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  • Writer's pictureAshley Fox

Fifty Years of Agony

To my knowledge, he never talked about it, at least not publicly. It was my father’s greatest professional defeat, and it haunted him until the day he died.

Fifty years ago, Neill McGeachy, Jr., was the 31-year-old rookie head men’s basketball coach at Duke University. He’d gotten the job after then head coach Bucky Waters abruptly resigned prior to the season. Duke reportedly offered the job to legendary former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who declined. (Funny enough, our two black Labradors were named “Rupp I” and “Rupp II.”) So my father took over a struggling program with a less than stellar roster and no promise of employment past that 1973-74 season.

Duke played at North Carolina in the regular-season finale. The Blue Devils entered the game with a 10-15 record. Carolina was loaded and ranked fourth in the country. Even so, Duke built an eight-point lead with 17 seconds to play. My father was on the cusp of what at the time would’ve been a career-defining victory. And then disaster struck. Bobby Jones made two free throws. Carolina scored on consecutive Duke turnovers underneath the Tar Heels’ basket. Up two with four seconds left, Duke’s Pete Kramer missed the front end of a one-and-one. Carolina freshman Walter Davis then made a 30-foot bank shot to send the game into overtime. After 17 ties and 27 lead changes, Carolina won 96-92. It was the last game my father ever coached as a head coach.

Neill went on to have a successful career as a sports promoter and, later, as the athletic director at his collegiate alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne University, which built and named a sports performance center for him after his death. But that game on March 2, 1974, never escaped him. At every significant anniversary, some sportswriter would call the house and ask for comment. Joe Posnanski once told me he had to make that call while working at the Charlotte Observer. My father’s response: “No comment, and good day sir.” In the late 2000s, when I was a sports columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Neill told me a producer from HBO had contacted him about doing an interview about the Duke-Carolina rivalry for a forthcoming documentary. “What do you think,” Neill asked. I, the sports journalist, replied: “You haven’t talked about that game yet. Why start now?” So he declined.

My dad died on February 9, 2018. Were he still alive, he undoubtedly would’ve gotten tons of interview requests about the 50th anniversary of the game. He would’ve hated it and declined them all. But Neill talked to me about it for the first time just days before he died. It’s the last recording of his voice that I have.

We all suffer defeats in our careers. I know I have. Some are bigger than others. But I believe it is how we recover, not the defeats themselves, that defines us. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Never give up.



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