It was June, and Mike Krzyzewski was sitting in a hidden room just a few feet from the court in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The conversation was winding down, and he was talking about something that he swore he would never do 10 years ago.
“Actually Sunday, I broke my own record by a long shot of texting because it was Father’s Day,” he said.
There was his family, of course. Every current player got a text or call. Every recruit got a text, including a new batch of rising juniors. And then there were the texts from all the former players, too.
“The good thing is you can dictate,” Krzyzewski said about his phone. “That helps me immensely. I’ve got to do that more, because that’s how kids communicate. You can call a kid, and he won’t answer, and you text a kid” – Krzyzewski snaps – “and he answers right away. So you text him and say, ‘Can I call you?’
“We’ve got to be careful that you develop relationships strong enough, that are more than texts. But you have to do what you have to do.”
Jeff Capel, who played under Krzyzewski from 1993-97 and is now his assistant coach, remembers a big dinner with former players when texting became popular.
“And I remember him saying that I’m never going to text, I’m never going to do this stuff, whatever,” Capel said. “And now he’s doing it. But that’s him realizing that I have to adapt. I have to be up to it. This is the way these kids communicate. And if I don’t, I’m going to be left behind. That’s the thing, he doesn’t want to be left behind.”
Krzyzewski’s reversal on texting highlights the main quality many former players pointed to as a key factor in his longtime success: His ability to adapt. Krzyzewski’s methods have changed since he arrived at Duke in 1980 as the times have changed. As Krzyzewski has aged – he’s 67 now – and the players’ ages have stayed the same, he hasn’t lost his ability to communicate with them, to reach and inspire them.
Krzyzewski doesn’t live in the past – unlike some coaches, he can’t recall details in nondescript games from years ago – and that allows him to be entirely devoted to the present. This year, for example, he is only wearing his West Point college ring and his wedding band, leaving his four NCAA championship rings at home “because all the others are in the past,” he said.
Staying in the moment prevents Krzyzewski from relaxing and becoming content with his legacy, allowing that to cover any current flaws. As assistant coach Nate James put it: “That’s why he always tells the guys, look, it’s not about me winning my next. It’s about you guys winning your first.”
“It’s funny, when he recruited me in the late ’80s, one of the things that was contagious about him, and you could really feel it in our conversations and the meetings I had at Duke, was just how hungry he was,” Grant Hill said. “The program had taken great strides, gotten to the Final Four and then come up short. He was just so hungry. You could feel it. You could sense it.
“That hunger is still there. Watching him in action, I can see it watching him talk to me and others about his current team and what he wants to accomplish, it’s still there, that fire. It hasn’t changed. And that fire may even be stronger now. All the years that have passed, and all the successes, he is still driven, very much so.”
K’s secret: Instilling confidence
Last summer, Krzyzewski was holding court at his annual fantasy basketball camp, which doubles as a reunion for former players. During a presentation about USA Basketball, Jay Bilas turned to his former college roommate, Mark Alarie.
“I’m taking all these notes and I leaned over and I said, ‘Was he this profound when we played for him? Were we just too dumb to realize it?’” Bilas said. “The funny part is he was great when we played for him, and that’s why we went to play for him. We knew he was great. But it’s hard to fathom how good he is now, and how much better.”
Bilas and Alarie were part of Krzyzewski’s 1982 recruiting class, the one ranked No. 1 in the country that served as the foundation for the program’s future success. But Krzyzewski’s way of communicating connected in Durham before their arrival.
“We sat with him, and his first meeting with us was beautiful because he talked to us like we were men,” said Gene Banks, a senior on Krzyzewski’s first team in 1980-81. “We didn’t have to test him or anything like that. We kind of put ourselves in check, knowing that, OK, we can’t try him like that, even though we could have tried him. We opted not to because of the way he came at us and spoke to us like we were men.”
Banks remembered Krzyzewski telling him that yes, there was a lot of work to do, but the Blue Devils would be OK. That reassurance resonated with Banks – he became the first of many Blue Devils to take comfort in the fact that Krzyzewski believed in him.
Twelve years later, Bobby Hurley became another.
With UNLV up by five in the 1991 Final Four game with two minutes to play, Hurley hit a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game. Duke won, of course, 79-77 and beat Kansas in the final to give Krzyzewski his first title. In 2011, Krzyzewski called Hurley’s shot the biggest he has seen a Duke player make.
“I’m just glad I felt I had the confidence to shoot the shot,” Hurley said. “That doesn’t happen because you believe in yourself all alone. You have to feel like your teammates and your coaches have your back.
“I appreciated Coach’s ability to really relate to his players. You don’t get guys to really play hard and run through walls for you unless you’re doing everything in your power to make their college experience the best possible thing.”
Players pass torch, continue legacy
Because of what Hill, Hurley and Christian Laettner accomplished, winning consecutive NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992, Krzyzewski and Duke basketball morphed into a national brand.
And that attracted the attention of an elite young player from Detroit.
“After I saw Grant Hill play against Arkansas in the 1994 championship – that was when I knew I wanted to go to Duke,” said Shane Battier, who arrived in 1997 and led the Blue Devils to the 2001 title.
That 2001 championship introduced the Blue Devils to another generation of young players, including one across the country in Oregon.
“I actually knew a lot about Duke basketball, but I didn’t know where it was. I remember I looked it up,” Kyle Singler said. “When Coach was recruiting me, he left such an impression on me that it didn’t really matter where Duke was, it was probably the school that I was going to.”
Once Singler arrived in Durham, he helped lead the program to its fourth national title in 2010 and finished his career ranked fourth on Duke’s all-time scoring chart.
“What I’ve always taken away from Coach since Day 1 is just his energy that he brings to the team,” Singler said. “You never feel that Coach will shortchange you or won’t be prepared for the game that we have coming up.”
Over the years, that energy has taken on several forms. As recently as a few weeks ago, Krzyzewski, a former point guard under Bob Knight at Army, dropped to his knees to slap the floor as his team went on defense against Toledo. At halftime of a game from the Singler and Jon Scheyer era, Krzyzewski had a manager roll a ball on the locker room floor before diving after it, showing his players the effort he wanted on the court. That move – diving for balls – was more common when he was about 25 years younger, on the court with Hurley.
Nate James referred to the more old-school Krzyzewski style as “bringing the thunder” – something that happens less often now than when he played in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“He has mellowed because of the culture of the players he has,” current assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “That is where he has grown. You can’t coach these guys the same as he coached Bobby Hurley and those guys. To his credit, he has done an unbelievable job of relating and connecting.”
But Hill still remembers the thunder.
“We lost at UVa, we got embarrassed, and it was our first ACC game my freshman year,” Hill said of the 81-64 loss in 1991. “And we got off the bus, and we had a practice. It was the worst practice I’ve ever been associated with at Duke in the sense that it was the hardest. And I broke my nose in that practice. And I remember that. At the time, it was maybe not a fun thing, but it was certainly a lesson.”
The learning never ends
While Krzyzewski’s methods of delivering his message may have softened, he hasn’t budged on his standard of excellence. The means to the end, on and off the court, are constantly under evaluation, from learning how to text to even embracing a zone defense against Louisville to pick up win No. 998.
And that’s what Krzyzewski would prefer to focus on: Duke’s current challenges. Going back to June, he already was focused on this season and all that would await him with such a young team.
“It’s hard for me to even fathom the success we’ve had. And that’s why I don’t like to think about it. Because let’s go to the next thing,” he said with a laugh.
Six months later, he was in the same mindset.
“It’s trying to get into the moment of the kids that you have an opportunity to coach right now,” Krzyzewski said. “Instead of them being in your moment, you’re going to win 1,000 games, or if we won the NCAA championship, it would be our fifth – forget it. These kids, it’s about them and being in their moment. Our moment will come.”