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Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski defined excellence

Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski can't be measured by numbers any more than music can be defined by notes on a page.

With one more victory, Krzyzewski will tie Smith on Division I college basketball's all-time victories list for coaches. With two more, Krzyzewski will move into second place with only his mentor, Bobby Knight, in front of him, soon to be passed as well.

But to view Smith and Krzyzewski by the numbers is like reading sheet music in a quiet room.

You miss the sound, the fury and the feeling. You miss what Smith and Krzyzewski made of their men and their moments. And you miss how they made us feel watching them work the sidelines, believing anything was possible through will, preparation and teamwork.

There was Smith clapping his hands in frustration or peering out at the court from his seat on the bench, head tilted forward like a man looking over reading glasses. And there was Krzyzewski, sometimes raging with his fists at his side, other times wrapping a hug around a sweaty player's neck.

Their gift is inspiration.

They came from different places - Smith from the plains of Kansas and Krzyzewski from the streets of Chicago - but they went to the same place. The top of their world.

They were as different as night and day but as alike as raindrops. They had their own styles - Krzyzewski more confrontational, Smith more calculating. But beneath the images, the heartbeats were the same. They were driven by success, by excellence and by attention to detail.

They made their players better not just by teaching technique but by instilling self-belief.

They are teachers more than coaches, psychologists of the sideline who understood the value of nuance, preparation and devotion.

Over time, they grew more alike. Krzyzewski once told a friend that if he ever began to act like Smith to please shoot him. Years later, Krzyzewski came to better understand Smith's ways and methods. It was different at the top.

I first met Smith on Dec. 30, 1966, when his Tar Heels played Ohio State in the old Charlotte Coliseum. He was just a few years past being burned in effigy, his North Carolina kingdom still being constructed, but Smith was on his way.

When he shook my 10-year old hand, it felt like a vice closing around my fingers. Whether he meant to or not, Smith's handshake conveyed power.

He had a remarkable eye for detail and an almost magical recall of names. Smith could meet a person once, not see them for two years, and remember their names when their paths next crossed, often asking about their family, calling them by name, too.

Smith was a master manipulator. We once debated whether a 16-point North Carolina loss qualified as a blowout as I'd termed it in print. A blowout, Smith said, had to be at least 20 points. Always playing the angles.

During one of North Carolina's famous comebacks to win a game that seemed certainly lost, he told his team in a timeout huddle to think about how much fun the celebration would be when they won. They were in what seemed an impossibly deep hole late in the game, but Smith was right, the celebration was special.

Smith is as important to North Carolina history as the Wright Brothers and Andy Griffith, having given the state a presence on the national sports stage.

Krzyzewski's arrival and emergence pushed Smith and ultimately made him better. Krzyzewski was the one ACC coach who never surrendered, who counterpunched and built his program into an empire to match Smith's eight miles away.

I was there the night Duke athletic director Tom Butters gathered the media on campus and announced Krzyzewski as the new basketball coach. Three thoughts crossed almost every mind that night: How do you pronounce it, how do you spell it and who is this guy?

Like Smith two decades earlier, Krzyzewski almost didn't make it. Long before he won four national championships, Olympic gold and commanded rich speaking fees, he was a coach trying to survive.

On some Mondays, local writers would meet Krzyzewski at the Duke golf clubhouse for a pizza lunch. Now, business leaders pay thousands for a few hours of his time.

Both Smith and Krzyzewski have been protective of their privacy. Smith used to hide in tunnels to sneak a final smoke before tip-offs, and his personal life was off limits. He loves good food and golf, playing the maddening game with the same dogged competitiveness he showed on the sideline.

When he felt compelled, Smith would use his pulpit to promote social issues, but he did most of his work quietly, helping to cultivate civil rights and doing small things that felt large to the people he privately helped.

Krzyzewski has chosen his own causes, including a family life center named after his mother, Emily, designed to help people help themselves escape poverty.

The tough West Point graduate is surrounded by women at home and when he talks about them, his softness shows through. A decade ago, I talked to Krzyzewski about rebuilding himself after his time away from the sideline and it led into a conversation about his daughter Debbie's wedding.

The coach stretched out on a couch in a meeting room and got misty-eyed talking about his girls. The night before his daughter Debbie's wedding, he gave her a diamond necklace and a note that read, "I've got your back. Love, your Daddy."

He held her hand on the way to the church and until it was time to give his oldest daughter away, telling her, "You're as beautiful today as your mother was the day I married her."

At the ACC tournament the day the story ran, Krzyzewski walked past me and said, "You made me cry."

A couple of years ago when I asked Krzyzewski if he had a few minutes to talk about Smith, who was fighting health issues, he willingly agreed, saying "I know Coach isn't doing well."

It struck me that Krzyzewski called him Coach, not Dean. It was a compliment.

Krzyzewski talked about what Smith meant to him and to the game they coach, explaining how he had come to appreciate and admire the man he had openly challenged years earlier.

Theirs has been a rare relationship, often as fiery as the rivalry they embody. They have shaped the places they work and the people they've touched. They raised the game and each other.

Like no one else.