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Coach K wins 1st title
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"Perception and image they say is everything. Not in my mind. In my mind, truth and reality is everything. What you don't know that about him from watching him on TV is that behind closed doors, he's a little more like Bobby Knight," says former Duke All-American Christian Laettner on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Tom Butters, and perhaps few others, saw something special, something precious in the ways of the man. By 1983, the Duke athletic director had invested three seasons in Mike Krzyzewski, the basketball coach who had many North Carolinians pleading for his ouster. A 38-47 record demanded revisions and revamping, they figured, not reward.
Yet in January 1984, with the team's 14-4 start mellowed by three straight conference losses, Butters gave his coach a new five-year contract, a decision that was stunning then, pure cunning later.
Krzyzewski spun Butters' gamble into a Final Four mainstay. The Blue Devils won on the court and, like few other major athletic powers, they won in the classroom, the players consistently graduating on time.
Butters kept the letters he received from alumni criticizing his move. "Now I get letters from the same people," he said in 1992, "wanting to make sure I'm paying him enough."
A coach seemingly unprepared for the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference, who struggled early as a recruiter, Krzyzewski became not only a big winner but one who gave motivational talks to major corporations.
"Leadership is getting people to buy into something, making them feel vested in the whole decision-making process," said Grant Hill, an All-American who helped Duke to two national titles. "Coach K is remarkable at doing that."
Coach K proved to be a master team-builder, too, blending smart, skilled and unselfish players into successful units, and generating a strong student fan base that turned games at cozy Cameron Indoor Stadium into a resounding noise fest.
Entering the 2004-05 season, his 25th at Duke, he had directed the Blue Devils to 10 ACC regular-season titles, 10 Final Fours and three national championships (tied for third all-time with Bob Knight). When they beat Toledo on Dec. 12, 2004, a 57-year-old Krzyzewski became the 17th coach in Division I to reach 700 wins. Only Knight, his coach during his playing days at Army, achieved 700 at an earlier age (56).
A national coach of the year in eight seasons, Krzyzewski was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. He turned down hefty coaching offers from the Boston Celtics (1990) and Los Angeles Lakers (2004), the latter a reported $40-million, five-year deal.
He was born on Feb. 13, 1947 in Chicago. His mother Emily worked at the Chicago Athletic Club, cleaning floors, and his father William was an elevator operator at a downtown office building. The family lived in a small flat in the city.
Krzyzewski, a 5-foot-10 guard, led Chicago's Catholic League in scoring for two seasons while at Weber High School, where he was senior class vice president.
His achievements attracted Army's Knight and other recruiters. At his parents' urging, he went to West Point, though his brother, Bill, said he wasn't "military-minded." Krzyzewski went on to captain the Cadets as a senior in 1969.
"I wanted to quit hundreds of times," he said years later. "A dream of mine was not to become an Army officer. My dream was to be a basketball coach, a teacher."
He coached service teams for three years and spent two years coaching at a military academy prep school. In 1974, after fulfilling his Army commitment, Krzyzewski joined Knight, who had moved on to Indiana, as a graduate assistant. The next year, at 28, he returned to Army - as head coach. In five seasons, his Cadets went 73-59 and made one NIT appearance.
A 9-17 record in his fifth year didn't sway Butters, who hired him at Duke in 1980. Krzyzewski struck out in his first recruiting season, but he learned to narrow his scope. Duke began landing quality players such as Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and David Henderson, a nucleus that brought the coach his first NCAA appearance (1984), his first winning record in the ACC (1985) and first Final Four (1986).
Earlier, his program hit bottom when Duke lost to Virginia by 43 points in the 1983 conference tournament. That night, Krzyzewski told his staff that the game was a "reference point. In order to appreciate where we're going to be, we have to know how this felt, how losing felt."
For Krzyzewski, a dedicated family man, feelings always went hand in hand with teaching the sport and motivating players.
"An important part of being a leader," he said, "is the ability to feel what your players feel."
Caring, communication, trust. They're passwords at Duke, where freshman players immediately receive a list of team phone numbers and are encouraged to use it. Where players are expected to attend class and keep up with their studies. Where showboating is frowned upon, the extra pass is revered, and the team is the star.
"It's the Duke culture," said Missouri coach Quin Snyder, a former Duke player and head assistant. "The kids give up ego to be part of something special."
Krzyzewski's caring for his team led to an embarrassing incident in 1990, when a student newspaper graded his players at midseason. Though most players got high marks, the protective coach was infuriated and profanely criticized the young journalists in front of his team. After a Durham newspaper published a transcript of the tirade, Krzyzewski apologized to Butters and the students.
"My language wasn't good," he admitted, "but I was disturbed that we had gotten to the point where their fellow students were instruments of entertainment and ego indulgence."
While Krzyzewski has been wrongly painted as a Knight clone and this episode fit the stereotype, he normally employed a lighter touch while drawing from Knight in other ways. "What I learned from him was the incredible passion it took to be successful," Krzyzewski said, "the amount of preparation."
Krzyzewski, who would win with Knight-like regularity, redeemed Butters' confidence with a 24-10 record in 1984, starting an 11-year run of NCAA appearances and 23-plus wins. The 1986 team went 37-3, losing to Louisville, 72-69, in the NCAA final. Three other Final Four opportunities, from 1988 to 1990, fell short until the Blue Devils broke through in 1991.
That young squad, led by junior center Christian Laettner, had one senior, two juniors, three sophomores and a freshman, Hill, among its top seven players. The Devils upset unbeaten UNLV, the defending champion, 79-77, in the semifinals, avenging a 30-point loss in the 1990 title game. Then they stopped Kansas, 72-65, in the final.
"Did you see their faces?" Krzyzewski asked after watching his players celebrate. "They were so happy. Gee, I'd like to do this again. When will we do it again?"
Sooner than he imagined. The next year, Duke became the first school since UCLA in 1973 to repeat as champion when it routed Michigan's Fab Five, 71-51, in the title game. On the way, it beat Kentucky, 104-103 in overtime, for the East Regional championship in one of sports' most memorable finishes – Laettner hitting a 17-foot jumper at the buzzer after an almost length-of-the-court inbounds heave from Hill.
Back surgery and exhaustion put Krzyzewski on the sidelines in 1995 after a 9-3 start. With Pete Gaudet serving as interim head coach, Duke finished 13-18 and last in the ACC.
"It made me feel guilty," said Coach K, a frustrated observer.
He returned the next fall, the Devils going a modest 18-13 but starting another run of NCAA appearances. The next season they won the first of five straight ACC regular-season titles, a surge that resulted in a 157-24 record, capped by an 82-72 victory over Arizona in the 2001 NCAA final that gave Krzyzewski his third national championship.
"It was really special for us to separate Coach from the pack," said Final Four Most Outstanding Player Shane Battier. "A bunch of coaches have won two. Getting three makes you a legend."
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