Mike Krzyzewski’s office sits high above and adjacent to Cameron Indoor Stadium in a building overlooking the patch of grass that becomes Krzyzewskiville, home to around 100 tents that pop up every year in anticipation of the Duke-North Carolina basketball game.
Inside his office, there is a picture of him sitting next to Dean Smith, the man who built UNC into, to use Krzyzewski’s words, one of the best programs in the United States. The two were honored together in 2011, receiving the Naismith Good Sportsmanship Awards for their contributions to the game.
“I felt it was like two generals now at peace, being able to sit there,” Krzyzewski said of that moment. “I felt his respect for me, and I hope he felt my respect for him. That was a really important moment for me. Really, the fact of observing him, studying him and competing against him for so many years, that had a big impact on me becoming better, because he is as good as there has been.”
When Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1980, Smith had established North Carolina as one of the national powerhouses. The Blue Devils were able to beat the Tar Heels in Cameron in Krzyzewski’s first year, 66-65 in overtime, despite Sam Perkins shooting 9-of-11 from the floor for 24 points (Gene Banks had 25 for Duke, and the shot to send it into overtime). But Krzyzewski would lose six of his first seven games against Smith and the Tar Heels, going 38-47 in his first three seasons.
“What people don’t remember sometimes is that we played for the national championship in ’78,” said Johnny Moore, Duke’s longtime assistant sports information director who has been at the school since 1977 and picked up Krzyzewski when he arrived at the airport. “In 1980, we were four points away from going to the Final Four. We lost to Purdue in the regional finals. And then we hired Mike.
“His first year was good, we went to the quarterfinals of the NIT, which was big back then because there were only 32 teams in the NCAA. And then the next two years were horrendous. We lost to Wagner at home. We were awful. And then ’84 was the year we had to have, and he had it.”
Young K and the ‘double standard’
The way Krzyzewski tells it, Duke should have beaten UNC three times that year. The first meeting was at Cameron, and Duke was leading 67-64 late in the second half. Smith sent a substitute to the scorer’s table to enter the game at the next stoppage of play. But play resumed without the scorer sounding the horn to let the player enter the game. Smith, angry, went and banged the table, trying to set off the horn. Instead, he hit a button that credited UNC with 20 points on the scoreboard. Smith was sent back to the bench but not given a technical.
Krzyzewski was given a technical later in the game, which UNC came back to win 78-73. Afterward, Krzyzewski was furious.
“There was not a person on our bench who was pointing a finger at the officials or banging on a scorer’s table,” he said then. “You cannot allow people to go around pointing at officials and yelling at them without technicals being called. This is just not allowed. So let’s get some things straight here and quit the double standard that exists in this league, all right?”
Three days later, Krzyzewski was awarded a five-year contract extension.
“I started out here, I was fighting for everything,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not going to go back on anything that I said. However, I’m not sure that at another point in my career I would have said it.
“Probably because you mature as a coach, you have more capacity to respect. Initially, there’s no capacity to respect. You’re just trying to survive.”
He learned from Smith, too
Later that season in Chapel Hill, the Blue Devils had the Tar Heels beat in Carmichael Auditorium – until Dan Meagher missed the front end of a one-and-one and Matt Doherty streaked down to the other side of the court and hit a shot to send the game into overtime. No. 1 UNC won 96-83 in double overtime, capping an undefeated ACC regular season.
One week later, Duke played UNC for the third time, this meeting in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. This time, the Blue Devils won 77-75, with Jay Bilas holding Sam Perkins to nine points.
“That was really a watermark win for Mike,” said Moore, who still will refer to Krzyzewski as Captain, his original nickname from the Duke staffers. “He beat arguably the greatest coach in basketball. It was more of a measuring point with Mike than with Dean, to see where you were, because he was a younger coach and Dean was very established as the Olympic coach and everything else.
“It’s a lot like what’s happening now with younger coaches against Mike. It’s the same thing to watch, when other coaches look at it as a measuring point, how they do against Mike Krzyzewski.”
As Krzyzewski has established himself and the Duke program as one of the best in the game, his appreciation for his old rival has grown.
“After being here for a long time I knew him better than probably anybody, as far as a competitor,” he said. “Because we started to have our program get to that level, and I realized that some of the things I didn’t understand about him, now I understood. We became, actually, very good friends. I love Dean. He’s remarkable. Truly remarkable.”
There is one final lesson from Smith that Krzyzewski has left to apply.
“He stepped down and his program was still right there. So, I would hope whenever I do that, we leave our program in the same way,’ Krzyzewski said. “I admire that. We all have decisions to make when you do it, but how he left it, to me, is how you do it. In the military, we’re always succession oriented. You want to leave it in good shape because it’s never yours completely. But when it is yours, you should own it. And he owned it.
“And I think of him a lot, because I’m in the latter stages of my career, that that’s something I want to do.”