NCAA tournament: Mike Krzyzewski, the one who almost got away at Duke

John Feinstein
Columnist March 20

Tom Butters, who retired in 1998 after 21 years as the athletic director at Duke, was sitting at home Tuesday night when the phone rang.

“I just wanted to remind you,” the caller said, “that you made a terrible mistake 34 years ago today.”

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Actually, Butters almost made a terrible mistake on March 18, 1980: He let Mike Krzyzewski leave his office without offering him the job as Duke’s basketball coach.

“I walked out of there thinking, ‘Well, I blew it. He’s not going to hire me,’ ” Krzyzewski said years later. “I thought maybe I’d made a mistake not taking the Iowa State job.”

After Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, had left for the airport, Steve Vacendak, who was then the No. 2 man in the Duke athletic department, went in to see his boss.

“So,” Vacendak said. “What did you think?”

“I think he’s the next great coach,” Butters said.

“So you hired him.”

Butters sighed. “How can I hire a coach who just went 9-17 at Army?”

Vacendak looked at him and shook his head. “If he’s the next great coach,” he said, “how can you not hire him?”

Butters thought for a split second.

“Go back to the airport and get him back here.”

On Thursday afternoon, as she watched her husband run Duke’s practice at PNC Arena, 24 hours before he would coach in his 30th NCAA tournament, Mickie Krzyzewski remembered that day vividly.

“Our kids were in Washington with my parents, so I was flying there to get them,” she said. “Mike was going straight back to Army. I got on the plane to fly to Washington and then didn’t hear from him for hours.”

Krzyzewski was about to board his flight when he heard his name being called. Vacendak was paging him. The two men drove back to Duke, and Butters offered Krzyzewski the job.

“I said, ‘I’d like you to be the basketball coach,’ ” Butters said, long after his gamble had turned to gold. “He said, ‘I accept.’ I said to him, ‘Don’t you want to know how much I’m going to pay you?’ ”

The pay, agreed upon later, was $40,000 a year. The two men talked deep into the night about Krzyzewski’s vision for the program, about the pressures of replacing a very successful coach — Bill Foster — when almost no one would have any idea who the new coach was or, for that matter, how to pronounce his name.

In the meantime, Mickie Krzyzewski had landed in Washington, gone to her parents’ house and, figuring her husband had gotten back to West Point a couple of hours later, called him. No answer.

She waited a while and called again. Then she called the airline. The plane had landed on time in New York. “I was terrified,” she said. “I had no idea what had happened. There were no cellphones and no one I could call.”

At about midnight, the phone rang. It was Mike.

“Where in the world have you been?” she screamed. “Where are you now? What is going on?”

Calmly, he told her he had gone back to Duke. “They wanted to ask me one more question,” he said.

“One more question?” she said. “What is there left to ask? You’ve interviewed twice for hours and hours.”

Mickie Krzyzewski laughed at the memory. “He just let me keep talking. Never interrupted. Finally he said, ‘The question they asked was if I wanted the job.’ For a second I was stunned. I asked him how much they were going to pay him, and he said, ‘I have no idea.’ ”

Thirty-four years later, Krzyzewski makes considerably more than $40,000 a year. In fact, he makes more than that for one speech.

He is the winningest men’s Division I coach in history, with 983 wins going into Friday’s round-of-64 NCAA tournament game against Mercer. He has won four national championships and been to 11 Final Fours. He has won more NCAA tournament games — 82 — than any coach in history.

He has coached the U.S. Olympic team to two gold medals and will attempt to win a third in Rio in 2016. He is an icon in every sense of the word. Some athletes are identified by one name: Michael, Tiger, Serena. Krzyzewski is identified by one letter: To almost everyone in basketball, he is Coach K.

And yet he is constantly scrutinized and criticized by many who simply can’t deal with how successful he has been. The phrase “Duke gets all the calls” is almost a catch-phrase among college basketball fans.

Krzyzewski admits the carping gets old but also says: “I’m not going to start losing just so people will stop saying things like that. If you win a lot, people have to find a reason why you’re winning. I think we’ve won because we’ve had really good players.”

This has been a difficult winter for Krzyzewski. His older brother, Bill, died the day after Christmas after coming through what had been thought to be successful cancer surgery. Although Krzyzewski publicly plays down how much his brother’s death has affected him, those who know him say he is still struggling with the loss, that he hasn’t had time to come to grips with it because he’s been so immersed in trying to coach a talented but deeply flawed team.

“People in every walk of life go through what I’ve gone through,” Krzyzewski said Thursday. “It’s part of living life.”

It’s not easy to deal with that part of life when you are Coach K and the searing spotlight never cools.

And yet, Krzyzewski did find a few minutes Tuesday to call his old boss to thank him for taking a chance on him all those years ago.

If Butters hadn’t hired Krzyzewski, he might have offered the job to Bob Wenzel, who had been Foster’s No. 1 assistant until Foster left that spring for South Carolina. Wenzel went on to coach at Jacksonville and Rutgers and has had a successful television career since leaving coaching.

“I think,” Wenzel said earlier this week, “Tom Butters hired the right guy.”

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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