Luke DeCock

DeCock: K’s first win set tone for next 999

Mike Krzyzewski as a the head basketball coach at West Point.
Mike Krzyzewski as a the head basketball coach at West Point. US Military Academy

On Thanksgiving 1975, West Point was shrouded in rain and fog, lending an air of mystery to the deserted campus. Only the first-year cadets – the “plebes” – at the U.S. Military Academy were still on the grounds, along with the men’s basketball team, a day away from its season debut. Everyone else was home for the holiday.

So the basketball team and some of the players’ families ate Thanksgiving dinner in a nearly empty mess hall, joined by first-year coach Mike Krzyzewski and his family. The entire group then retired to Krzyzewski’s house to relax on the eve of the first game of Army’s season and the first game of Krzyzewski’s coaching career.

There was an air of mystery about the basketball team as well. Army won only three games the previous season, prompting the academy brass to bring back Krzyzewski a mere seven years after he concluded his West Point career under Bobby Knight. At 28, Krzyzewski wasn’t all that much older than his players, a relative unknown in the coaching fraternity after one season as an assistant to Knight at Indiana.

Over weeks of preseason practice, Krzyzewski implemented a complete change in style from what Army employed, unsuccessfully, the season before. Not far removed from being a cadet himself, he leveraged the core values of the academy – discipline, fitness, teamwork – by demanding aggressive man-to-man defense and a patient motion offense.

Early returns were good – Army held Penn State without a point for more than five minutes of a closed-doors preseason scrimmage – but that evening at Krzyzewski’s house, no one had any idea what to expect from Friday’s season-opener against Lehigh.

Even with the campus empty, Army’s Field House was full the next night, with the community curious about this young, new coach and many of Krzyzewski’s Army classmates still at West Point in various roles. As the opening game approached, players were optimistic last season’s struggles were truly behind them.

“Very optimistic,” said Pat Harris, a freshman on that team who later served as Army’s coach. “The thing that coach was great at was preparing you for games and believing you can win every time you took the floor. I can tell you, in four years we never went into a game as an underdog. We always knew we had to play well to win, but we never felt like an underdog. That started with the first game against Lehigh.”

First Impressions

From the day he returned to West Point, Krzyzewski did everything he could to wipe the previous season from his players’ minds, as tough as that might be with a 3-22 record. He never spoke of it. It was a fresh start in every way. He was so intent on moving forward that when he was hired in March, his youth never really registered with Tom Valerio, who was a team captain heading into his senior season.

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

In Krzyzewski’s time as a player, Army was a relative powerhouse, a top-25 caliber team under Knight, with Krzyzewski his feisty, undersized point guard. At a time when New York was still one of the epicenters of college basketball, Army punched well above its weight.

That had changed by the time Krzyzewski returned as coach. Army had slipped while the regional standard had risen even higher. It was a golden era of coaching, with Jim Valvano at Iona and Louie Carnesecca at St. John’s and Bill Raftery at Seton Hall and Dr. Tom Davis at Lafayette. The challenge was immense.

Army had played zone while pushing the pace up and down the court the year before under Dan Dougherty, who struggled at Army but became a legendary high school coach in Philadelphia. Krzyzewski installed the man-to-man defense and motion offense that he learned from Knight and would become his trademark from the very first practice.

“His signature of what he wanted from Army basketball, and what he believed in, was a tough, aggressive man-to-man defense,” said Matt Brown, a freshman who made his debut in that Lehigh game. “He wanted us on defense to dictate what the offense was going to do. He didn’t want the offense to decide. He wanted them confused.”

And he pushed the players. Hard. He knew from his own time as a cadet the suffocating demands and responsibilities of the academy, but he also knew for the two hours he had the team, they reported only to him. There was nary a wasted minute in practice. At the same time, he built bonds that went beyond basketball.

On Valerio’s birthday, Nov. 2, he made Valerio shoot extra free throws while the rest of the team and Krzyzewski’s wife Mickie waited to surprise him in the locker room with a birthday cake.

“It sounds like a small thing, but to me it was emblematic of how he got to know his players and care about them,” Valerio said. “It made it easier for him to demand more of them.”

And he demanded everything from them.

During the scrimmage with Penn State, Krzyzewski noticed some of the opposing players joking around, not taking it seriously. Heading into the third of four 10-minute periods, he challenged his team to see how long it could keep Penn State from scoring. After about three minutes of smothering defense, diving for loose balls and all-out hustle, Army forced Penn State to take a timeout. In a scrimmage.

From that point on, Army believed, and belief was all that had been missing. Krzyzewski’s style placed a premium on discipline, fitness and teamwork, which just so happened to be in ready supply at Army at a time when such qualities weren’t as common in college basketball as they are today.

“We thrived off discipline,” Harris said. “That’s West Point. That’s man-to-man defense. Diving for loose balls. Taking charges. Getting into the grill of the player you’re guarding. Boxing out every time the ball goes up. He was such a great fit for West Point. It’s hard to understand why a team at West Point would do anything else sometimes.”

He leveraged what the academy excelled at to make up for what it lacked, raw basketball talent, although there was some of that. Krzyzewski inherited Gary Winton, who became Army’s all-time leading scorer. Brown started from Day 1 and would trail only Winton in scoring by the time he graduated.

Game Time

“WEST POINT – Something exciting happened at the Field House Friday Night.

“Fans used to seeing Army lose in basketball (3-22 the last season) couldn’t get over the tiger that crushed Lehigh, 56-29, in the season opener for both teams.

“The men of new coach Mike Krzyzewski moved quickly, played tough defense, shot well. They established their position right away. They gave Lehigh the opening basket, then scored 17 straight points.”

So wrote Al De Santis in the local paper, the (Middletown, N.Y.) Times-Herald Record, that arrived on doorsteps on Saturday, Nov. 29, the morning of the Army-Navy football game. “I got what I wanted,” Krzyzewski told the newspaper. “Full effort.”

The Engineers scored the game’s opening two points. Army scored the next 17, smothering Lehigh on its way to a 19-point halftime lead and 56-29 win, No. 1 for Krzyzewski.

Winton and Valerio each had 15 points to lead Army, which jumped out to the early lead and never looked back. Everything that had been drilled into the team over the previous months came to fruition, and from the opening tip.

“We were going on that run and I was getting open looks and knocking down shots,” Valerio said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is really easy, this is really going well. I love this offense.’ But what I remember most is thinking, ‘Now you have to go play defense.’ ”

Even when Army’s offense sputtered to open the second half – “We didn’t execute well in that stretch,” Krzyzewski told the newspaper. “Our timing was off” – the defense never let Lehigh take a breath. The Engineers shot 9-for-44, 24 percent.

“We had been well prepared to play the first game,” Harris said. “We worked hard. We prepared hard. Once the ball went up, the game was over. To beat a team like that, he was making a statement about what type of program he was going to have not only that year but for future years.”

There was little time to celebrate, not even a practice the next day. West Point priorities: The players were expected to make their way to Philadelphia the next morning for the Army-Navy football game. Some took academy buses. Others hitched rides with assistant coaches or older classmates. They returned late in the evening after watching Army lose 30-6 to finish the season 2-9. Krzyzewski alone remained at the academy, preparing for Tuesday’s game against Upsala.

If any of the players picked up a copy of The New York Times on their way to or from Philadelphia, they would have found a two-paragraph Associated Press blurb on their victory that noted it was the first win for “Mike Krzyzweski.” It was quite possibly the first time Krzyzewski’s name would be misspelled as a head coach and quite definitely far from the last, as the young man from Chicago with the curious Polish name was officially on his way to bigger things.

West Point Legacy

Almost 40 years later, that Lehigh win is a rare topic Krzyzewski’s Army players can tease him about.

“Our Army teammates always mention it to coach as a sidebar: ‘Hey coach, we never lost to Lehigh,’ ” Brown said. “It’s a very sore subject at Duke.”

In five years at West Point, Krzyzewski took Army from 3-22 before he arrived to 11-14 in his first season, 20-8 in his second season and 19-9 in his third. Army slid to 14-11 the following year and 9-17 in 1979-80, but that didn’t stop Duke athletic director Tom Butters, at Knight’s urging, from bringing Krzyzewski to Durham.

Krzyzewski stuck to the principles that brought him success at Army, although without immediate results. It took three seasons to successfully instill at Duke the same kind of discipline in his players that came naturally at Army, but it became the core strength of the Duke program. The way his Army players describe Krzyzewski’s first practices is the same way his current players describe them now.

“People ask you a lot of times how is it to play for Coach K,” Harris said. “Of course, we were kind of like guinea pigs back then, the first people to play for him. But he’s the same today as he was back then.”

Thirty-nine years almost to the day from his first win at Army, Duke hosted Army at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 30. The Blue Devils won 93-73, Krzyzewski’s 990th win. Afterward, asked about that first win over Lehigh, Krzyzewski said he didn’t remember much, but the question spawned a recollection of his time at West Point that brought him nearly to tears.

“That’s my base,” Krzyzewski said, his voice thickening. “I wear my wedding ring and my West Point ring with a Duke stone. I’m getting a little emotional. I love West Point. I love the fact I had that opportunity, and then I had an opportunity to coach there. One of the reasons I’m a good coach here is because of my five years there. They’ll always be in my heart and I’ll always be a West Pointer.”

Nine hundred and ninety-nine wins later, the core values that delivered that first win haven’t changed. That 17-2 run at the very beginning of his career set the tone for all the success to follow: the wins, the records, the four national championships, the 11 Final Fours, the two Olympic gold medals, the Hall of Fame inductions.

Aggressive, fundamentally sound, man-to-man defense. Patient motion offense. Discipline.

That sums up 35 years of Duke basketball under Krzyzewski. It also characterized the first win of his career, almost 40 years ago.

“That was the start of something truly great,” Harris said, “at West Point the day after Thanksgiving, 1975.”

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