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March 04, 1998|HOUSTON MITCHELL

What: "A March to Madness: The View From the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference," by John Feinstein

Publisher: Little Brown & Company ($24.95)

This is the story of the most competitive college basketball conference in the U.S., as seen through the eyes of its head coaches. Feinstein chronicles the Atlantic Coast Conference's 1996-97 season, which had no shortage of drama. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski came back after sitting out most of the previous season because of back surgery. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith was aiming for the record for victories.

Seven of the league's nine coaches gave Feinstein full access, letting him attend practices, locker-room meetings and staff meetings. The result: a compelling look, clearly told, of the pressures the coaches and players faced throughout the season.

There is one drawback, and it is a major one: Feinstein is a Duke graduate, and it is apparent here. Krzyzewski can do no wrong. He is apparently a combination of Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Gandhi.

And by the way, Krzyzewski let's everyone know that his name is not pronounced "sha-shefski," as most announcers say, but "je-jefski."

As one of two coaches who did not allow Feinstein full access (the other being North Carolina State's Herb Sendek), Smith is portrayed through the eyes of his coaching adversaries, who mainly view him with a combination of awe and spite. Luck fell into Feinstein's lap when Smith announced his retirement after the season, because that gave this book the additional dimension of chronicling Smith's final season.

There are numerous humorous anecdotes throughout, including one of a meeting between Clemson Coach Rick Barnes and Sen. Strom Thurmond. Barnes, whose team is on a five-game winning streak, proudly walks up to Thurmond, who tells Barnes, "So happy to see you. So proud of what you've done. So proud." And as a confident Barnes reaches to shake the senator's hand, he hears Thurmond whisper to an aide, "Who is this?"

In another incident, Maryland Coach Gary Williams berates an assistant during a loss because "if you really cared about winning, you'd be sweating more."

But the strength of this book lies in its portrayal of the lesser-known coaches. Feinstein recounts how each of the nine coaches reached the position his is in now. From coaching tiny schools no one has heard of, to being an assistant to an assistant at a Midwest basketball camp.

Barnes, Wake Forest's Dave Odom and Virginia's Jeff Jones especially come across as well-rounded men, full of the same doubts, fears and hopes most people go through in their day.

Reading about the travails some of these men went through to get where they are gives you a greater respect for the coaching profession as a whole. And the next time an ACC game is on television, you'll probably stop and watch.

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