In 1984, a year after Ralph Sampson graduated from the University of Virginia, the Cavaliers made an unlikely run to the Final Four with former walk-on Kenton Edelin and rookie Olden Polynice replacing the national three-timer. of the year at the center.
Unsurprisingly, the Cavaliers struggled throughout the regular season. They were 17-10 at the ACC tournament and lost – easily – to Wake Forest in the first round. Holland spoke candidly after that game about trying to get his team to regroup to play in the NIT.
The NCAA Tournament Committee, in a rare display of basketball acumen, made Virginia the seventh seed in the East Region and the Cavaliers beat Iona (by one); Arkansas (by two, in overtime); Syracuse (by eight) and Indiana – which had upset No. 1-ranked North Carolina – by two to advance to the Final Four.
Terry Holland, who coached U-Va. two Final Fours, dies at 80
Virginia had reached the Final Four in 1981, Sampson’s second year, but missed the next two seasons. Now, with a freshman and future law student replacing Sampson, they were back in the Final Four.
I went to see Holland that week in Charlottesville and asked him about his surprisingly calm demeanor on the bench throughout the two weeks of the tournament. “Fair to say,” I asked, “coaches get softer as they get older?”
Holland was only 41 but had been a head coach for 15 years already. He laughs at the question.
“I tried to say calm because of Othell,” he said, referring to his talented but short-tempered guard Othell Wilson. “I think he draws a lot of inspiration from me. If I get mad, he gets mad. If I’m calm, he’s usually calm. He smiled. “Or at least calmer.”
So he wasn’t sweeter after five years at Davidson and 10 at Virginia, four of them under the white-hot spotlight of Sampson’s presence?
He’s laughing. “I think I’m supposed to tell everyone that I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders, or I’ve softened,” he said. “But you know what, I don’t think coaches are getting any softer. On the contrary, they become more paranoid. The key is to recognize it and maybe stop when you start to overreact to something. Maybe I’m a little better at it now than before.
Holland grew up in the small town of Clinton, North Carolina, and was a good enough basketball player to catch the eye of Lefty Driesell, who was building power at Davidson. He was Driesell’s team captain in 1964 – averaging 13.5 points and 6.6 rebounds on a 22-4 team that finished 10th in the last AP poll that season. Holland learned a lot from Driesell and, for as long as I’ve known him, has done a better Lefty impersonation than anyone.
He went to work for Driesell after graduation and eventually succeeded him in 1969 when Driesell left for Maryland. Five years later, he was hired to take over a moribund Virginia program and won the ACC Tournament, as the sixth seed, in his second season.
“He never had a system,” former Dominion coach Jeff Jones, a former player and Holland’s assistant, said Monday morning. “He looked at who was on his team and figured out what was the best way to help them succeed. Flexibility was probably his greatest strength.
Sampson’s recruitment in the spring of 1979 changed Virginia basketball – and Holland’s life. Suddenly, Virginia was no longer a scrappy, competitive team; it was a national power. The Cavaliers won the NIT in 1980 – a season considered a failure by many – and made the Final Four a year later.
With Sampson gone two years later, there was less pressure to win, but there were still plenty of problems. For much of this season, Virginia was a divided team.
“We really didn’t expect to even make the NCAAs,” Jones said. “When we did that I think everyone decided to put aside their differences and try to win games. By then Coach Holland had figured out how to deal with all the different personalities in that dressing room. . It was not easy.
The Cavaliers lost in the 1984 Final Four in overtime to a Houston team led by Hakeem Olajuwon. The game was eminently winnable — Virginia had the last shot in regulation — but turned Cougars-style in the overtime five minutes. After his press conference, I saw Holland in the hallway. He pointed at me: “Do you think I’ll be calmer after this match?” he asked, with the Dutch smile on his face.
As it turned out, Holland only coached six more seasons and retired from coaching in 1990, in part due to recurring stomach problems. Jones, who had played for Holland for four years, succeeded him. Holland had won 418 games and was not yet 50, but he never coached again. Instead, he became an athletic director — first in Davidson, then in Virginia, and finally in East Carolina, less than 100 miles from where he grew up.
Holland was an excellent coach and a very good administrator. He did not hide the inconveniences either. In the fall of 1984, when Polynices was in second grade, a story broke that he had been tried and acquitted for plagiarizing a diary in first grade. Polynice had admitted to handing over another student’s paper, but the Virginia Student Honors Committee agreed there were extenuating circumstances and cleared him.
When the story broke just before Thanksgiving, with the Cavaliers on their way to Hawaii, I set out to find Holland. I finally got assistant coach Dave Odom on the phone shortly after the team arrived at his hotel. “I’ll ask him,” Odom said. “But I don’t think he’s going to talk to you.”
A few minutes later, Holland called. “How was your trip?” I asked, trying to break any ice I could.
“It was good,” he said. “Until Dave came in and said you were chasing me halfway around the world.” I started to apologize but he intervened. “You do your job, I understand. What do you need.”
In 2015, while researching my book on Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and Mike Krzyzewski, I had dinner with Holland, who had coached against all three men. I asked about the screaming matchup he had with Krzyzewski in the 1983 ACC Tournament after Virginia crushed Duke, 109-66. Krzyzewski had accused Holland of increasing the score on a helpless team.
“He played Sampson for 40 minutes,” Krzyzewski told me.
“That one isn’t fair,” Holland said that night. “Mike and later became good friends, but his memory of that one is just plain wrong.”
The next day I received an email from Holland which included the box score for that game. Sampson had played 14 minutes.
“I guess I took it backwards,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s fair to say I was a little angry that night.”
Holland forgave Krzyzewski, just as he forgave me for stalking him in Hawaii. He never stopped competing, but he always understood the most important things. That’s what made him a class act.