Tales From Duke Coach Al Buehler

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Photo by Briana Brough

The stories of legendary Duke track and field Coach Al Buehler could extend far beyond the pages of our magazine. In addition to the memories he shared with us in the June/July issue, we’re fortunate to have a few more of his tales here.

First Date

Al vividly remembers the summer of 1957 when he first met Delaina Underwood. She was cultured and beautiful, and he was determined to catch her eye.

Delaina noticed Al, too, since she sat behind him in a graduate school class at the University of North Carolina. But every time he smiled at her, all she saw was a paper coffee cup ditched under his seat. How lazy could this guy be that he can’t carry it a few feet to a trash basket?

Its presence irritated even more when Al asked to buy her a coffee at the Scuttlebutt, a student hangout. After lingering longer than usual after class, she finally realized the offending cup was dumped there by someone else, and that her soon-to-be-sweetheart cleaned up the way his mama taught him, often putting it in the trash on his way out.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve maligned this poor guy the whole time,'” says Delaina, who taught elementary school in Durham. Dinner dates and movies followed, but her strongest memory is of a note telling her to pick up a package at Kemps Record Store on East Franklin Street.

“I loved going to Broadway musicals, and he got me the cast recording of ‘Bells Are Ringing’ with Judy Holliday,” she says, beaming at her husband while he gazes affectionately back at her. “I was very impressed.”

The couple married in her hometown of Burlington in 1958, spending the night in Chapel Hill. “I’m the only Duke coach who honeymooned at The Carolina Inn,” Al says. “And the guy in the next room coughed all night.”

The Hat Makes the Man

When Shakespeare wrote the phrase often interpreted as “clothes make the man,” he noted the importance of dressing well without being too showy. It was a message Al understood well.

While his athletes ran in sweaty shorts and tanks, Al shouted tips from the sidelines in a tailored suit, often with a perfectly folded silk pocket square. “People thought it was funny that Al dressed up, but he felt it was a sign of respect,” Delaina says. “I noticed that about him when we first started dating.”

Al says the straw hat that became his signature in later years had a practical purpose. On a hot summer weekend in the early 1970s, he helped Carl James, who succeeded Eddie Cameron as Duke athletic director, build a brick patio in his yard. He came home with a bad case of poison ivy that was aggravated by sunburn. A colleague got him an appointment with Dr. Lamar Callaway, then head dermatologist at Duke.

“He told me that I needed to start wearing a hat or he’d have to carve the tips of my ears,” he says, flicking them with his fingers in a scissors-like motion. “He said I was lucky to not have serious skin cancer. I’ve worn a hat outdoors ever since.”

To ensure that his ears and neck were shielded, Al chose a wide-brimmed straw hat. One of his most cherished examples, loaded with pins from international track events, was donated to the N.C. Museum of History’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, where it remains on display with his 1988 Olympic jacket and badge. Several more hats are tucked into his bedroom closet, including one with a snappy woven band.

“Not bad,” he says, modeling it in a hallway.

“Oh, Al, take that off,” scolds Delaina, and their voices join in laughter.

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