When Mike Krzyzewski became basketball coach at Duke 10 months ago, several of his friends in coaching warned him about the hazzards of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"It won't take you long," said one, "to get tired of all the Dean Smith stuff."
Krzyzewski laughed. "I try not to get that emotional about things," he said.
Six months later, Krzyzewski coached against Smith in the Big Four tournament. With one second left and North Carolina about to win 78-76, Smith walked over, shook Krzyzewski's hand and said, "Good game, Mike."
Krzyzewski pulled his hand back angrily and snarled, "The damn game's not over yet, Dean."
So much for not getting emotional. Welcome to the ACC.
"The thing I've learned in the last 10 months is that you can't really understand coaching in this league until you've been through it once. Every experience here is different than any other place I've been."
Krzyzewski was in a restaurant late on a Thursday night, nervously thinking about the game coming up against Maryland Saturday at 3 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7). Twenty games into his ACC coaching career, he has just passed his first major test -- getting his players to believe in him.
"You can't ask kids to just accept you on day one," he said. "You have to prove to them that you know what you're talking about, that you know what you're doing."
That was no small task for Krzyzewski. At the tender (by ACC standards) age of 33, he was asked to take over last March for Bill Foster, a man who turned Duke from a joke into a national power in six years. At the same time that Foster left for South Carolina, 6-foot-11 Mike Gminski, a major factor in Duke's three straight 20-win seasons, graduated.
So Krzyzewski was left without a center, coaching a team full of Foster's players who were used to Foster's system and Foster's ways.
"It took us a while to understand exactly the kinds of things Coach K. wanted us to do," said senior forward Kenny Denard. "After a while, though, we started noticing that when we did something the way he wanted us to, we were better. That got us convinced pretty quickly."
Krzyzewski, a 1970 Army graduate, was a 6-foot-2 point guard under Bobby Knight. After his stint in the Army, he coached for a year under Knight at Indiana, then spent the next five years coaching at his alma mater, where he produced the school's first 21-win season since Knight's departure.
He says he likes Knight's philosophy of basketball, but not his philosophy of life.
His team plays an agressive, man-to-man defense, and without a big man in the middle, the Blue Devils try to keep the pace of the game slow.
They have adapted to that style well enough to win five of their last six, improving their record to 12-8 (3-5 in the ACC).
Krzyzewski has been working with individual players to convince them that they can play his style and win.
Example: junior guard Vince Taylor. Taylor may have been affected more than any other player by the loss of Foster, with whom he had become very close. He and Krzyzewski got off to a rocky start, and the new coach was unhappy with Taylor's often sloppy play. On Jan. 17, Krzyzewski benched Taylor against North Carolina.
"The entire next day I couldn't get Vince off my mind," Krzyzewski said. "Here was a good kid, with all sorts of talent, and he just wasn't playing the way he could. I couldn't get him out of my head."
Finally, at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, Krzyzewski drove to Taylor's apartment and knocked on the door. The two talked into the early hours of the morning and agreed on two things: Taylor would move to point guard to try to use his quickness more effectively, and he and the coach would look at films of each upcoming opponent the day before the game. Since then, Taylor has been like a new player, and he's been a key man in Duke's current streak.
Now that his players believe in him, Krzyzewski must move to a bigger task: recruiting.
"We need to recruit tough kids here," said Krzyzewski, who can be tough in practice, but also has a sharp wit and a clever sense of humor. "We aren't going to recruit a lot of people because of the academics here. That means those we get have to be willing to work hard and all of them have to contribute."
Krzyzewski is confident that he can recruit those players and get the program back to the high level it reached under Foster's direction.
Recently, as he sat in Cameron Indoor Stadium, gazing at the championship banners that ring the arena's ceiling, Krzyzewski was asked about the upcoming rematch with Smith and North Carolina. Before he could answer, a listener said: "Historically, Carolina does well in here."
Krzzyzewski glared at the speaker for a second, then smiled. "I don't care about history," he said."I'm interested in the future."