must be infected with it. But I’ve faced this truth head-on only in the last year, thanks to Penn State. Now I can go back and consider Coach K for what he actually does in his job. Besides the degraded admissions and academic standards, whose products I saw first-hand, I can ponder his recruiting methods. I’d always heard he was a “great recruiter,” but I avoided thinking about what this really entailed. Now, thanks to UCLA freshman and former Las Vegas prep standout Shabazz Muhammad (who was just benched by the NCAA for violating its ideological obfusc- , er, “amateurism rules”), I can hear it in my head: “He talks a lot about the Duke brand. ... I think the thing that makes his sales pitch so good is that he’s really speaking from the heart.”
Did Coach K really try to recruit a high school star by telling him that Duke is the finest epiphenomenal projection of synergistic marketing strategies in all the land? I might not have believed it, except Julius Randle of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, received the same pitch late this summer. After getting Randle “hyped” by flattering him with LeBron James comparisons, “Krzyzewski,” USA Today reports, “went on to talk about branding.”
Coach K, then, solves the sleazy prisoner’s dilemma of college recruiting by talking like a Don DeLillo character. From the heart, he sells 16-year-olds on the honor of entering his great simulacrum, “the Duke Brand,” which consists largely of the hysterical myth of Mike Krzyzewski. I imagine that comes somewhat easily to him.
Dick Vitale’s sycophantic love of Duke is a running joke among college basketball fans. In his pre-game comments during telecasts from Cameron Indoor Stadium, Dickie V prattles on and on about the brainy student-fans in the bleachers, the upstanding student-athletes on the court, and, especially, the integrity and greatness of Duke’s singular leader, Coach K. I’m a Duke fan, or was, and it’s always made me uncomfortable. I used to think it was just Dick Vitale, the exuberant suck-up. But now I realize he’s more like an oracle. In flogging the greatness of Coach K’s program, Dickie V protesteth way too much. The artless babbling and obsessive praise are symptoms of open secrets, hysterically kept—and that queasy feeling he gives you, as the pep band honks half-musically in the background, means that you and Dickie V are grimly suppressing the exact same thoughts.