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Duke and Coach K hate takes a break on eve of Final Four

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You hate them for their success and their pedigree. For the way they've made it look easy. For the more than 1,000 wins over four decades, at least a handful coming against your favorite team.

You hate them for the Final Four bids, the five national championships with the potential for six. For the conference championships, the start-to-finish dominance.

You've hated them since Christian Laettner faked left, turned right and knocked out Kentucky in the greatest game in men's NCAA Tournament history. Or did the hate begin with Danny Ferry? Maybe you're a little younger. Was your first villain Steve Wojciechowski, Shane Battier, JJ Redick, Grayson Allen?

You've always hated Mike Krzyzewski. For the wins. The consistency. For the way he's been the face of college basketball for decades.

You hate them for the floor slaps. For the flops. For taking that charge. For getting that call.

You know exactly who you are: you’re a Duke hater. And you’re not alone.

"Somehow, Duke managed for years and years to keep this aura where they were like, pretty boys or arrogant," said filmmaker Rory Karpf, director of the ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary "I Hate Christian Laettner."

"And that really says something. Because as college sports changed, the hatred for Duke did not."

Hate. Hate. Hate.

There’s hate, there’s hate that runs hotter than the surface of the sun and there’s the specific sort of hate reserved for Duke, which has long been treated by the majority of Americans with a level of antipathy reserved for only the biggest names and brands in sports — joining Notre Dame football, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Cowboys.

But something funny has happened on the way to another Final Four bid.

For the first time since the Laettner-era teams made Duke the program everyone loves to hate, the Blue Devils’ push for the national championship has largely been embraced. Unlike in every other tournament run of the past three decades, the standard amount of vitriol has been replaced by an appreciation for what Krzyzewski has achieved and is still achieving with the final team of his record-setting career.

A fan wearing USC gear holds a sign paying tribute to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
A fan wearing USC gear holds a sign paying tribute to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“I think in a weird kind of way, there have been more people that have kind of jumped aboard and are sort of secretly pulling for (Krzyzewski) here in this final run. Not everybody, just a few more than usual,” said former Duke forward and CBS analyst Grant Hill.

“I’ve had people who have told me, ‘Hey, I was not a fan of Duke, I’ve never been a fan of Coach K, but I’m kind of secretly pulling for him.’ Because it’s the end, it’s a chance for all of us to recognize the accomplishments.”

The all-consuming hate has been a springtime tradition unlike any other, uniting fans of programs scattered across states and conferences around a shared belief that the Blue Devils are, put simply, the absolute worst.

Success breeds ... contempt

Chalk the animosity up to success. Just as no one hates the Yankees because of a distaste for pinstripes, Duke has taken up head space for being the most successful program in college basketball for two generations.

“Sports can be emotional,” said former Duke center and longtime ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. “But people rarely sit on the fence on great … there’s nobody that’s been great over a long period of time that’s universally loved. Whether it’s love or dislike or hate or whatever, it rates.”

At the center of it all has stood Krzyzewski, who was hired in 1980, won his first national championship in 1991 and has made the tournament in every year but one since 1996.

Krzyzewski "is a modern-day Narcissus so fixated on success that he'd throw his own players under the bus" and "a control freak with a thinly veiled persecution complex," according to The Daily Tar Heel, the independent student newspaper at North Carolina.

But in a face turn worthy of the main event at WrestleMania, Krzyzewski has gone from the biggest villain in college basketball to the sentimental favorite in New Orleans.

“They know it’s the last time we’re going to see him,” said ACC Network analyst and former Duke forward Carlos Boozer. “I think (this) is one of the less-hated teams, and a lot of that has to do with coach’s departure.”

With his career down to one or two games — starting with Saturday’s hyped matchup with UNC in the national semifinals — there’s been a late-in-the-day appreciation for his entire body of work, including how he has coaxed another Final Four bid out of a team tossed out of the national championship picture during an inconsistent regular season.

While not lacking in talent, with as many as five players in the mix for the first round of the NBA draft, this year's team has almost no bench support, relies entirely on underclassmen and brought almost zero postseason experience into tournament play.

While secondary to the attention paid to Krzyzewski's swan song, the unexpectedness of this Final Four appearance has contributed to the shift in public opinion.

"I think people like good stories," Hill said. "And I think this is a unique story, where someone who’s retiring, someone who’s been a legend, someone who has a fun team that’s fun to watch. It’s not been easy for them and they’ve kind of grown up and come of age these last couple weeks."

Warm fuzzies may not last

This sentimental reprieve may be a one-off event. Krzyzewski will be replaced by former guard and top assistant Jon Scheyer, who has already compiled the top-ranking signing classes in each of the next two recruiting cycles. Even with a new head coach on the sideline, Duke is due to reclaim a place as the most hated program in the country.

"As far as the hatred part goes, it’s always going to be there," Boozer said. "The expectation is always going to be championship or bust. The recruits are still going to come. People either love Duke or they want them to lose. There’s no in-between."

That's what makes this tournament run unique: For the first time in more than 30 years, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils have garnered support from the unaffiliated fan. It may not be love — but it isn't hate.

“I think what you’re seeing this year is such an appreciation of him,” Karpf said. “And in terms of story lines, it’s hard to find a better story line than they made it to the Final Four and they’re playing North Carolina. I mean, the fix has to be in or something.”

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Final Four: Duke hate takes break as fans embrace Coach K's final run