Krzyzewski survived a slow start as Duke basketball coach

Mike Krzyzewski talks with reporters after being introduced as Duke University’s new basketball coach in March 1980.
Mike Krzyzewski talks with reporters after being introduced as Duke University’s new basketball coach in March 1980. News & Observer file photo

When 33-year-old Mike Krzyzewski arrived in Durham in the spring of 1980, he didn’t have grand visions of four national championships, 11 Final Fours and 999 career wins.

“I don’t know how young coaches do it today, but for me, I was just completely in the moment,” Krzyzewski said while reflecting last June. “Even what our team might be eventually – it was survival mode. I got that from being at Army and inheriting a group that was 7-44 before I got them. And here, they were going through a huge change. I think that’s why I got the job.”

Now, 35 years later, Krzyzewski has achieved more than anyone could have initially dreamed. Already the all-time wins leader in men’s Division I basketball, Krzyzewski will attempt to make history (again) Sunday: a win against St. John’s in the world’s most famous arena – Madison Square Garden – would give him 1,000 for his career. Such staying power is rare in college sports – Kentucky, for example, has had six coaches since Krzyzewski arrived. ACC programs have churned through 66 coaches in that span.

But back in 1984, entering his fourth season, Krzyzewski was just trying to get win No. 39 at Duke (against 47 losses). As the story goes, there was a faction of Duke boosters that wanted the young coach fired. Then-athletic director Tom Butters, though, chose to be patient.

“He and I had lunch a couple of times, and that was when Duke was trying to get rid of him. It was vicious. It was vicious, vicious, vicious,” said Gene Banks, who was a senior on Krzyzewski’s first team. “Some of it was inhumane. The Iron Dukes and the not-so Iron Dukes were trying to get him out of there. His biggest thing was they just had to believe in him and follow the plan. ‘We’re going to be OK,’ he said, ‘we’re going to be OK.’ ”

In 1982, Krzyzewski had signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, bringing in McDonald’s All-American Johnny Dawkins, and Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie and David Henderson. The four freshmen started for the 1982-83 team, Krzyzewski’s third – but they finished a disappointing 11-17 with a 3-11 mark in ACC play.

It was a league dominated by veteran players like Ralph Sampson and Michael Jordan, both unanimous all-ACC selections that year. And on the heels of North Carolina’s 1982 national championship, N.C. State won it all in 1983.

“You start four freshmen – it doesn’t seem crazy now, but even today few teams now start four freshmen in the one-and-done era,” Bilas said. “We were the No. 1 recruiting class and all that stuff. I think people thought it was going to be easy, but it certainly wasn’t.”

Krzyzewski didn’t let his uncertain job status permeate the program. It wasn’t something players could feel in the locker room or in the huddle. But as soon as they left the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, they were reminded of the public perception.

“Back then, there was no Internet, but the newspapers, there was a rag back then called the Poop Sheet. That had his picture on it and opined whether he would make it and things like that it,” Bilas said. “We were aware of it, but he never let it get to us, and we never felt it from him.”

Bilas even recalled a time when Krzyzewski took him and Alarie to a luncheon at Durham’s Croasdaile Country Club. During the question-and-answer session, someone stood up and asked the two players if they thought the team should be playing more zone defense.

“He and I kind of thought, what kind of question is that, you realize our coach is standing right here, right? Why would you ask that?” Bilas said. “It’s funny, I’m 51 years old now, and I still remember all of the people that claimed to be on the bandwagon back then that weren’t. I don’t have a problem with it. You welcome everybody on when they jump on. They jumped on pretty quick when we got good. Welcome aboard.”

During Krzyzewski’s fourth year in 1983-84, Duke started 14-1, winning its ACC opener at Virginia. Losses to No. 5 Maryland, No. 12 Wake Forest and No. 1 North Carolina followed, though.

The Blue Devils led the Tar Heels 67-64, late in the second half in Cameron, when the scorer’s table failed to sound the horn to allow a UNC sub to enter the game. Dean Smith angrily banged the table, hitting a button that inadvertently credited UNC with 20 extra points on the scoreboard. Smith was sent back to his bench without a technical foul. Later in the game, Krzyzewski was the one tagged with a technical foul. The Tar Heels went on to pull out a 78-73 comeback win.

Now on a three-game losing streak, with plenty of boosters still wanting his removal, Krzyzewski fought back.

“I want to tell you something,” an angry Krzyzewski said afterward. “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?”

Standing up to Smith and fighting for his team was a turning point in the rivalry and his career. Three days later – with a 52-51 career record at Duke – Butters awarded Krzyzewski a five-year contract extension.

Four national championships, 11 Final Fours and 999 wins justified that decision. The results can be seen hanging from the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Krzyzewski finished that fourth year 24-10, earning his first NCAA tournament berth (complete with a flight into Moscow, Idaho, accommodations in an off-brand motel and a game in Pullman, Wash.). Before leaving as the highest scoring class ever at Duke (7,324 points), the 1982 quartet took Krzyzewski to his first Final Four in 1986. That was the first in a streak of seven Final Four appearances over the next nine years.

“I always tell people, I would never trade my spot in Duke history for anyone else’s, because we were there when the program under Coach K was starting to really take off,” Johnny Dawkins said. “You look at guys that have come after us – if I had to do it over, I would do it the exact same way. I would choose the exact same spot I chose then. It was a leap of faith in that person and in that program.”

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