Luke DeCock

DeCock: Krzyzewski’s longevity as notable as his record

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim greet each other at half court before the start of their game. Syracuse beat Duke in overtime 91-89 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY Saturday, Feb.1, 2014.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim greet each other at half court before the start of their game. Syracuse beat Duke in overtime 91-89 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY Saturday, Feb.1, 2014. cliddy@newsobserver.com

There are only a handful of people who can comprehend the sheer amount of time invested in winning 1,000 basketball games, a mark Mike Krzyzewski will attempt to reach Sunday. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, his new ACC rival and old coaching partner from USA Basketball, is one of them.

Boeheim entered the weekend only 37 wins behind Krzyzewski, a peer in nearly every respect. Listen to Boeheim, and it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that as impressive as 1,000 wins might be, a more impressive number might be 40: the number of seasons Krzyzewski has coached, the first five at Army, the past 35 at Duke.

“It’s not that easy,” Boeheim said. “It sounds easy, but it’s not that easy. He’s a tremendous coach who’s built a great program with great players and great assistants, and it takes all that to be able to win. I don’t know how you win a thousand games.”

It has not been easy for Krzyzewski. The hurdles along the way have been immense, from the early struggles at Duke that nearly cost him his job to his 1995 back surgery and subsequent re-evaluation of every aspect of the program. His longevity is as amazing as his productivity.

Krzyzewski will be 68 next month. After four decades, he is still coaching, not only at Duke but for USA Basketball, the latter through the 2016 Olympics. Most of his West Point classmates – four-star generals and CEOs – have retired. He’s still going strong.

“If you met him on a day when we’re at practice, you’d think he was in his 30s or 40s, the way he was moving around, the fire, the passion he still has for the game,” Duke forward Amile Jefferson said. “But if you heard him talk, you’d know he’s an older guy, because he’s so wise.”

Not only will Krzyzewski take his first swing at 1,000 on the same Madison Square Garden floor where he won his record 903rd game, he’ll be only an hour and change from where it all began, as a 28-year-old rookie coach in the fall of 1975 at his alma mater, West Point.

Tom Valerio, one of the captains on that team, was only a few years younger than Krzyzewski, but the new coach’s age was the last thing on his mind after their first meeting, not unlike Jefferson now.

“You meet him and start to talk to him what he wants to do and how he wants to coach, you realize we could really be good next year,” Valerio said. “It never dawned on you he’s young.”

If you want to win 1,000 games, you have to start young, but that’s not enough. Boeheim started young, landing the Syracuse job at 31 in 1976, but he’s spent his career playing catch-up with Krzyzewski. So, for that matter, have the ACC’s two other Hall of Fame coaches.

Roy Williams has won 27.8 games per season, almost three wins ahead of Krzyzewski’s pace, but didn’t land the head job at Kansas until he was 37. At that age, Krzyzewski had been a head coach for a decade. Rick Pitino got his start at 25 with Boston University, but took two NBA detours that probably cost him about 150 college wins, which would put him around 850 with six years on Krzyzewski.

“I’ll let Mike have his thousand,” Pitino said. “I’m never going to reach a thousand.”

Staying young is as important as starting young, and it took Krzyzewski a while to figure that out. He no longer runs, with two artificial hips, but he’s equally committed to stretching and his recumbent bike. He pushed himself to the verge of collapse in 1995, and at that point it would have been difficult to imagine he had another 10 years left in him, let alone 20.

Two decades later, after regrouping and reprioritizing and replacing both hips, he’s not only still at Duke but committed to Team USA through the 2016 Olympics.

“That’s why he’s still doing it. He loves it,” said Duke deputy athletic director Mike Cragg, who has spent 28 years as Krzyzewski’s aide-de-camp. “As long as he’s healthy and feeling good, he loves coaching, he loves being here at Duke. There’s no end on the horizon.”

Taking on the challenge of USA Basketball has kept him fresh in his 60s. He started planning for his eventual departure from Duke 15 years ago, raising more than $100 million to secure the future of the program. And this season, he’s trying to win at Duke with NBA-bound freshmen, an accommodation to the state of the game that has taken him to places he had not visited in his previous 39 seasons – even appropriating the Boeheim zone in pursuit of a fifth national title.

Four decades in, that’s still his goal. Winning his 1,000th game is just a stop along the way.

“It’ll be a heck of a thing, when and if it’s done, but it’s not a championship,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d rather deal in a moment, and not a 40-year moment, because in order to win that many games, it’s taken 40 years. That’s a long time. You don’t win like that by being in the moment of a single game, but the moment of what you’re trying to do for an entire season.”

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