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Bill Kirby Jr.: As Coach K nears coaching end, there was the beginning

Radio executive Danny Highsmith reflects on Mike Krzyzewski’s first game at Cameron and the coach’s long career.


Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that Danny Highsmith is regional vice president for the Beasley Media Group. 

Those Cameron Crazies were already inside by the time play-by-play radio announcer Bob Harris and Danny Highsmith, who did color for Duke University basketball, were climbing their way toward the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Mike Krzyzewski would bring out his Blue Devils later.  

But for Harris and Highsmith, there was the upward trek in preparation for the game, with statistics to pore over for the pre-game broadcast or analysis of what to anticipate or perhaps an interview with a former Blue Devil.

“We had a ladder, and then you pulled the ladder up and had to put the ladder back down,” Highsmith recalls those years from 1977 to 1987. “It was hotter than blue blazes up there.” 

Highsmith was a radio icon in Fayetteville when he interviewed with former Duke All-America Jeff Mullins, who was an assistant athletic director. Highsmith was long an admirer of the late Ray Reeve, radio voice for N.C. State and the Tobacco Sports Network. And now, with his distinctive and resonant voice, Highsmith had an opportunity of his own.

I went up to Durham and met with Jeff Mullins,” Highsmith says, “and he hired me.”

The trips in 30-plus-game seasons could be grueling for journeys to Cameron Indoor Stadium, Clemson, South Carolina, or Charlottesville, Virginia. Or to Raleigh Durham International Airport to catch flights for those cross-country Blue Devils games. And, of course, that March 27, 1978, evening when Coach Bill Foster and his Blue Devils lost 94-88 to Kentucky at the Checkerdome in St. Louis.

Two years later, Mike Krzyzewski was on the coaching bench for his first game on Nov. 29, 1980, in his debut against Stetson in what would be a 67-49 victory and the beginning of a 42-year coaching career at Duke that would include five NCAA national championships.

Highsmith was in the rafters loft above.

He doesn’t recall much about the game. 

"Not really,” he says, “I was more concerned about how to pronounce his name.”

And me, a newspaper sports reporter covering Krzyzewski’s first game, too, and taping his name to a typewriter because deadlines are demanding and sacred, and the coach had a lot of letters in his name to type.  

Defeat and a dynasty 

“The first year he didn’t have players much,” Highsmith says. “He went out the second year and he was recruiting the top five players in the country, and everyone went somewhere else.”

And he remembers hitching a ride to the airport, and Krzyzewski telling Highsmith he was heading to Los Angeles to watch a high school standout by the name of Jay Bilas. With a Blue Devils team of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Bilas, Duke would advance to the Final Four before bowing 72-69 in the 1986 national championship game with Louisville.

It was a loss. 

Just one of three in a 40-game season.   

And it was the beginning of a college basketball dynasty. 

“He had that great recruiting class of 1986,” Highsmith says.  

Krzyzewski had a coaching work ethic, Highsmith says, and focus and self-discipline.

I thought he was an excellent coach,” Highsmith says. “He certainly was good at what he did. I thought if I attacked the radio business like he did I would be successful.” 

Duke would win five NCAA basketball championships – 72-65 over Kansas in 1991; 71-51 over Michigan in 1992; 82-72 over Arizona in 2001; 61-59 over Butler in 2010; and 68-63 over Wisconsin in 2015. 

Statistics of Krzyzewski’s coaching career at Duke reveal 15 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles  in 1986, 1988, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2017 and 2019 and 13 ACC regular-season titles in 1986, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2022. 

As of Saturday afternoon, he had compiled a  1,198-365 record at Duke. 

And let us not forget those coaching gold medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Highsmith left the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1987 to continue his career with Beasley broadcasting here, where today he is in his 51st year and now is regional vice president for the Beasley Media Group. 

He probably would not know me today if I walked in the room,” Highsmith says. “But it was a bucket list thing for me.” 

Highsmith reflects on his days in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that Jan. 18, 1986, christening of the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center, when the late and legendary Dean Smith and his Tar Heels took the 95-92 measure of the Blue Devils.

And he reflects on these final days of March Madness that will bring Krzyzewski’s coaching career to an end.  


"I’m wondering how he’s going to step away from it,” Highsmith says. “I don’t really know. I think it’s going to be hard for him to completely erase himself. I know whether you liked him or not, they’ll know they lost a great coach. Some don’t like him because he won so much. But he contributed greatly to the university, to the country with his Olympic medals and coaching those teams. He ranks up there with John Wooden. He did a lot of things I admired. He stressed academics and wanted his teams to graduate and have a life.”

 His mind drifts back to those days in the rafters, looking down on the athletes who played the game and their coach with all of those letters in his name.

 “I am proud and happy,” Highsmith says, “I had the opportunity.” 

 Next Sunday: “The game of basketball is better, and so am I.” 

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.   



Column, Bill Kirby Jr., Mike Krzyzewski, basketball, Duke