Krzyzewski proved to be the right hire for Duke

New Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski waits to speak at a press conference announcing his hiring March 18, 1980.
New Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski waits to speak at a press conference announcing his hiring March 18, 1980. 1980 News & Observer archive photo

The voice on the phone quickly changed from cordial to cold.

“Duke is going to hire Mike Krzyzewski? Are you kidding me? Mike Krzyzewski of Army?”

Not that the coach on the phone said the name the proper way, the way we all would learn, with a shushing sound. He said “Kra-CHEW-ski” that March day in 1980.

Duke was looking to hire a basketball coach and calls were being made to tap into the coaching grapevine in the days when social media meant reporters sharing a few beverages after games. The coach on the phone was discussing potential candidates when word was passed in the N&O sports department that Duke athletic director Tom Butters would hire this relative unknown from Army.

“Well, Bobby Knight got him that job,” said the coach on the phone, later to be an ACC coach.

As the years passed, Krzyzewski proved Butters right and everyone else, at least the doubters, wrong. When Duke beat St. John’s on Sunday in New York, the winningest men’s coach in Division I basketball history earned his 1,000th career victory.

A couple of years ago, Krzyzewski was asked a question that in 1980 would have been unimaginable: How do you get your arms around this “winningest-coach” tag?

“I don’t, because I don’t like to put my arms around any one win, yet alone a collection of wins,” he said. “Because if you do, how can you grab for more? I want to keep grabbing for more.”

Krzyzewski keeps grabbing. His Blue Devils this season are ranked fifth nationally, with a 17-2 record and there will be more wins to follow.

“As a coach you’re riding the coattails of a lot of people,” Krzyzewski once said. “Which is fine. I’ve had some really good guys with nice coattails.”

The coattails weren’t very long in December 1981. There was a game in Virginia’s University Hall, watching Duke play Krzyzewski’s man-to-man defense against the Cavaliers with Tommy Emma and Chip Engelland shooting jumpers and the Blue Devils trying to match up inside against the Cavaliers’ Ralph Sampson when those words again came to mind: Are you kidding me?

Enter ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Then came this slender guard from Washington, D.C. There was a game at Duke early the next season in which freshman Johnny Dawkins was hitting jumpers and Duke playing better defense and this reporter somehow slipped “Johnny B. Goode” into the game story and somehow made it work. Because it fit. Dawkins was good.

Dawkins, along with Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas, made up the recruiting class, Krzyzewski said, that was the foundation, the bedrock of the program.

This Mike Krzyzewski from Army, the guy Bobby Knight “got the job,” took Duke to the Final Four and NCAA championship game in 1986. And a few Final Fours later, Krzyzewski had a team with Bobby Hurley handling the ball, Christian Laettner under the basket and a freshman, Grant Hill, added to the cast.

Being a Duke beat writer in the 1990-1991 season offered a chance to see a coach, his players and his program reach the championship level, to attain excellence – one of Krzyzewski’s favorite words.

There were nice wins and some tough losses and a night in January 1991 when the Blue Devils were to play at The Citadel and America went to war in the Persian Gulf. An announcement was made before the game in McAlister Field House and 1,400 cadets wildly cheered, the gym rocking and flag-waving scene both patriotic and surreal.

It was an emotional night for Krzyzewski, West Point, Class of 1969. He said after the game he supported the decision to play while adding, “What we did here tonight is so insignificant. I know that.”

The Blue Devils would lose by 22 to North Carolina in the ’91 ACC tournament championship game, but Krzyzewski said something after it that resonates as much today as it did then: “Sometimes we have to get smacked to remember how we got to be good.”

And then Duke won its first NCAA title. The Blue Devils beat “unbeatable” Nevada Las Vegas in the semifinals of the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis as Hurley hit the shot of his life, then beat Kansas in the championship game.

Saw himself in Hurley

Krzyzewki loved Hurley, then and now. He loved his spunk, his zeal for the game, his competitiveness. Of all his players, he saw something of himself in the kid from Jersey City.

“My will to win matched Coach’s and made us a good fit,” Hurley said a few years ago.

Krzyzewski pushed him. When he saw Hurley’s pouty faces during games, he put together a tape of all his sour expressions. He told him. “When someone sees you look that way they see weakness, and you’re too good to show weakness.”

In the 1990 NCAA title game, Nevada-Las Vegas, coached by Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, destroyed Duke. Hurley later said he had dreams about being in a swimming pool and being chased by a shark.

The dream went away. In Indy a year later, with Duke trailing the unbeaten Runnin’ Rebels by five points and time running short, with someone needing to do something, hit something, Hurley hit a 3-point shot that Krzyzewski, 30 years later, said was the biggest of his coaching career.

“Not to take away from Christian, because Christian I think is one of the top three or four players to ever play in college through accomplishment,” he said. “But Bobby’s shot, especially because of who it was against and the circumstances. In fantasizing who I might be, I’d want to be him making that shot with all the circumstances.”

Becoming the hunted

Duke won the championship again in 1992, when Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils “immediately became the hunted and we have been the hunted ever since.”

There were two more NCAA titles and Olympic gold medals, and tributes and entries into halls of fames. One is the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, where he later returned to be the keynote speaker, he said, because of the fellowship and especially the food.

“Three hundred people belching? It’s unbelievable,” he joked.

Krzyzewski is both proud and good-natured about his Polish heritage. Once told how high his team was ranked in the national polls, he wryly remarked, “The only Pole that matters is me.”

There have been challenges. His friendship with his college coach from Army, Bob Knight, was badly strained although later repaired. Krzyzewski dealt with the back surgery and exhaustion and the coming to grips with the demands of being a championship coach and national figure.

He was mindful that Jim Valvano once had it all at N.C. State – a national title, national celebrity, a loving wife and daughters. Then cancer took his life, at 47.

Krzyzewski and Valvano were always competitors, a lot of folks at Duke chafing at how Valvano seemed to be able to beat Coach K, but the two became close before Valvano’s death in 1993.

Krzyzewski will be 68 next month. He’s a grandfather. Johnny Dawkins, the coach at Stanford, is 51. But the ’91 championship was his first. It was special, another of Krzyzewski’s favorite words.

A few weeks after lifting the trophy in Indy, Krzyzewski sat in his office at Duke, reading letters of congratulations, tearing up as a couple of reporters tried to keep from doing the same.

‘Columbos forever’

Back in his Polish neighborhood, growing up in Chicago, they called themselves “The Columbos” – Twams, Porky, Cheeks, Moe. They were kids then who became lifelong friends and they wanted to let “Mickey” know how much the championship meant to them, how proud they were.

Krzyzewski reflected on how the Columbos like to wrestle and mimic their favorite pro wrestlers – Mickey at times would be Killer Kowalski. They even had championship belts.

The letter from Larry “Twams” Kusch read: “You probably don’t know what your notoriety has meant to the people back home, to the Columbos. Your exploits have served as a focal point to which we all are drawn. It’s a chance to put our nose-to-the-butt lives on hold and to rekindle old friendships while rooting for Mickey

“So with six seconds left before your first national championship, I turned toward the rest of our group and realized the tears of joy in (their) eyes were mirroring my own. What’s clear is that after all these years, even though we have gone in different directions, we’re all still pulling for one another.”

Krzyzewski grinned as he came to the end of the letter.

“It’s signed, ‘Columbos forever,’” he said. “And there’s a P.S.: ‘Porky wants to set a cage match – your trophy against our belts.”

Krzyzewski paused for a few seconds, looking at the letter in his hands.

“Friendships are the best,” he said.

As for the coach on the phone that March day in 1980, the one who couldn’t believe Duke was hiring Mike Krzyzewski of Army, he has nothing but admiration for the man and his achievements, on winning 1,000 basketball games.

“I don’t know anything in coaching that compares to that,” said Dave Odom, who coached 12 years at Wake Forest and won two ACC titles. “It’s truly amazing, what’s happened, and something I don’t think we’ll see again in our lifetime. It’s hard to believe anybody has been at a school 35 years and it’s going to be more, because he’s not going anywhere.”

Odom laughed, saying, “And people still can’t pronounce his name. That’s why to all of us he’s just Coach K.”

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