Dave Hanners thought it was strange when Mike Krzyzewski asked to talk to him in 2001.
An assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, Hanners had played and coached for Dean Smith, who had retired at North Carolina four years earlier.
Krzyzewski, Smith's longtime rival, was in Philadelphia with Duke for an NCAA tournament regional and sent for Hanners.
"He wanted to tell me how much he appreciated the tradition and everything Coach Smith created [because] it made him better," said Hanners, now a Charlotte Bobcats assistant. "It was almost like he was saying [Smith] was my role model. He wasn't really saying that, but that was kind of what he meant. He said, 'You guys were always so great to coach against, and I miss that now.' "
Over the next two weeks, Krzyzewski's legacy will intersect with that of Smith, who won two NCAA titles and 13 ACC tournaments and coached the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours in 36 seasons.
Retiring as No. 1
Smith, who is 79, retired in 1997 with 879 career wins, the highest victory total in Division I history at the time. It's still the highest total for a coach who has worked in the ACC, and only Bob Knight (902) has more among Division I coaches.
Krzyzewski, 63, will equal Smith's win total if No. 1-ranked Duke (10-0) defeats Elon (4-6) on Monday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Career win No. 880 for Krzyzewski could come as quickly as Dec. 29, against winless UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Knight also could see Krzyzewski surpass his win total before the season ends. Knight had a profound effect on Krzyzewski, who played point guard for Knight at Army long before either of them could have imagined their combined win total would approach a staggering 1,800 games.
But Smith, too, influenced Krzyzewski. He saw how Smith developed friendships that were the core of his program and then integrated them into an outstanding university.
"He did something that hardly anybody has done," Krzyzewski said Wednesday. "And to have that right here, you can't do it exactly like him, but you try to build your own program, knowing that it's not just coaching basketball."
Krzyzewski has had his own lasting impact on his school and basketball, with four NCAA titles, 11 trips to the Final Four and 12 ACC tournament titles. But when he left Army to coach at Duke in 1980, the standard for college basketball excellence had been established by the iconic coach eight miles down the road.
Krzyzewski watched Smith and learned as he built his own powerhouse program.
"When you compete against him, you study him," Krzyzewski said. "You study, like, how do you have a chance to maybe beat his team? You've got to get better. You get better from going against the best. And what he built at North Carolina is something that will last forever."
In a powerful basketball conference, Smith faced plenty of coaches who were eager to knock him and North Carolina off their perch.
Lefty Driesell took Maryland to six NCAA tournaments in his last seven seasons but saw his tenure there end abruptly in scandal after the death of Len Bias in 1986. Terry Holland coached three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson and took Virginia to two Final Fours but went on to a career in college athletics administration.
Krzyzewski, the late Jim Valvano of N.C. State and Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech were slick-talking young challengers who became close friends as they pursued Smith.
Valvano coached underdog N.C. State on an unforgettable run to the 1983 NCAA title but saw his career end in 1990 as his program was hit with NCAA sanctions. Cremins took Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four but didn't have the staying power that Smith possessed.
"Coach Smith's teams set a high standard for all of us hotshot young guns who, one by one, challenged UNC's ACC supremacy," Holland said in an e-mail. "Only Coach K was able to hang with Carolina long term and eventually began to set the ACC standard himself."
There had been great coaches in the ACC before Smith established North Carolina as a premier national power. Everett Case, Frank McGuire, Norm Sloan and others helped ingrain college basketball into the very culture of the ACC region.
But Cremins said Smith raised North Carolina and the ACC to a new level of excellence and forced everybody in the conference to try to reach that level.
"Dean became bigger than anyone prior to him and everyone after him up until now, up until a guy named Mike," Cremins said. "... Dean made Mike Krzyzewski a better recruiter and a better coach. He knew he would have to go out and get the [Bobby] Hurleys and the Grant Hills, all the players that would have ordinarily gone to North Carolina."
A second dynasty
As a junior at St. Anthony High, Hurley witnessed the reverence Smith inspired even outside North Carolina.
When Smith walked into the gym in Jersey City to see Hurley play, fans quieted and watched Smith in awe. Hurley was impressed with Smith, North Carolina and the success the Tar Heels had with great players such as Michael Jordan.
But Hurley accepted the scholarship offer of a younger, less established coach. He said he was sold on the freedom Krzyzewski gave him to make plays and be creative as a point guard.
Krzyzewski struggled early in his career at Duke while Smith thrived. A year after Smith, Jordan and North Carolina won the 1982 NCAA title, Krzyzewski was 38-47 following his first three seasons with the Blue Devils. But Johnny Dawkins and a freshman class that would lead Duke to Krzyzewski's first Final Four in 1986 were already on campus.
In the late 1980s, Krzyzewski signed Hurley, Hill and Christian Laettner, who would help the coach win back-to-back NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992 and build a dynasty of his own in Smith's backyard.
"I know Coach had a lot of respect for Coach Smith," said Hurley, who's now an assistant coach at Wagner College. "You could tell in the terms of how he prepared for Carolina. ... It was just amped up. You could see how much fire he had to play against Carolina."
That fire sometimes boiled over into controversy. Krzyzewski and Smith got into a shouting match in a hotly contested 1989 ACC tournament final won by the Tar Heels in Atlanta 77-74.
After a 1984 game that included a technical foul for Krzyzewski but none for Smith, who attempted to sound the horn at the scorer's table himself, Krzyzewski decried what he perceived as a double standard in officiating.
According to John Feinstein's book, "A March to Madness," Krzyzewski told his assistants during a 1997 game that if he ever acts like Smith, "just shoot me."
Krzyzewski doesn't regret the double-standard comment. He said Wednesday that some steps needed to be taken to "balance the scales," and that he was a young coach fighting for his program.
He calls the "just shoot me" quote, however, "hearsay."
"There are a lot of things said when coaches are talking, whether they be frivolous things, truthful things or things that you're goofing around about, that if we wanted a writer there, we probably wouldn't do the things we do," Krzyzewski said. "That's all hearsay."
But considering the intensity of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry and the passion of both coaches, their disagreements over the years are seen as fairly benign.
Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst who played and coached for Krzyzewski, said the coaches remained respectful of each other.
"I know Coach K rubbed them the wrong way, and that Dean Smith rubbed our people the wrong way," Bilas said. "I'm sure part of it was on purpose. There's nothing wrong with tweaking your rival here or there. That's OK."
Hurley, Laettner and Hill helped Krzyzewski and Duke rival the accomplishments of Smith and North Carolina. Smith was 24-14 against Krzyzewski but was just 16-13 in their personal meetings after winning eight of the first nine.
After Krzyzewski and Duke posted their back-to-back NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992, Smith and North Carolina countered with a national championship of their own in 1993.
Toward the end of Smith's career, Feinstein asked Smith if Krzyzewski's success had made Smith better.
"He just looked at me, and he said, 'He makes me make the extra phone call,' which I thought was a great line," Feinstein said.
Those who know Smith and Krzyzewski say they are different in many ways.
Cremins said Krzyzewski is more inclined to change his offense and defense to suit his personnel, while Smith was more rigid with his system.
Smith has supported liberal political causes while Krzyzewski is known for leaning toward conservative ideals.
But what's striking about them after each has coached for more than 30 years is how similar they are. Both coaches are extremely close to their current and former players. They both surrounded themselves with staff members from inside the "family" at their respective schools.
On the court, each coach demanded the same fundamental principles of teamwork and defense, even if Smith played more zone defense and Krzyzewski has been devoted to man-to-man.
"They were both so disciplined, so organized, so focused on getting their teams to accomplish something - and they are both so focused on the individual, away from the court," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who coached under Smith from 1978 to 1988. "They both care about the kids. It wasn't just a factory."
Smith and Krzyzewski also have made huge contributions to basketball beyond their respective schools.
Krzyzewski has helped the United States return to international prominence in basketball. His team building techniques have molded professional all-stars into cohesive units that won gold medals in the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 world championships.
Smith's innovations can still be seen on the court. Players huddle before free throws. Scorers point to passers to thank them for assists. These are concepts Smith is credited with introducing to basketball.
"He is very intelligent, very smart," said Bill Guthridge, who coached under Smith for 30 years and succeeded him as head coach. "I don't know how he came up with some of those things, other than he was smart and constantly thinking of things he could do differently that would help us win."
That's what makes the current turn of events for Smith so difficult for his friends and colleagues.
Last week, Smith made a rare public appearance alongside Michael Jordan at a Charlotte Bobcats game as Jordan was welcomed into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Smith still enjoys an active lifestyle and treasures his relationships, but his family revealed in July that he is facing a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.
To have such a brilliant man slowly lose the sharpness that made him special saddens those around him. Guthridge said Smith will understand when he's told about Krzyzewski approaching his record but probably won't remember.
North Carolina sports information director Steve Kirschner plans to release a statement from Smith's family after Krzyzewski gets his 880th win. Guthridge, who sat at Smith's side for so many years, said Smith respects Krzyzewski.
"I think both these coaches had high respect for each other," Guthridge said, "and I think their battling back and forth really put the Duke-Carolina game on the top shelf."
As Krzyzewski approaches the 879th win that will briefly unite his legacy with Smith's, he says some fans won't believe him when he says how much he appreciates and admires Smith.
But the important thing for Krzyzewski is that Smith knows how he feels. Krzyzewski appreciates Smith and his impact on basketball, the ACC, their small corner of the world, and on Krzyzewski himself.
"He does know it," Krzyzewski said. "He does know that, because we've developed that kind of friendship. I'm going to say what I believe. So what I've said to you, is really saying to him."
Staff writers Ron Green Jr. and Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.
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