DURHAM -- On the night of February 13, 1974, Duke held a small ceremony after defeating Virginia, 88-78, in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The ceremony was to celebrate the program’s 1,000th victory in basketball. Duke was just the sixth school to reach that milestone. It came at a dreadful time for the program – the Blue Devils were en route to their worst season in 47 years. The Virginia win snapped a four-game losing streak that had delayed the arrival at 1,000 for two weeks.
It was a very different scene when Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game as a Division 1 head coach Sunday with a victory over St. John’s in Madison Square Garden. Duke is enjoying a splendid season and is still living in an era of basketball greatness than the Blue Devil fans of 1974 could only dream about.
But the biggest contrast in my eyes is how quickly it happened.
It took Duke basketball almost 69 seasons to go from one to 1,000 victories. It’s taken Coach K less than 40 years of coaching – five at Army and 34-and-a-half at Duke – to reach the 1,000 milestone.
Of course, teams play more games these days. Eddie Cameron, who coached Duke from 1929 to 1942, averaged 23.2 games a season. Vic Bubas, who had great success between 1960 and 1969, averaged 28.0 games a season. Krzyzewski has averaged 33.0 games a season.
Cameron finished with 226 victories, Bubas with 213. The former Blue Devil coach with the most career wins was Bill Foster, who picked up 113 of his 467 career victories at Duke.
Coach K has outdistanced his predecessors for three reasons – one is, as mentioned, the fact that he’s had slightly more opportunities each season; two is his longevity – Cameron coached Duke just 14 season, Bubas for 10 and Foster for 33 seasons in all (six at Duke); third, and maybe most important, is that he’s won at a higher rate than any other Duke coach – 79 percent for his years in Durham, better than Bubas’ percentage of 76.1 and much better than Cameron’s 69.5. Foster won 63.8 percent at Duke (and a mere 53.5 for his career).
In fact, as an ACC coach Krzyzewski has won at a higher rate than any coach in ACC history. Coming into this season, he was at 77.8 percent (910-247 at Duke) – just ahead of Dean Smith (77.6 at UNC) and Roy Williams (77.5 at UNC).
Go back to the spring of 1980. Could anybody have imagined the young coach with the unpronounceable name becoming the winningest coach in Division 1 history and the first to get to 1,000 wins? I was there for Coach K’s introductory first press conference and I never imagined that kind of success. After all, this was a 33-year-old coach with just 73 wins in five seasons at Army. And after he went 38-47 in his first three seasons at Duke (getting him to 111 for his career), nobody would have imagined the 889 wins to follow in the next 32-plus seasons.
At the time, all our eyes were on Dean Smith, who was just about midway through his marvelous career. Smith won with a remarkable consistency and his victory total was climbing steadily.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that we started to write about his quest to catch Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, who had retired in 1972 with the NCAA career win record of 876. Smith finally caught the Baron of the Bluegrass during the 1997 NCAA Tournament, finishing that season with a new record of 879 victories.
I was assigned at the time to write a story about Smith’s record and to speculate about possible candidates to challenge the record. I did focus on Bob Knight, who was 57 years old and had just topped the 600-win mark at Indiana. I barely mentioned Krzyzewski as a potential candidate. He had just turned 50 and was still almost 30 victories short of 500 wins.
Coach K got his 500th win in dramatic fashion the next season as Duke rallied to beat North Carolina in the regular season finale. It was a great scene – remembered now for Steve Wociechowski’s mad fullcourt dash to embrace Coach K. But the comeback, the impact of the win (it gave Duke the ACC regular season title) overshadowed the milestone 500th win.
By that point, it was clear that Krzyzewski could win at the high rate necessary to challenge the record, but even in 1998, could we have imagined him staying at Duke long enough to get the record … much less approach 1,000 career wins?
In hindsight, Krzyzewski’s remarkable longevity – combined with his extraordinary success rate – led to 1,000 wins. But there were a few bumps along the road that might have derailed his quest for history:
1984 – After those first three rocky seasons, Krzyzewski was faced with a revolt of some short-sighted boosters who called themselves the “Concerned Iron Dukes.” They went to athletic director Tom Butters and demanded Coach K’s dismissal.
The heat was hottest midway through the 1984 season. Krzyzewski’s young team had started strong, but faltered when ACC play started with four straight losses. At that point, the pressure nearly exploded. Butters responded by giving Coach K a five-year contract extension.
The basketball team proceeded to win seven of its last 10 ACC games, reach the ACC Tournament finals, and earn Coach K his first NCAA Tournament bid. From that point on, he was never in any danger of being fired.
1989 – In the summer of ’89, Krzyzewski was coming off his second straight Final Four appearance and his third in four years. He was the hottest coach in the country.
That’s what attracted the Boston Celtics. New Boston CEO Dave Gavitt – a man Coach K liked and respected – offered the young (42 years old at that point) Duke coach the chance to lead the most storied franchise in the NBA.
Coach K, who admitted that he was intrigued by the idea of coaching the best basketball players on the planet, came very close to accepting Gavitt’s offer. We’ll never know how Coach K would have fared with a fading Boston franchise in the NBA, but it’s obvious that had he taken the offer, he would not be looking at 1,000 career wins today.
1994 – In the spring of 1994, Coach K had to deal with two more NBA offers.
The Duke coach had just led the Devils to the national title game for the seventh time in nine years – a feat only UCLA’s John Wooden has ever matched – and had two national championship rings on his fingers. He was still just 47 years old. That made him a target – first for the Miami Heat and then from the Portland Trail Blazers. NBA Commissioner David Stern even got involved, urging the best coach in college basketball to jump to the NBA.
But after a long Memorial Day holiday weekend of soul searching, K elected to remain at Duke.
1995 – Less than a year after rejecting the NBA again, it looked like Krzyzewski’s career might be over. He underwent back surgery before the 1993-94 season and ignored his doctors’ orders and returned to coaching before completing rehab. As a result, Coach K broke down in early January and had to take a leave of absence from coaching.
He said recently that his 1995 nightmare turned out to be a blessing that prolonged his career.
“I wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t go through 1994-95 because I needed to change,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s recent victory over Wofford. “I was hit hard and then I had amazing support. I’m still changing and I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have that year.”
Krzyzewski returned the next season and resumed his march to 1,000. He still had two national titles, four Final Fours and 10 ACC championships ahead of him.
2004 – By the summer of 2004, Krzyzewski was already a Hall of Fame coach with three national championships and 10 Final Fours. And once again, he became the target of the NBA – receiving a lucrative offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a chance to coach Kobe Bryant – one of the great players in basketball history – in his prime. Again, Krzyzewski spent a long weekend of soul-searching before electing to stay at Duke.
2005 – It turned out that Krzyzewski did get the chance to coach Kobe – and LeBron and Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the NBA’s greatest players when he was named as the head coach of the U.S. National Basketball team. Over the next decade, he would guide the brightest NBA stars to two Olympic Goal Medals and two World Championships.
Many critics – and many Duke fans – wondered how Coach K’s commitment to the national team would impact his primary job at Duke. Chris Collins, who assisted Coach K both at Duke and with the national team, had the answer to that question.
“It has invigorated him,” Collins told ESPN. “Everyone thought it would wear him out. But the reverse occurred. It was a new challenge and to chase world championships and Olympic titles refreshed him. Initially everyone thought that having to coach two jobs would be difficult, but it has allowed him -- as he hits the last part of his career -- to be invigorated.'”
Krzyzewski has added a fourth national title since taking over the national team. He also overtook his mentor Bob Knight as the winningest Division 1 men’s coach on Dec. 1, 2011 when Duke beat Michigan State in Madison Square Garden to give Krzyzewski his record 903rd career win.
And now he’s reached the 1,000 victory milestone.
He wouldn’t have done that if Butters had not been so supportive in 1984 or if K’s back problems hadn’t forced him to change his approach in 1995 or if he had not been energized by the national team job in 2005. Certainly, he would never have approached 1,000 wins if he had yielded to the NBA siren call at any point in his career.
That point is illustrated by current ACC rival Rick Pitino, who has just recently topped 700 wins in his career. But since becoming a head coach in 1976, Pitino has taken three breaks to try his hand at pro basketball. He’s spent eight seasons in the NBA – giving up more than 200 and maybe as many as 250 career wins. Certainly if Pitino had stayed at Kentucky after his back-to-back Final Fours in 1996-97, instead of wasting four seasons in an unsuccessful attempt to revive the Celtics, he might be nipping at Coach K’s win total.
But he didn’t stay and he won’t ever get to 1,000 wins. Neither will Brad Stevens, who took Butler to back-to-back title games, including that memorable classic with Duke in 2010. He was still a long way from 1,000 when he opted for the NBA, but with his age and success rate, he could have been in the running with another quarter century of success.
Is there anybody out there who IS likely to challenge Krzyzewski’s win total?
The closest coach on the win list is K’s good friend, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, who started the season at 948 wins – 35 wins behind the Duke coach. He’ll probably reach 1,000 wins late next season or early in 2016-17. But Boeheim, who is two years older than Krzyzewski, would probably need to coach two years longer than Coach K to claim the career win record.
It’s possible, but not likely.
West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and UNC’s Roy Williams are next on the active list with just under 750 wins each. Both are something like 10 seasons short of 1,000 and at their ages (Huggins is 61, Williams 64), making a run at 1,000 seems unlikely.
Of course, one of those guys may coach into his 80s (as Penn State football coach Joe Paterno did) and overhaul Krzyzewski’s win total. Or some young coach might come from far back – as Krzyzewski did when Dean Smith set the record in 1997.
Kentucky John Calipari is just 56 years old and he could easily average 30 wins a season at Kentucky. But he’s started the season at 556 wins – even at 30 wins a year, he’s something like 15 years short of 1,000. Bill Self of Kansas and Billy Donovan at Florida might have better chances – but neither is close to 600 wins at the moment, so it will be a long time before either makes a serious run at 1,000.
That’s how hard it is to reach that milestone. It represents unbelievable endurance combined with extraordinary success.
A handful of coaches can match one category or the other, but none have been able to put both together like Coach K.