College Basketball

Back injury, sitting out changed history for Coach K

Twenty Januarys have passed since Clemson came to Cameron Indoor Stadium and notched its first ACC victory under feisty new coach Rick Barnes. What followed proved pivotal in ACC basketball history, but not for reasons you might think.

Not because the Tigers have gone winless in Durham since that first week of 1995.

Not because those Blue Devils went on to drop six straight games, a sour run unmatched at Duke from 1939 to this day.

Not because the Devils finished the season with a humbling, school-record 18 defeats, plummeting from first to last in the conference on the heels of a trip to the 1994 NCAA championship contest.

Rather, the Clemson game was pivotal because it marked the last time that season Mike Krzyzewski felt able to appear on the Duke bench. Within days, undone by pain and exhaustion resulting from back surgery the previous October, Krzyzewski yielded the reins of the program he’d led to a pair of NCAA titles and perpetual national prominence, and took a long, hard look at himself.

Working with a team of five doctors, including H. Keith H. Brodie, a psychiatrist and former Duke University president, the 48-year-old slowly recovered physically and gained a sounder grasp of his strengths and limitations. Those realizations and adjustments had a lingering impact.

“I wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t go through ’94-95, because I needed to change, big time,” Krzyzewski says now, four victories from an arresting and unmatched 1,000 in his major-college coaching career. “I was hit hard. Then I had amazing support and … was critical of what I had done before -- I was -- and made changes. And those changes have really been outstanding. You know what? I’m still changing. I wouldn’t have, as much, if I didn’t have that year, I don’t think.”

While shelved, Krzyzewski occasionally interacted with his assistant coaches or addressed Duke’s players. He even hosted a home visit from a key recruit, Vince Carter, who eventually chose North Carolina. But mostly he rested, exercised, and grappled with the inner workings of pride, machismo, fear for his health, and a burning sense of obligation. “He just found out he doesn’t change his clothes in a phone booth,” said Mel Berlin, then Duke’s team physician, referring to Superman’s transformative routine. “You just have to give time for the tissue – I don’t care if you have an ingrown toenail – injured tissues take time to heal. He didn’t give himself time to heal.”

Just getting the intense competitor to acknowledge, let alone address, his limitations was a daunting task, according to his wife, Mickie Krzyzewski.

“It was a nightmare,” she recalls. “It was horrible, horrible. Getting well was worse for him than being sick because he felt he had deserted his men. He just wanted to kill himself; he felt he had deserted his men.” She finally got her husband’s attention by presenting what she describes as the only ultimatum of their 45-year marriage: skip practice and make the doctor’s appointment she had scheduled, or don’t come home. He went to the doctor.

Once the West Point grad and former Army officer did step aside, he decided to resign.

He was deflected instead into taking a leave of absence by Tom Butters, Duke’s athletic director at the time and the man who had hired and stood by Krzyzewski through 17-loss seasons in 1982 and 1983. Krzyzewski didn’t return to the bench until the following season.

(Consistent with NCAA guidance, that choice led Mike Cragg, then Duke’s sports information director, to assign the team’s record after the Clemson loss to interim coach Pete Gaudet. Krzyzewski officially finished the season 9-3. Had Gaudet’s 4-15 mark been attributed to Krzyzewski, he would already have reached the 1,000 victory mark with Saturday’s win over Boston College.)

Life had been a whirlwind for the emotional head coach as Duke won consecutive national championships in 1991 and 1992, went to four NCAA title games between 1990 and 1994, and enjoyed a skein of Final Four appearances surpassed only by UCLA under John Wooden in the 1960s and early 70s. With newfound success and celebrity came widened opportunities and demands off the court. “You go to seven Final Fours in nine years, (we didn’t know) what the hell we were doing. That was crazy,” Krzyzewski says. “During those nine years, it was crazy. You had to learn how to control crazy, and how to make crazy into sensible. I didn’t have time to do that.”

Surgery on a ruptured disk in his lower back on the eve of the 1994-95 season complicated the adjustment. Intent on powering through the pain, Krzyzewski returned too soon to an active role on the sidelines. “In ’95 he didn’t know he was vulnerable,” Mickie Krzyzewski says. “So that was a big shock to him. And that was one of the shocks he had to get over: ‘Oh, my God! I’m actually a human being.’”

The coach needed a stool at practice to keep him off his feet. When the team traveled to Hawaii in late December for the Rainbow Classic, Krzyzewski went days without being able to sleep. “That was when I saw things were really changing,” Mickie Krzyzewski says. “One of the things we’ve learned is the emotional toll that chronic pain takes. It just completely changes everything.” Within days of returning from Honolulu, she pushed the Duke coach to confront the situation, regardless of the consequences for his team and his conflicted sense of self-worth.

Months later, when Krzyzewski resumed the helm of the Blue Devil program, he immediately made changes. He manages his time differently, limiting outside obligations. He revamped the basketball office, from personnel to phone system. He restructured his coaching staff; within three seasons every one of his assistants had played in his program. Over time he also built a support system that buffers and simplifies his daily routine year-round. “Now when it goes crazy, I make time to make it sensible,” Krzyzewski says. “I rely so much on my infrastructure and my staff, that’s been really good, really good.”

The reset has proven effective over the long haul. Since Krzyzewski endured his personal crisis two decades ago, Duke won national titles in 2001 and 2010, has earned 19 consecutive NCAA bids, and been ranked in the Associated Press top 10 in 18 seasons, including this one.

Krzyzewski also helped rebuild the USA national basketball program, guiding American pros to pairs of Olympic gold medals and world championships.

Along the way Cameron Indoor Stadium, which hosted its first game 75 years ago this week, attained the status of basketball shrine. Conversely, the Blue Devils became perennial villains in the eyes of many college fans and media, a role that still occasionally rankles Krzyzewski and company.

Perhaps most revealing, in his 40th year as a head coach, 35th at Duke, Krzyzewski has amassed not only impressive honors, wealth and influence, and all those wins, but the respect of his peers.

“In some ways what Mike has done has been more difficult than what Coach Wooden did,” UNC’s Roy Williams, a fellow Hall of Famer, said last year. “What Mike has done is just off the charts.”

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