Winthrop University

Q&A: Catching up with former Winthrop coach and AD Steve Vacendak

Steve Vacendak was 74-98 as Winthrop’s basketball coach from 1986 to 1992.
Steve Vacendak was 74-98 as Winthrop’s basketball coach from 1986 to 1992. File photos from Winthrop University/photo illustration by Bret McCormick

Steve Vacendak doesn’t watch much basketball these days.

But if the former Winthrop coach and athletics director did, and he came across a Duke game, a wry smile may or may not pass across his face. Vacendak was integral in the school hiring Mike Krzyzewski in 1980, a fact made clear by John Feinstein’s latest book, “The Legends Club.”

A former ACC player of the year himself in the mid-1960s, Vacendak was an associate athletics director at Duke when coach Bill Foster left the program in 1980. Vacendak saw something in Krzyzewski – then the coach at Army – early on and remembered his name when the search began.

Krzyzewski had just finished a 9-17 season at West Point and wasn’t an overwhelming choice. Feinstein’s detail-packed book explains how Duke AD Tom Butters’ hiring process very nearly ended without Coach K in charge of the Blue Devils, hard to imagine all these years later.

Vacendak later left Duke to help Winthrop complete its transition from NAIA to Division II to Division I athletics. He coached the Eagles and was AD from 1986 to 1992.

He now is the executive director of N.C. Beautiful, a private non-profit group that supports and fosters environmental education. Between meetings on Thursday, Vacendak talked with The Herald.

Q. Do you plan on reading the book that Feinstein mentions you in?

A. I plan to. I had dinner with him when we discussed the book. John reflected on and asked me about how some things came about regarding the hiring of Mike. I don’t know how he wrote it but I’m sure it’s accurate because he’s a good writer.

Q. What did you see in Coach K that made you so adamant that Tom Butters and Duke should hire him?

A. That was part of our conversation so I assume it’s in the book. I think he reflected the values of Duke University because the values of West Point and Duke are so on parallel with regards to the stress of education and so forth. The whole attitude about getting the best kids you can that are willing to make sacrifices off the court, as well as on the court, to represent West Point and to represent Duke. I think the profiles of both schools are very close and he obviously fulfilled them exceptionally well at West Point.

And then his personal traits, his passion, his intensity and he’s articulate, and also he’s very knowledgeable about the game. He’s a great X’s and O’s coach, as I think he’s probably demonstrated many times in game situations. And he cared about his players.

Q. Tom Butters really waffled because Coach K was not the home run hire he was looking to make following Bill Foster – how close was Duke to missing out on K?

A. He had been through some more interviews and I took him out to the airport at that time. I dropped him off and then I got a page from Tom Butters, saying “where are you?”

I said I’m at the airport, I just dropped Mike off.

He said “go get him, don’t let him get on the plane.”

I said “why? What are you gonna do or possibly say to him at this stage?”

He said “I’m gonna hire him, but don’t you tell him!”

So I caught Mike before he got on the plane and took him back to where Tom was. They met and Mike was offered the job.

Q. He struggled his first couple of years – how tough would it be for Butters to stave off the pressure in this day and age where there is more attention paid to every sport, especially college basketball?

A. Knowing Tom and how particularly strong he is with regards to his feelings about personnel and so forth, I just think he was convinced that Mike in fact was the best man for the job at Duke, and that it was a matter of time for him to get his program and his culture established. Although it didn’t reflect in wins necessarily, Tom liked much of what Mike was doing defensively, he liked the way he dealt with the kids, all these other things he had displayed.

But they weren’t quite there, ready to win. Then he got that great recruiting class of (Mark) Alarie and (Johnny) Dawkins and (Jay) Bilas, and after, the ball took off. To Tom’s credit, he’s a strong enough person to voice his reasons for wanting to go with his man even though he might not be perceived by the public – and he wasn’t – as being the man for the job. I think if Tom were an athletic director anywhere today, he would do the same.

Q. How did you end up as the athletics director at Winthrop?

A. I’m trying to remember. It’s been so long. I was asked to apply for the job. It might have been Fred Barakat, who was with the ACC at the time (as the head of officials).

Q. Tom Hickman, who you brought to Winthrop, is retiring this summer; how major has his impact been on the school’s athletics program?

A. I think Tom did a good job of building on the foundation that was laid, and it’s born fruit. He’s done a wonderful job of expanding and hopefully the next person will build on his foundation of what he’s put down. It’s a constant building process when you’re building a program. You can never be satisfied with what went on before but you hope that the foundation is there to go forward instead of having to go backwards.

Q. How did you get involved with NC Beautiful?

A. I was invited to play in their golf tournament, a fund-raiser down at Pinehurst. I was a guest of one of the board of directors and in the course of the event, a weekend event, the executive director announced her retirement and a board member contacted a few other board members and eventually asked me if I would be interested in applying for the job.

Q. What’s an NC Beautiful project that you particularly are proud of?

A. It’s just so personally satisfying, both professionally as a job, but also it is just wonderful to see the impact of what is being done on behalf of environment education in the state of North Carolina. NC Beautiful, the organization that was founded 49 years ago, started the wildflower program that you see throughout the state of North Carolina. In addition we also started the Adopt A Highway program where you see these signs all over the highway that has gone nationally as well.

So we kind of morphed from an anti-litter, beautification organization to one of environmental education and empowering teachers to teach the kids about that.

Q. Do you fill out an NCAA tournament bracket?

A. My daughter and I used to do it and now she’s gotten so good at it she doesn’t need my help. She’s won a couple of pools; I’m happy for her but she’s not gonna let me mess it up. I don’t fill out any brackets, but I enjoy the upsets in particular. I think that’s what makes college basketball so exciting and so special.

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