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Evolution of a Championship Program & Coach
Thursday 12/29/2010  -  Al Featherston, GoDuke.com
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DURHAM, N.C. - Mike Krzyzewski would usually rather look forward than think about the past.

But the Duke coach couldn't resist a moment of reflection Wednesday night after beating UNC Greensboro to become the second winningest coach in college basketball history.

"The crowd amazed me," he said of the 22,178 fans who packed the Greensboro Coliseum for the historic moment. "When I walked out and saw a full house and so many Duke fans ... I took a moment to reflect back to when I got to North Carolina. I didn't see that many Duke shirts then."

Mike Krzyzewski was introduced to the Duke - and the ACC - community at a press conference on March 18, 1980.

I was among the three dozen reporters who gathered in the first-floor meeting room of the old Duke News Bureau Building (still standing at the corner of University Road and Chapel Drive) to see Blue Devil athletic director Tom Butters present the mystery man he had selected to replace Bill Foster.

There was considerable skepticism in the audience when Butters introduced his unknown choice as "the best young coach in America." Most of us couldn't even pronounce his name - indeed, the television reporters that evening called him Mike "KUR-shevski", despite his own efforts to set us all on the right path.

"It's sha-CHEFF-skee," the new coach explained. "That's K-r-z-y-z-e-w-s-k-i. And if you think that's bad, you should have heard it before I changed it.  For those of you who can't pronounce it, you can just call me Coach K.' "

Wednesday night at the Greensboro Coliseum, "Coach K" became the winningest coach in ACC basketball history, passing North Carolina legend Dean Smith on the all-time victory list with a 108-62 win over UNC Greensboro.

"I don't want to make it sound less than it is," Krzyzewski told reporters after the milestone victory. "To do something like this, you have to be healthy, have really good players and a strong commitment from your school. I've had all that. This is not so much an achievement as a result of that.

"Championships ... those are achievements."

Krzyzewski has won his share of championships during his 30 seasons at Duke:  Four national championships, an Olympic Championship, a World Championship and 12 ACC championships. He's won 11 NCAA regional championships and more NCAA Tournament games than any coach in history. On top of that now he has 807 wins at Duke and 880 wins overall ... 880 and counting. Bobby Knight's Division I NCAA record of 902 is within reach - possibly before this season is over or early next year at the latest.

Today, anybody and everybody who cares about basketball knows how to pronounce his name.

It's hard to remember now what a shock Butters' selection of Krzyzewski was in 1980.

The Duke program, which slumped in the mid-1970s, had regained a measure of respect under Bill Foster, a high-strung dynamo who built a Final Four team in 1978 and nearly repeated that accomplishment in 1980.

But Foster had built a great team - not a great program. With the graduation of All-American center Mike Gminski and veteran point guard Bob Bender, Duke's long-term prospects were not very good. Foster, like so many other coaches on Tobacco Road in that era despaired of competing with Dean Smith's juggernaut at UNC. He accepted a lucrative offer to coach at former ACC member South Carolina.

It was no coincidence that N.C. State's Norm Sloan, who had also challenged Smith with some success (a national title in 1974) also gave up the fight that spring, resigning to return to Florida in the SEC.

That left Butters and his rival Willis Casey fishing in the same coaching pool at the same time. The Wolfpack was quickly linked to Morgan Wootten, the legendary coach at DeMatha High School. Early reports suggested that Butters would pursue former Vic Bubas assistant Chuck Daly, who was at that time an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.      

Butters had other ideas. His first pitch was not to the little known (at the time) Daly, but to the man he perceived as the best college basketball coach in the country.

He called Indiana's Bob Knight and offered him the job.

Knight declined, but suggested a couple of his protégés - SMU's Dave Bliss and Mississippi's Bob Weltlich - as possibilities.

Butters discussed his options with Steve Vacendak, the former Duke guard who was about to become an associate athletic director at his alma mater. It was Vacendak who first brought up the Army coach with the unpronounceable name. Since the Army coach was also a Knight protégé, Butters called the Indiana coach again and asked him what he thought about Mike Krzyzewski.

"Knight's comment was, 'If you like me as a basketball coach, here's a man who has all my good qualities and none of my bad ones,' " Butters said.

After hearing that endorsement, Duke's athletic director met secretly with the young Army coach and talked to him about the job. In the end, Butters sent him home, concerned about his youth - Krzyzewski had just turned 33 years old - and his 9-17 record in his most recent season at Army.

"But I couldn't get him out of my mind," Butters said.

Krzyzewski had played four years for Knight at Army, where he excelled as a defender and ballhandler. One of his best games was when the Cadets knocked off South Carolina in the NIT and Krzyzewski outplayed Gamecock guard Bobby Cremins.

After five years of military service, Captain Krzyzewski resigned his commission and joined Knight's staff at Indiana, where he served one year as a graduate assistant coach. He returned to West Point as head coach in 1975, leading the U.S. Military Academy to back-to-back records of 20-8 in 1977 and 19-9 in 1978. But his program slumped to 14-11 in 1979 and to 9-17 in 1980.

Is it any wonder that Butters was reluctant to gamble on the 33-year-old unknown?

But the Duke AD was still intrigued by the Army coach. He invited Krzyzewski to Lexington, Ky., where Duke was competing in the NCAA Tournament, and re-interviewed the young coach for five hours on the off-day between a Sweet 16 victory over Kentucky and an Elite Eight loss to Purdue.

But he still couldn't bring himself to take the gamble.

The following week, Butters set up formal interviews in Durham for four coaching candidates to meet with the search committee that would choose the new coach. Newspaper reporters identified three of the four candidates - Weltlich, Bob Wentzel (Foster's top assistant) and Old Dominion coach Paul Webb.

"It will be a coach whose last name starts with a 'W' the Durham Morning Herald confidently reported.

None of us ever heard Krzyzewski's name mentioned with the Duke job or suspected that he was one of four candidates approved by the search committee. Butters was given permission to hire any of the four.

After agonizing over the choice for nearly an hour, Butters finally decided to trust his instincts and gamble on the unknown Army coach. He sent Vacendak to the Raleigh-Durham Airport to stop Krzyzewski from returning to West Point.

"When Mike came back with Steve, he was kind of bewildered, and I told him, 'I've come to the conclusion that you're the right man at the right time for this university,'" Butters recalled in an interview with Dick Weiss.

Krzyzewski, who had turned down an earlier job opportunity at Iowa State, accepted before Butters could bring up salary considerations.

Early that afternoon, I received a phone call from Frank Dascenzo, my boss at the Durham Sun.

"What do you know about the coach at Army?" he asked. "I just got a tip that he's the man."

Frank couldn't pronounce Krzyzewski's name. Neither could I. But I had a friend who coached at a small college in New York and had both played against and coached against the prospective Duke coach. I called him and asked for the lowdown on Krzyzewski.

He told me what we all later learned - that Krzyzewski was a Knight disciple and was committed to man-to-man defense and motion offense. My friend told me that the Army coach was a great teacher and motivator.

"My only concern is recruiting," he said. "He's never had to recruit the kind of players he'll need to win in the ACC. I'm not saying he can't do it, just that it's something he's never done. If he can recruit, then I have no doubt that he'll be successful at Duke."

It took Krzyzewski two years to find success on the recruiting trail. Of course, he barely had a chance in the spring on 1980 - taking the Duke job after almost every top prospect had committed. A year later, he famously struck out on almost every major target - from Chris Mullins to Uwe Blab to Jimmy Miller to Bill Wennington.

But during a disappointing 1981-82 season on the court, Coach K patiently assembled the six-man recruiting class that would lay the groundwork for his dynasty at Duke.

It's interesting that during the 1982 season - while Krzyzewski was recruiting Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas - Dean Smith was making his first NCAA title run with future NBA stars Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins.

"We crossed over for awhile, but he started it," Krzyzewski said of his early rival. "[He demonstrated] what it takes to build a successful program. It's about doing things with class and integrity and having good kids. It did in that way. We do it in a similar way."

Krzyzewski built his program in the shadow of Smith's success in Chapel Hill - just as Smith once had to overcome Duke's Vic Bubas to establish his program.

That was just the first of many coincidences that link the two coaches. Each had to endure five rough seasons before finding success - an ACC title and a Final Four trip - in year six. Both faced intense criticism during that early stretch in their careers. Smith was hung in effigy by frustrated UNC students after a lopsided loss to Wake Forest in his fourth season. Krzyzewski was targeted by an ad hoc group of boosters who styled themselves "concerned Iron Dukes."

The low point for Coach K came in the final game of the 1983 season, when his freshman-dominated team was routed in Atlanta by Ralph Sampson and Virginia in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Hours after that lopsided defeat, Krzyzewski gathered with his staff and friends for a late meal at Denny's. Sports Information Director Johnny Moore raised his water glass and offered a toast: "Here's to forgetting tonight."

"No," Krzyzewski answered. "Here's to never forgetting tonight."'

UNC Greensboro head coach Mike Dement was one of Krzyzewski's assistant coaches that season. He found it ironic that Coach K would earn his milestone victory against his Spartans.

"There's a lot of irony from my standpoint," the Louisburg, N.C., native said. "All of us who grew up in North Carolina wanting to be a coach studied Dean Smith and read his books. And there are a lot of parallels [between the 1983 Duke team and the current UNC Greensboro team]. We were a young team then, getting beat by 50 points by Virginia and we're a young team now."

A year after that difficult 1983 season, Krzyzewski's 1983-84 team would turn the Duke program around. The sophomores he had recruited during the 1982 season blended with freshman point guard Tommy Amaker to form a formidable team.

It's possible to measure the arrival of Krzyzewski's program in a series of meetings with UNC and Dean Smith that season. The first came in Cameron in late January, when a sophomore-dominated Blue Devils took No. 1 UNC to the wire before suffering a heartbreaking loss in a game that was marked by Smith's sideline antics - at one point he was pounding on the scorer's table, accidentally hitting the scoreboard controls and adding 20 points to his team's total - and by Krzyzewski's postgame complaints about the "double standard" in the ACC.

Duke may have lost the game, but Krzyzewski's ability to stand up to Smith impressed Butters enough that just a few days after the game, he signed his young coach to a long-term contract extension.

The second 1984 matchup, in the regular season finale in Chapel Hill, turned into a double-overtime thriller that the Tar Heels finally won, thanks to the unlikely heroics of future UNC coach Matt Doherty. But when the two teams met for a third time in the ACC Tournament semifinals - on the same Greensboro Coliseum floor where Krzyzewski won his 880th career game - Duke managed its breakthrough, knocking off Smith's No. 1 ranked team.

From that point on, no one ever heard from the "concerned Iron Dukes" again as Krzyzewski went on to greater and greater success. Those sophomores who had waged the three epic battles with UNC in 1984 would win 37 games and an ACC title as seniors in 1986. That team would give Krzyzewski the first of seven Final Four trips in the next nine years.

"For our conference to have both [Dean Smith and myself], it's great for our conference," Krzyzewski told reporters.

As a basketball writer on Tobacco Road, I've been lucky enough to cover two of the greatest coaches in college basketball history - at close range.

Between them, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski have coached continuously for 51 seasons, starting with Smith's first year in 1960-61 and continuing through this season. The two coaches overlapped for 17 seasons (1981-97). Together, they've won six national titles and coached in 22 Final Fours. They've combined to win 25 of the last 50 ACC titles - exactly half ... actually, since Smith didn't win his first title until his sixth season, they've won 25 of the last 45 ACC championships.

Krzyzewski talked about Smith after his milestone victory, but he also brought in his mentor, Bobby Knight - the only Division 1 coach with more career victories. But Coach K suggested that the three were linked by more than just their stratospheric win totals.

"All three of us have won a lot of games," he said. "But we've also won championships. We all have won Olympic championships."

Later this season, Krzyzewski will approach Knight's all-time win record, but his focus will be on winning another championship. Yet, he realizes that by achieving that goal - a fifth NCAA title - he'll put himself in position to claim the win record.

"The thing you have to do is stay committed to your team that year," he said. "Last season, we never talked about winning a fourth national title. We were all about Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek winning their first.

"We need to be in their moment ... they don't need to be in my moment."

But he admitted that his team was in his moment Wednesday night. His players waited for him to finish a postgame interview on ESPN with former player Jason Williams, then mobbed him at midcourt.

"Now we can move on and start getting ready for ACC play," he said. "You don't want to look back. When you do that, it takes away your hunger."

Maybe that's the most remarkable thing about Krzyzewski's 30-year journey at Duke ... that he's as hungry for success today as he was as an unknown coach with an unpronounceable name.


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