A few years ago while covering the Final Four in Indianapolis, I realized just how polarizing the Duke basketball program could be.
During the event, the Indianapolis Star embroiled itself in a bit of juvenile behavior wherein it featured a photo illustration of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski with a bulls eye on his head, horns drawn atop him, a doodling of a mustache and various other childish markings.
Some probably chuckled. Others probably paid it no mind.
Not Coach K — he was irritated.
And I will never forget sitting in a press conference room in the underbelly of Lucas Oil Stadium as he eloquently explained how success could produce derision; and he felt it had in that case.
He was spot on that day.
On Monday, Duke (16-4, 5-2 ACC) comes to the Petersen Events to clash with Pitt (18-2, 6-1) in a game as anticipated as any that’s ever been played at the venue.
The secondary ticket market is humming.
The Oakland campus is abuzz.
The people who hate Duke are out in complete force.
I mean, people who genuinely seethe just at the mention of the word “Duke” or the flash of a highlight of the Blue Devils on television.
Me? Certainly I’d like Jamie Dixon and his Panthers to knock off the Blue Devils, as it would be a landmark victory for the program on a night in which many eyes in the college basketball world will be pinned on Pittsburgh.
But “hate” Duke? Can’t do it. And if you really think about, dive into a bit, isn’t it possible to root like hell for Pitt — want the Panthers to win with all your rooting might — but still have a semblance of respect for Duke?
I think so.
I will leave my hate for the programs that do it the wrong way.
But, I can’t hate a program that wins big and largely does things the right way.
Coach K has won four NCAA titles, played in the title game eight times, been to the Final Four 11 times, the Elite Eight 13 times, has won the ACC Tournament 13 times and is 900-242 leading the Blue Devils.
The guy is also in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Simply, he wins; Duke wins.
The Blue Devils also ensure that if you play basketball for their program, there’s a tremendous chance you will procure a degree. In the latest Graduation Success Rate (GSR) data, wherein the GSR was based on student-athletes who entered college as freshmen in 2003-2006 and allowed for removal of those individuals from the cohort who left Duke in good academic standing, Duke’s basketball program achieved 100 percent success.
The NCAA GSR average is 82 percent.
Again, numbers like that are why I can absolutely, positively want Pitt to win on Monday night — but I can’t bring myself to hate Duke.
On top of that, there never seems to be a rash of off-the-court issues or shenanigans involving Duke players. It is sad that the NCAA landscape has come to this, but, yes, a program should be celebrated — or at least not hated — because their players don’t get in trouble all that much.
One caveat to all this, however, is that there is one faction of the Duke fan base that — from my view at least — it is OK to hate. There are rabid, passionate, intense, in-your-face fans of the program who have zero ties to the university but act in a smug, arrogant and haughty way when it comes to all things Duke.
People who bow at the altar of Coach K, but most likely obtained their degree from somewhere such as Penn State-New Ken and couldn’t tell you what city Duke is in let alone have ever stepped foot in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Those kind of people (but not the ones within the Duke program) are absolutely OK to hate. It’s my opinion that Duke would most likely choose to eradicate those kind of fans from their fan base if they could, anyway.
Notre Dame football has a similar dilemma.
Generally, the people you meet with a real link to Notre Dame are some of the most kind, thoughtful and knowledgeable football people going. Yet, it’s the faction of rabid fans with a Leprechaun tattoo who went to CCAC but are the self-proclaimed “biggest Irish fans ever” who are intolerable at best and downright insufferable at worst.
On Monday night, you might be a Pitt fan lucky enough to have a ticket inside the Pete or perhaps just be gathering with a few friends to watch what is certainly a momentous game on the schedule for Dixon’s program.
In either case, there’s a good chance you will cross someone so willing to announce his or her hatred for Duke.
From my vantage that’s tough to do.
It doesn’t mean you have to like them, but you don’t have to hate them.