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.