Mike Krzyzewski: 880 wins won't dampen his drive and respect for Dean Smith

By John Feinstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 1:06 AM


A little more than 24 hours before he went past Dean Smith on the all-time wins list for college basketball coaches, Mike Krzyzewski threw his team out of practice.

"I didn't just get angry," he said that afternoon. "I worked my way up to being really angry."

All of which may explain, at least in part, why Duke's 108-62 rout of UNC Greensboro on Wednesday night was Krzyzewski's 880th career victory - one more than Smith and 22 fewer than Bob Knight.

Soon after telling his players they were soft and spoiled and nowhere close to being ready to play in the ACC, Krzyzewski got on a private plane and flew to Washington to watch a high school junior play. That night he was back on the practice court, giving his players a chance to show him they weren't as soft and spoiled as he had told them they were.

At 63, Krzyzewski still gets angry and he's still relentless. He completely understood the significance - especially in the state of North Carolina - of his 880th win because of his respect for Smith and because of how his career at Duke began.

"All of that said, I'll be glad when it's over," he said Wednesday afternoon, sitting in his customary seat - second row, right side, next to the window - as the Duke team bus rolled down I-85 to Greensboro. "We're a team in transition right now and there's a lot we have to do before Sunday [the ACC opener against Miami] and going forward to get these guys accustomed to playing without Kyrie [Irving]. Yesterday morning they just weren't getting any of that.

"That's why I got angry. I've been blessed with the ability to get angry. Anger is good when you use it to make something better. Most of the time I can do that."

Until Irving, the star freshman point guard from New Jersey, seriously injured his big toe on Dec. 4 in a game against Butler, Duke was an overwhelming favorite to win a second straight national title. Without Irving, the Blue Devils are still a deep, talented team but are now one of many that might be good enough to make a deep run in March.

Irving's foot is in a cast and will be re-examined next week. The worst-case scenario is surgery, which would end his season. The best case is the toe might heal on its own by the end of the regular season.

That's why Krzyzewski is obsessing about recasting his team, because almost every player must play a different role with Irving gone. That's why, as touched as he was by the lengthy ovation he received when the game ended Wednesday evening, he wanted to put it behind him so he could stop talking about Dean Smith and start worrying about Nolan Smith and his ability to run Duke's offense.

In advance of the milestone, Krzyzewski said all the right things about Smith - things he truly believes: Smith made him better because he set the bar so high at Chapel Hill, just eight miles down the road from Durham and the program he took over in 1980. He respected Smith because he did things the right way - he won with good kids and took care of his players from the day they set foot on campus.

"Dean made my job a lot harder," Krzyzewski said. "He wasn't the only one. Jimmy Valvano won a national championship at [North Carolina] State my third year. Bobby Cremins had a fantastic program at Georgia Tech. Lefty [Driesell] was doing great work and so was Terry Holland. It was an amazing league. But Dean was the benchmark. And because he was so good he forced me to be better."

There were people who couldn't stand how good North Carolina was in Smith's heyday and there are people who can't stand how good Duke is now. Several years ago, Smith pointed out that the pressure was tougher on Krzyzewski than it was on him. "There wasn't nearly as much media," he said. "There was no Internet. Every game wasn't on television. I know I wouldn't have enjoyed all the attention the best teams get now. I think Mike handles it very well."

Krzyzewski's greatest strength may be his ability to make failure work for him: to learn from it and grow from it. Just before his players got off the bus Wednesday, he showed them a tape of great players and coaches talking about winning championships and what it means. "I showed them this tape before practice yesterday," he said. "They didn't respond to it at all. I want to give them another chance."

A couple of hours later, they jumped to a 15-2 lead and never slowed down. When the buzzer sounded, no one had left in spite of the score. Mike Dement, the UNC Greensboro coach who was a volunteer assistant for Krzyzewski in his third season at Duke, walked over to offer congratulations.

The two men were standing on almost the exact same spot where Krzyzewski and Smith first shook hands at the end of a game a little more than 30 years ago in the old, early-season Big Four Tournament. North Carolina was about to win, 78-76. The Duke fans were cheering that night, too - glad the game had been close.

With his players inbounding with one second on the clock, Smith, who always believed in fast postgame exits, walked briskly to shake Krzyzewski's hand. Looking at the clock, Krzyzewski angrily said, "The game's not over, Dean."

As it turned out, in the grand scheme of things, he was right. The game was just beginning.

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