Nov 17, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Mike Krzyzewski is right when he says that his record win total for Division I coaches, 903 and counting, is just a number. Other guys actually played those games, hit those clutch baskets, grabbed those tough rebounds and sank those tense free throws.
Still, someone had to lead them. That someone, a Polish kid from Chicago with a funny name, has evolved into part coaching icon and part lightning rod, the biggest standard and the biggest target in college basketball at the same time.
The accomplishments are staggering, from the wins to the 11 Final Four appearances to the four NCAA titles, done in an era where it’s much harder to do both than when John Wooden was winning 10 in 12 years at UCLA. And all of it was done with barely a hint of scandal, something rarer to find in this poisonous sporting landscape.
Yet Coach K’s story is much larger than even the superfluous superlatives we offer. From his complicated relationship with mentor Bob Knight to the ups and downs (and there were plenty of downs) in his career, Mike has gone through a lot.
The years at West Point – first as a player under the demanding Knight and then as a young, unproven coach provided the discipline part, something he would surely need when Duke, who was doing pretty well in 1980 (it had made the NCAA finals two years earlier) saw Bill Foster leave for South Carolina and tapped the rather unknown Krzyzewski to succeed him.
Three seasons into the Coach K era in Durham, it wasn’t working. Dean Smith had just won a national title (finally) at North Carolina. Jimmy Valvano, the same age as Krzyzewski but on a much different career arc, had just pulled off a miracle at N.C. State.
Duke, meanwhile, had gone 10-17 and 11-17 in those title years for the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. Boosters and fans wanted him out. How AD Tom Butters stayed with Coach K is one of those acts of courage that surely never could happen today.
Once the success began, though, another hurdle loomed. Four times in five years, Duke went to the Final Four and returned without the nets, and boy, did Coach K hear about it, day and night, with a louder (and more national) volume than the early years. The close 1986 final loss to Louisville and the 1990 rout at UNLV’s hands were taunts thrown in Mike’s face. He couldn’t win the big one.
Until he did, of course, on the fifth tryin 1991, with the revenge on the Runnin’ Rebels in that semifinal in Indy and his Blue Devils calming down enough to outlast Kansas for that long-awaited national title. The second followed a year later, and Krzyzewski had gone from disappointment to legend thanks to guys like Laettner, Hurley and Hill.
He nearly lost it all, though. Not heeding the warning of his friend Valvano as he died of cancer at 47, Coach K, obsessed with his job at the expense of everything else, family included, endured his own health scare in 1995. His wife Mickie’s ultimatum – family, or basketball – led to a sabbatical. At the same time, Mike fell out publicly with Bob Knight, two proud and stubborn men refusing to give each other too much credit.
Mike restored his health and re-shaped priorities as grandchildren entered the picture, which gave him the patience to wait until 2001 for total redemption. Not only did Duke win a third NCAA title, Krzyzewski went into the Basketball Hall of Fame – and at Springfield, he asked Knight to induct him, a reconciliation both of them needed.
Through it all, perhaps Mike’s greatest attribute is his loyalty to college basketball. True, he led Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony on a U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Beijing in 2008, but coach K also turned down huge dollars to coach the Celtics and Lakers at different times in his Duke tenure. No doubt, people would think differently of him if he fled to the NBA.
Of course, pro dollars aren’t needed to fuel the twin towers of hatred and jealousy that have risen against Coach K and Duke. They’re on TV too much. They’re praised too much. It can’t be that perfect, and on and on. Some of that might even be true.
It’s the Yankees syndrome, without the gigantic backlog of Yankees championships. So it surprised no one that, in 2010, even with far from his best team, Coach K and Duke were the bad guys in that epochal NCAA final against Butler, a fourth championship claimed by inches when Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot fell off the rim at the buzzer.
Despite all those wins and all those honors, though, what I always admired about Krzyzewski was his humility. When Duke won the 1992 classic over Kentucky, the first thing he did was praise the Wildcats’ remarkable effort. Even at win 903, he did the same thing as always, shaking the hand of every Michigan State coach and player before tending to the festivities.
Recent events have cautioned us not to put too much stock into any coaching legend. For now, though, Mike Krzyzewski maintains his good name, an angel coaching a bunch of (Blue) Devils.