Mike Krzyzewski’s third season at Duke concluded in the conference tournament, as losing ACC efforts do, when Virginia handed the Blue Devils a humiliating 109-66 defeat. To this day that is the largest deciding margin in any game in ACC tournament history.
Several starters for second-ranked UVa were on the floor at the end against Duke’s freshmen-laden squad. “That’s something that you don’t forget,” says Chuck Swenson, an assistant coach who accompanied Krzyzewski from Army to Durham. “We were embarrassed enough.”
Afterward, Krzyzewski heard that Cavs center Ralph Sampson, a three-time national player of the year (1981-83), had complained the Blue Devils employed dirty tactics. The Devils did play a very aggressive, physical style of defense.
“Certainly, defense is the thing that wins for you,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s how we get our emotion.” N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, who had observed Krzyzewski since both directed squads in the New York area, liked to joke that Duke confused game officials by simultaneously fouling all five opposing players, making it difficult to know what or how much to call.
Physical wasn’t dirty – just unfamiliar in a league noted more for finesse than muscle – and the volatile Krzyzewski took umbrage at the characterization. So it was that, gathered with a few Duke athletic officials in an Atlanta eatery following the ACC tournament loss, the coach responded to a toast saluting quick burial of sour memories by rejoining, “No, here’s to never forgetting.”
It was a measure of Krzyzewski’s resolve, his force of will, that Duke proceeded to win its next 16 meetings with Terry Holland’s Cavaliers. “Coach K was never, ever going to allow a letdown against them,” says Swenson, now employed by a steel company in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It was also a measure of the ACC’s strong coaching and depth of talent early in Krzyzewski’s tenure that, despite Sampson’s dominating presence and a gifted supporting cast, Virginia never won a league title. The 1981 Cavs were, however, one of four ACC participants to reach the Final Four during Krzyzewski’s first three seasons. Closer to home, North Carolina, directed by Dean Smith, an acknowledged coaching master, sent a team to the NCAA championship game in 1981 and won his first national title in 1982. Under Valvano, N.C. State surprisingly followed with an NCAA championship in 1983.
Swenson recalls Duke fans booing a laggard Krzyzewski. “It was just a super-competitive time on and off the court,” he says. While others prospered, Krzyzewski replaced Bill Foster, a popular, outgoing coaching veteran, and center Mike Gminski and managed an NIT bid. Then, as the new coach struggled to restock the Cameron cupboard, landing a prized recruiting class in 1982-83, the program endured consecutive 17-loss seasons and that ’83 ACC tournament rout.
“What motivates me is losing,” Krzyzewski said years later. “I still think of myself as a guy capable of going 10-17. Because I did that. And I was 11-17 the next year. So I know I’ve got to work my butt off. To me, that’s the motivation – I’m afraid. I don’t want to lose the competitive edge I have right now. And the memory of what it was like to lose helps me.”
Krzyzewski played at Army for Bob Knight, chair-tossing enfant terrible of college basketball. During the late-1960s the guard from Chicago was a tenacious defender and team captain for the Black Knights, who twice during his career advanced to the NIT, then a prestigious tournament. When Krzyzewski returned from military service he worked as a graduate assistant coach under Knight at Indiana in 1974-75.
From there Krzyzewski went to Army as head coach, then was recommended by his mentor for the Duke job. The virtual unknown arrived at Durham after posting an underwhelming 9-17 record in his fifth and final season at West Point.
At his introductory press conference in March 1980, Krzyzewski, 33, walked reporters through the pronunciation and spelling of his name, adding: “If you think that’s bad, you should have heard it before I changed it. For those of you who can’t pronounce it, you can just call me ‘Coach K’. ” Later in life Krzyzewski’s father, Bill, an elevator operator, changed his last name to “Cross,” an alteration his son declined to emulate.
Unfortunately the new Duke coach quickly alienated outsiders by reinforcing an image as Knight’s behavioral protégé. Many saw only outbursts of temper; combativeness over sticking with man-to-man defense, sometimes at the cost of victory; copious courtside profanity; and relentless verbal assaults on referees, averaging 3.1 technical fouls per season from 1981 through 1989 to lead the ACC.
Meanwhile, a week after Krzyzewski was hired, N.C. State had lured Valvano south from Iona College. Both young coaches made self-deprecating jokes about their ethnic heritage, but the contrast between them went beyond their Polish and Italian roots. The glib Valvano embraced celebrity and humor. Promiscuous in his outside interests, he privately confessed his desire to be a millionaire. Krzyzewski largely stuck to basketball and family and worried aloud he came across as a “goody two-shoes.”
Valvano was a natural salesman and masterful sideline improvizationalist. Krzyzewski was a teacher who preferred thoughtful discipline and careful preparation. Mellowing with time, he endlessly honed his leadership skills and spoke of his debt to the game. His Raleigh counterpart, a voracious gamesman on and off the court, did in-season commentary on national telecasts of other teams, sold a cookbook and a line of clothing, and didn’t always know where his squad’s practices were being held.
Given their differences, it irked Krzyzewski that Valvano’s Wolfpack squads were 14-9 against his Blue Devils, often succeeding by spreading the court to thwart Duke’s ability to overplay and help defensively. Only after Valvano resigned and contracted bone cancer did the two become close. Several years after his colleague died, Krzyzewski said, “The six months or so I spent with him at the end were the best six months I’ve ever spent with another man. He made me understand that life is precious.”
The Duke coach came to a different sort of peace with Smith, whose routine oncourt success and mind games drove league rivals to distraction.
Valvano readily accepted Smith as part of the landscape. Krzyzewski confronted the older man and his influence. In 1984 the Duke coach denounced a “double standard” in ACC officiating that he believed gave the Tar Heels an unfair advantage. Behind the scenes, Krzyzewski periodically phoned Smith to air grievances, among them Carolina assistant Bill Guthridge’s habit of sprinting to the locker room after games rather than waiting to shake hands with Duke coaches.
As Krzyzewski matured personally and professionally, the Hall of Famers developed a wary mutual respect and competitive equilibrium. From 1986 through Smith’s 1997 retirement at age 66 as the top winner among major-college men’s coaches, Duke matched North Carolina stride for stride at the game’s highest level – 20-win seasons, ACC titles, NCAA bids, Final Four appearances, national championships, All-Americans produced.
Over the years, Krzyzewski came to resemble Smith in self-protective guardedness, even as he exceeded Valvano’s fondest dreams of wealth. Now at age 67 Krzyzewski has come full circle, and it’s his Duke program and career victories against which all others are measured.