With Krzyzewski set to retire next season after 42 years as Duke’s basketball coach, my most vivid memory is from March 1983, when very few people thought he was going to end up becoming one of college basketball’s iconic figures, with five national championships and a record 1,170 victories. It was a miserable, rainy night in Atlanta, and Duke had lost to Virginia, 109-66, in the ACC tournament to finish 11-17 and bring Krzyzewski’s three-season mark with the Blue Devils to 38-47.
Two hours later, I was sitting in Atlanta’s Omni watching Maryland play Georgia Tech in the final game of the night when Bobby Dwyer, then a Krzyzewski assistant, approached me and my good friend Keith Drum, who was then the sports editor of the Durham Morning Herald.
“You guys have to come out to the hotel when this game’s over,” he said to Drum and me.
“Why?” we both asked.
“Because [Mike’s wife] Mickie is in the room crying, convinced Mike’s getting fired,” Dwyer said. “The alumni are all over [Duke Athletic Director] Tom Butters in the lobby, screaming that he has to fire Mike right now or they’ll never give the school another penny. Mike’s got to get out of the hotel. You have to come and convince him to get out of there.”
After Drum and I finished writing, we rode with Dwyer to Duke’s hotel on the Atlanta perimeter. From there, we went to a nearby Denny’s. Water was served. Tom Mickle, Duke’s sports information director, picked up a glass and said, “Here’s to forgetting tonight.”
Krzyzewski picked up his glass and said, “Here’s to never f---ing forgetting tonight.”
Duke beat Virginia the next 16 times they played, beginning the next season when it went 24-10 and began the remarkable string of seasons that put Krzyzewski on college coaching’s Mount Rushmore with John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bob Knight, Krzyzewski’s mentor.
Krzyzewski never forgot that trip to the Denny’s. He would often bring it up as the night when he realized that if he wanted to succeed at his job, he had to be better. Duke started four freshmen that season: Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas. A talented point guard named Tommy Amaker was going to be a freshman the following fall. At one point, when Dwyer pointed out that Tom Sheehey, a hard-nosed forward who had orally committed to Virginia, still hadn’t signed and might still be recruitable, Krzyzewski shook his head vehemently.
“First of all, we don’t do that,” he said. “Second, if we don’t win with these four freshmen and Amaker next season, we should get fired.”
Krzyzewski graduated from West Point, where the only three answers a plebe was allowed to give an upperclassman were: yes, sir; no, sir; no excuse, sir. He once told a story about his roommate splashing mud on his boots while they were walking to class. Sure enough, an upperclassman showed up a minute later and began screaming at Krzyzewski about his boots.
“No excuse, sir,” he kept repeating.
“The thing is, there was no excuse,” he said, years later. “I didn’t react when the mud got on the boots. I should have turned, run back to the barracks and gotten a different pair of boots. Instead, I kept going, hoping I wouldn’t get caught.”
That’s the way he always coached: no excuse, sir. If we aren’t good enough to win with the guys we recruited, we should get fired. If we lose to Wagner, it’s on the coach for not getting the players ready to play. If we lose to UNLV in the national championship game by a record 30 points, Jerry Tarkanian did a much better job coaching.
Still, losing infuriated him. After losing a close game in 1984 to a North Carolina team led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, he screamed that there was a double standard in the ACC when it came to officiating: one for Dean Smith and one for everyone else.
Smith was furious, and years later, Krzyzewski realized he was right. “The officials didn’t beat us that night,” he said. “Michael Jordan did.”
By that point, coaches and media and fans insisted there was a double standard in the ACC and the beneficiary was Krzyzewski. He bridled at the idea but never lost his sense of humor about it.
I asked him once on a radio show how his team looked in late October. “We played with officials in practice for the first time yesterday,” he said. “We were awful, fouling on every play.”
“Yeah, but the officials didn’t call it right?” I said. “They never call fouls on Duke.”
“I know,” he laughed. “All the games we’ve won, the championships, it’s only because we get all the calls.”
You have to get a lot of calls to win 1,170 games.
He will turn 75 in February, and he knows it’s time. There’s certainly nothing left to prove. I know this past season wore him out mentally and physically. If not for the pandemic, he might have retired this past March. Now he will go out after a complete season with fans in the stands and — he hopes — one last good team.
Of all the words spilled on Krzyzewski, the best line I ever heard was from Bilas, who was a graduate assistant while going to law school after being the starting center on Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team in 1986.
Bilas said, “When you sit in the room with him for hours and hours as an assistant and you listen to what he’s saying, you eventually figure something out: None of this is an accident. He is the smartest guy in the room.”
He’s also the best guy in the room. On the night of my father’s funeral in February 2006, Duke played at North Carolina — 9 p.m. tip-off, of course. I came home just before the game started and fell asleep watching. I woke up with about a minute to go and Duke hanging on to a narrow lead. When the game ended, a four-point Duke win, I sat down at my desk, too wired to sleep.
Not long after midnight, the phone rang. I picked up thinking it would be my brother or sister.
“I figured you’d still be up.”
It was Krzyzewski.
“Hey, nice win,” I said.
“I just called because I wanted you to know when I stepped into our last huddle, I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Martin, this one’s for you.’ ”
I have no idea how he knew my dad’s name was Martin. But he did because his heart is as big as his mind is sharp.
Duke will miss him. College basketball will miss him more.
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