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Photo of aftermath of The Shot by Christian Laettner
The biggest moment in Duke sports history is undoubtedly 1992's The Shot -- Christian Laettner's game-winning jumper to defeat Kentucky and win a seat in the Final Four. Photo by Duke University

Blue Devil Century

Before basketball grabbed headlines, Duke Athletics was already a championship program

It’s a brilliant moment of sports history known by the most generic of names. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

The Shot.

The scene: 1992 NCAA men’s basketball tournament East Regional Final in Philadelphia. No. 1 seed Duke vs. No. 2 seed Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four – and for Duke, continuing its quest to repeat as national champions. Kentucky leads 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski uses his last timeout to discuss strategy for a final shot.

You know the rest. Grant Hill throws a full-court pass to Christian Laettner, who catches the ball at the free-throw line. Laettner dribble-fakes right, spins left and lofts the shot over a defender.

Swish. Win. Pandemonium. Legend.

Duke went on to win the 1992 NCAA title and, over the years, three more championships. Still, The Shot remains the most indelible moment in Duke sports history, and it’s been described as the most memorable shot of all time in the greatest college basketball game ever played.

Thirty-two years later, its legacy persists: With the right combination of skill, coaching, confidence, a bit of luck, and tremendous grit, magic is possible. The Shot expanded the university’s collective imagination for what could be achieved in athletics. Krzyzewski’s back-to-back titles placed him and his program among the all-time greats and fired up momentum that continues to this day.


In the early days of basketball’s national spotlight, applications to the university skyrocketed. Bench burnings and sleeping in a tent most of the winter became rites of passage. The rest of the country finally became aware of what had always been true at Duke: It is a place where student athletes can get an elite education while competing at the highest level.

While the results of steady growth and improvement across all of Duke sports have shown up big in the past three decades, Blue Devil athletes and teams have actually enjoyed success for much of the last century. Duke has won 17 team national championships, and its athletes have won 23 individual national titles. When women’s intercollegiate sports debuted in 1971 just before Title IX became law – about halfway through the 100 years – it didn’t take long for them to earn consistent, and occasionally spectacular, success. The women’s golf program has seven team national championships – the most in any sport in school history.

Men’s lacrosse has won three NCAA titles, all since 2010. Women’s tennis won it all in 2009, and men’s soccer earned the distinction of Duke’s first team national championship of any kind in 1986. But Duke has been playing intercollegiate sports since before there were official NCAA postseason tournaments, and the Blue Devils’ first (unofficial) national championship came in a sport you’d never guess – football.


Wallace Wade was Duke’s biggest and splashiest coaching hire in the early days of the university. Coming directly off three national championships at the University of Alabama, Wade was lured to Durham with a bank-breaking financial package to become head football coach and athletic director. From his first season as head football coach in 1932, Wade’s teams owned the best record in the country over the next decade: 80 wins, 16 losses, and two Rose Bowl appearances. The 1936 team was retroactively named national champions by two different football pundits.

Wade retired in 1951, but his replacement, Bill Murray, kept the Blue Devils a football power until the mid-1960s. Meantime, the 1953-54 academic year brought the greatest change in the history of Duke athletics – the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke and six other schools left the Southern Conference, mainly because of a league ban on postseason football passed in 1951.

In 1965, a growing tension between academic excellence and competitive athletics at Duke reached a crossroads. University President Doug Knight hired football coach Tom Harp, who had a great academic reputation but a losing record at Cornell. Harp never did better than 6-5 in five seasons at Duke. What followed was a run of football mediocrity so significant and intractable that it lasted for 20 years until coaching genius Steve Spurrier broke it in the late 1980s with an ACC championship. Coach Fred Goldsmith had one winning season in 1994, and then football fortunes plummeted again for two decades until David Cutcliffe posted a 10-win season in 2013.


There is a legend that James B. Duke declared that he wanted a university with a hospital and a good football team. Chris Kennedy, a senior deputy director of athletics and adjunct assistant professor of English, combed through the Duke archives, reading the letters founding President William Preston Few wrote to J.B.D. Kennedy came up empty.

Unlike the legend, there is ample evidence that athletics have been intentionally woven into Duke since day one. “We are determined to integrate the sports of youth with the whole program of the university,” Dean W.H. Wannamaker wrote to Wade in 1930. The goal was to create a fit and spirited student body, teach lessons of teamwork, challenge students physically to complement academic challenges, and inspire the university community with excellence on the fields of play. Mission accomplished.

Today, Duke’s competitive spirit is evidenced every day by a walk around campus. One in 10 undergraduates is an athlete in one of 27 varsity sports, and the other 90 percent are likely wearing Duke swag any given day. Athletics are still a major reason students come to the university, and often form the core of their favorite moments in Durham.


Although Duke endured a decades-long lull in football success, and is known internationally for basketball, its commitment to football is the major theme of its 100-year athletics history. The Blue Devils kept fielding an NCAA Division I team when few other elite universities did, and more recently recommitted to making that team competitive. Still enjoying the spoils of an eight-win season that included a home victory over Clemson and a Birmingham Bowl trophy, Duke’s football team – and the rest of its varsity athletic programs – prepare to enter a new era of bicoastal competition in the radically reconfigured Atlantic Coast Conference.

New head coach Manny Diaz will lead the football program into the university’s second century. Vice president and director of athletics Nina King says that Diaz was the right choice because he embodies Duke values: respect, trust, inclusion, discovery, and excellence.

“When we asked our current student-athletes what they wanted in a head coach, we heard things like, someone who pushes them to be better every day; someone who values his players on and off the field; a players’ coach; someone who’s fun to play for; a man of integrity,” King says.

Duke competes in football because competing in football is – as it always has been – the requirement to be considered a major athletics program and to share in the billions in revenue that helps support many of the other varsity sports.


Football itself is a canary in a coal mine: College sports are in great turmoil. Issues such as name, image and likeness (NIL), conference realignment, the transfer portal, and Title IX equity are causing what King calls “constant craziness.” She counts at least 11 national lawsuits aimed at addressing these nebulous challenges. One notable suit, an antitrust complaint against the NCAA – arguing that players should share in revenues – has Duke senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter as its named plaintiff.

King says that Duke’s broad support for athletes is comparable to anywhere in the nation, and her department is committed to a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategic Plan with accountability metrics. There is work to do, but much of it is the continuous improvement and adjustment needed to stay competitive.

“Overall, we’re successful and I think we are providing the resources to our programs to be able to compete,” King says.

So while college athletics struggles to reform its business model, Duke welcomes the superior student-athletes who have always come to challenge themselves as Blue Devils. King asks every first-year athlete why they chose Duke, and she reports that 95 percent of them cite the balance between academics and athletics. The Duke difference is the same for athletes as non-athletes – they come to ensure they will be well prepared for life after college.

Ultimately, King believes that college sports will survive in some form. It’s the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves that students crave.

“My vision and my dream is to continue to provide this amazing opportunity for these student-athletes,” she says, “no matter what college athletics looks like.”


Thanks to Nina King, Chris Kennedy, Jacki Silar, Barry Jacobs, Dan Brooks, Lewis Bowling, John Roth, Art Chase, and Lindy Brown for sharing their expertise on the history of Duke athletics.