There were bus rides to remember, long and monotonous, down from the cold, stark highland of upstate New York to the supple marshes of the Chesapeake Bay for the Navy game. In winter, the dress gray uniform he wore seemed cut from a bolt of cloth the same unforgiving color as the West Point sky. Year upon year, first as a cadet, later as their coach, he'd make that trip understanding that no matter how much better his team was than their team, somehow the game would be closer than it should be. Almost 20 years later he would remember the games well, and say that "they were like going to war."
Army had fine, dogged teams then, winning 20 games first under Tates Locke, then under Bobby Knight, and playing in the NIT when it was an invitation worth dressing up for. But no coach at Army ever won more than 22, and Army has never been to the NCAA. You've read enough about the five-year commitment to know how difficult it is to attract blue-chip basketball talent to a service academy. So if anyone would appreciate how improbable it was for a Navy basketball team to be playing for a spot in the Final Four, if anyone had reason to marvel at the Navy team winning 30 games in a season, it was Mike Krzyzewski, U.S.M.A. Class of 1969. "It's sensational what Navy's done," Krzyzewski said. "Having coached at Army, I can say that: sensational."
It isn't too terribly hard to imagine the ambivalance Krzyzewski must have felt as he walked on the court at the Meadowlands on Sunday and stared up into the hopeful eyes of so many Midshipmen, standing tall and proud in their shiny gold-braided uniforms. "We went after each other when we played, but there was no team Army respected more than Navy," he said. Times and circumstances moved Krzyzewski from West Point to Duke, but respect isn't something that's damaged in transit. "If they weren't in our draw, of course I'd want them to get to the Final Four." Krzyzewski didn't relish being the one to roust Navy's dream, but he had a dream of his own. So given the history involved, it isn't too terribly hard to imagine what Krzyzewski thought when he saw the banner that read: "Nuke Duke." Krzyzewski thought what any good cadet would: Beat Navy.
"The fact that I played and coached at Army, I think I was better prepared to be ready for Navy than someone else would have been," Krzyzewski said after Duke's compassionate 71-50 victory. "There was no way I was going to overlook Navy, whether they had David Robinson or not. No way. I told my players how a team like Navy -- or Army for that matter -- approaches a game. The kids at service academies are different. They don't quit, not even when they're down much too far to come back. That's an attitude they develop every day, on the court and off it. You're taught never to give up, and you learn not to. It becomes part of you. The first things you learn as a plebe are: yes sir; no sir; no excuse, sir. You're mission oriented, accomplishment oriented.
"I remember coming back on the bus after games, crying because we lost. We put so much into it that when we failed it was so tough to accept. It was more than just a game to us. We took it more personally. I told my players that Navy wouldn't back off an inch, they'd keep on coming no matter what the score was. I wanted to try and make them understand the responsibility academy kids feel. They go to schools specifically set up for leadership. The students there know someday they'll be leading men, perhaps into combat."
Krzyzewski smiled. "It's funny, you know. I told them all that, I prepared them the best I can, and then I looked around the room." Now Krzyzewski's voice trailed off and he blushed. "And I said: 'I need you to win this one for me. I just can't lose to Navy.' It's a love-hate relationship," Krzyzewski explained, "I really didn't want to have to play them, but once we did, I really wanted to beat them."
Well after it was over the Navy players were dressing, their glorious 30-5 season suddenly, stunningly doused. They were being asked whether the last puff had soured the whole cigar. Most thought not. There was pain in the defeat, but neither death, nor dishonor. "We played hard," Cliff Rees said. "We didn't play well, but we played hard." Regretfully they accepted the defeat, though not the margin, and tried consoling themselves with the long view. However, Robinson -- and this was understandable since he has the most talent among them, a great talent really -- was disconsolate. "I blame myself more than anyone," he said. "Maybe in a week or so I'll say we had a great year, but not now. Now I feel embarrassed. I feel like hiding my head under the pillow in my room."
There was a bus waiting and Navy got on it, settling in for a depressingly long and quiet ride home. Krzyzewski knew how the ride would feel. He'd been on some of his own. "I wanted to go into their locker room after the game and say something to them," Krzyzewski said. "I struggled with it. I was fearful they might take it wrong, like I was grandstanding, so I didn't do it. But I wanted to tell the players, 'Listen, I coached and played at Army when Army basketball was great, and what you've done far exceeds all of that. To get 30 wins, to play for the Final Four at a service academy is remarkable. I feel so proud of you. I hope you can feel that proud of yourselves.' "
All in good time.