NEW ORLEANS — A canvassing of Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career as an NCAA tournament coach doubles as a historical study of the sport itself.
No forum better showcased, defined and occasionally humbled Krzyzewski than the NCAA tournament over the span of 131 games. His rise to the pantheon of the most famous coaches in American sports paralleled the tournament’s rise to a linchpin national sporting event.
Krzyzewski would be high atop a short list of those who helped usher March Madness, bracket pools and billion-dollar CBS television deals into the mainstream. Over the span of his NCAA tournament life, Krzyzewski went from long-shot underdog on the brink of being fired to the coach who couldn’t win the big game to winning five national titles. Along the way, he and Duke became so successful and prominent that he eventually became divisive.
“He always had everyone believe that March was our time and his time,” said former assistant Mike Brey, now the coach at Notre Dame. “He’s the March guy. This is his time. Right now, he believes that, and it is. This is his time.”
Krzyzewski’s first NCAA tournament game came in 1984, one year prior to the bracket’s expansion in 1985. He has won an astounding 101 of those 131 NCAA tournament games, far more than Villanova’s Jay Wright and Kansas’ Bill Self combined (87).
To put in perspective the breadth of time, consider that 10 of the coaches he faced in the NCAA tournament have since died, from national title winners including Jerry Tarkanian (UNLV) and Lute Olson (Arizona) to smaller-school mainstays such as Rich Herrin (Southern Illinois) and Lafayette Stribling (Mississippi Valley State).
Duke has toppled giants like undefeated UNLV in the 1991 Final Four and been on the business end of seismic first-round upsets by No. 15 Lehigh (2012), No. 14 Mercer (2014) and first-round stunners from No. 11 VCU (2007) and No. 9 Eastern Michigan (1996).
Krzyzewski’s tournament path weaves through every corner of the sport’s history over the past two generations. He faced everyone from trailblazers John Thompson Jr. of Georgetown (1989) and Temple’s John Chaney (1988 and 1999) to ostracized coaches including SMU’s Dave Bliss (1988) and Winthrop’s Gregg Marshall (2002). He has faced Hall of Famers, from his mentor Bobby Knight (1987 and 1992) to Rick Pitino at both Kentucky (1992) and Louisville (2013) to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo six different times.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in a lot of these games,” Krzyzewski said Thursday. “And I don’t think there’s an exact formula. You just have to figure out how your team does it in this tournament. And I’ve enjoyed trying to figure that out with this group.”
All this weaves full circle back to this weekend in New Orleans, where the potential of NCAA tournament wins Nos. 102 and 103 would deliver a poetic crescendo to a career already entrenched among the sport’s icons. Two wins this weekend would deliver Krzyzewski his sixth national title, as he trails only John Wooden’s 10 titles.
The first Final Four foe is No. 8 seed North Carolina, the 100th time Krzyzewski will face UNC in his career. It’s also the first time Duke and UNC will face off in the tournament after 257 meetings and more than a century of competition.
“For [Duke-UNC in the NCAA tournament] to be a reality, it’s surreal,” said Steve Wojciechowski, a former Duke player (1994-98) and assistant (1999-2014). “I think it continues to take what is as good a college rivalry, if not the best, and adds another layer of folklore.”
The UNC game and a potential final on Monday, with Krzyzewski headed to retirement, assure that Krzyzewski’s NCAA career will end with either thunderclap victories or the ultimate spoiler. It’s fittingly high stakes for a coach who over five decades has become the NCAA tournament’s defining star.
FEW HINTS OF Coach K’s NCAA tournament dominance emerged from Pullman, Washington, when he made his tournament coaching debut on March 18, 1984. No. 6 seed University of Washington, playing in its league rival Washington State’s gym, upset No. 3 seed Duke 80-78.
There’s no question that Duke was on the wrong side of a coaching mismatch that day, as Marv Harshman coached the Huskies. He was in Year 38 of a 40-season head-coaching career that led to a Hall of Fame induction in 2006.
The game happened long enough ago that the Huskies wore Converse, pulled their socks high and the Washington Post game story notes two Washington starters from “West Germany,” including Detlef Schrempf.
Those ACC fans who’ve accused Duke over the years of receiving a favorable whistle will delight in the irony that the game ended on a controversial no-call that went against Duke. Star Blue Devils guard Johnny Dawkins collided with Huskies guard Clay Damon on a lob play at the buzzer. The refs didn’t call anything.
“I think you could have called it either way from an officiating standpoint, it was a snap decision,” said Dave Harshman, Marv’s son and a former broadcaster and NBA assistant. “It didn’t hurt that Washington was playing in Pullman.”
Duke got torched so badly by Schrempf that Duke forward Jay Bilas once introduced himself to Dave Harshman as “the guy who held Detlef to 30” in that game.
A lot has changed. The Berlin Wall fell. Converse has become basketball nostalgia. Marv Harshman passed away in 2013, after a career that began in 1945, when he was both head basketball and football coach at Pacific Lutheran. Krzyzewski versus Harshman means nine different decades of college basketball derive from that one game.
Krzyzewski got his first win the next season against Jim Harrick’s Pepperdine team, 75-62, at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston. When asked if he saw anything in Krzyzewski that portended this level of success, Harrick exclaimed: “Absolutely not! He was on the ropes.”
Mike Krzyzewski shares what it means for Duke to face rival North Carolina for the first time in the men’s NCAA tournament.
By the time Krzyzewski got that first NCAA win, his core of Dawkins, Tommy Amaker and Mark Alarie had begun to grow up. They’ve been rightly romanticized as the foundational class for that run, and the traits that eventually defined Duke under Krzyzewski showed up in that first victory.
“I run a great offense, Coach [John] Wooden’s offense,” Harrick said. “No one ever shut us down. They did as good a job of guarding us as anyone.”
Krzyzewski then lost in the next game to a nemesis who’d become a familiar foil, then-Boston College coach Gary Williams. Future NBA guard Michael Adams is credited by Williams for busting through that vaunted Duke defense in one of, by Williams’ count, nearly 50 different times he’d coach against Krzyzewski.
That included four times in one season that culminated in a historic Final Four game in 2001 that saw Duke erase a 22-point deficit and stun Maryland 95-84. Williams said one of Krzyzewski’s hallmarks as a tournament coach is that he avoided drastic change.
“They played the same as they did during the regular season,” Williams said. “You see some teams try and change, and Duke just put it out there every game. They played good defense, found the open man and made shots. They never went away from what made them good.”
MIKE BREY ATTENDED the Final Four in 1987 as a fan. He worked as Morgan Wootten’s assistant at DeMatha Catholic back then and slept on the floor of the hotel room of the late Colgate coach Jack Bruen. He’s still in disbelief that the next year he was coaching in the Final Four as a Duke assistant, kicking back tickets to Bruen as a thank you.
Brey went to the Final Four in six of his eight years as a Duke assistant, and that run coincided with the career arc of Krzyzewski from a talented rising coach to the one who couldn’t win “the big one” after falling in the Final Four in 1988 and 1989 and the national final in 1990.
Brey remembers a distinct change in Krzyzewski after Duke got blown out by UNLV on Monday night in Denver in 1990. “You would have thought we were 10-18 in that offseason,” Brey said. “All walking around with our asses tight. Because he’s tight.”
Duke made it back to the Final Four in 1991, sharing the stage with North Carolina but not playing the Tar Heels. Brey still gets goose bumps when he sees the footage from the final seconds of the win over Kansas at the old Hoosier Dome.
Krzyzewski turns to Brey, Amaker and Pete Gaudet on the Duke bench and says, “We’re national champions.” Brey adds: “It was so from the heart, both relief and celebration. There was a little bit of everything in that.”
Brey said he joked with his fellow assistants: “Can we smile now? Can we celebrate a little? Can we have a drink or something?”
The ability to get an entire organization locked in on one goal has always been Krzyzewski’s gift. “He doesn’t go play golf,” Brey said. “This guy at [age] 75 wakes up every morning in May, June and July and asks, ‘Whose ass am I beating in something today?’ It’s an amazing psyche to wake up with every day, to compete every day. That was permeated and verbalized. It was great to be around it.”
Wojciechowski recalls another seminal run for Krzyzewski as his reputation grew as the one of the sport’s best big-game coaches. Back in 2001, star big man Carlos Boozer broke his foot in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
When explaining what made Krzyzewski such an elite tournament coach, Wojciechowski says he vividly recalls him walking into the locker room and fighting off any hint of pessimism that would come with losing a linchpin player. He delivered a concise message to the locker room: “If you listen to me, we’ll win a national championship.”
Krzyzewski then went through the adjustments in personnel, style and lineups that would be needed for Duke to transition to life after Boozer, who did return and play later in the NCAA tournament. Duke went on to beat Arizona for the national title.
“That’s a time where most coaches and people say, ‘It’s not in the cards for us.’ That never came into his thinking or communication,” Wojciechowski said. “His focus and belief always went to an even higher level in the NCAA tournament. Everything is off the table, except for this mission.”
When Wojciechowski thinks back to the dozens of NCAA games he took part in as a player and coach at Duke, he distills Coach K’s success to an aura of confidence.
“There’s a sense of urgency he shows in March based on his actions that you feel,” Wojciechowski said. “I think the tendency is to fall in line with that. Does he yell more? I don’t know about that. I do feel like there’s a palpable sense of urgency that if you’re playing or coaching with him, it’s hard not to absorb.”
AT A HOTEL in Istanbul in September of 2010, Krzyzewski finished up his usual postgame routine with the USA Basketball staff after Team USA’s win in the quarterfinals over Russia.
Krzyzewski always watched the game his team just played and the most recent game of the upcoming opponent. But with a semifinal game against Lithuania looming, he felt like he needed more preparation.
So he declared to the staff that he’d be watching Lithuania’s prior two games, freeing the other coaches to go back to their rooms if they wished. (Poor Nate McMillan stuck around until nearly 5 a.m., while most others eventually succumbed to sleep.)
“He’s addicted to preparation, and I mean that in a good way,” said Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s national team director. “He loves to be prepared and loves to have his team prepared. He likes watching film, but it’s more than watching film. He has a level in his own mind, what it takes to feel prepared and be comfortable in his preparation.”
Krzyzewski finished his USA Basketball career with a record of 88-1 and 24-0 at the Olympics. The loss, which came to Greece in the FIBA world championships in 2006, helped transform USA Basketball in part because Krzyzewski and USA Basketball officials changed the level of preparation throughout the program.
Krzyzewski got criticized for not knowing some of the names and pronunciations of the Greek players after that loss, and he made sure that never happened again. In the macro, USA Basketball officials realized they needed bigger guards — think swapping Kirk Hinrich for Chauncey Billups — and more mobile players at the 5 — think swapping Chris Bosh for Brad Miller.
Also, international teams don’t tend to run pick-and-roll to create mismatches like NBA teams do. By having a more mobile five-man and switching all screens, Team USA became more disruptive defensively.
After winning the FIBA AmeriCup in 2007 and Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008, Krzyzewski combined the experiences to fuel nearly a decade of perfection. “We didn’t know everything we needed to know,” Ford said. “After 2006, he knew how to win an international tournament. He had been through it before.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim served as a mainstay assistant on Krzyzewski’s USA Basketball staffs and also coached against him twice in the NCAA tournament, losses in 1998 and 2018. Boeheim saw from all angles what made Krzyzewski an elite coach in do-or-die settings.
“He’s a master at working with players,” Boeheim said. “When they have to be got on, he gets on them. When they need something else, that’s what he brings. He’s really good at figuring out what the team needs and each individual needs. I think it’s the mental approach to coaching that he’s the best at.”
WHEN KRZYZEWSKI walked into Caesars Superdome with his team for a workout on Thursday, he implored the Blue Devils to “take a few minutes to let it all sink in.”
In his news conference, Krzyzewski brushed aside any syrupy storylines and offered some insight into his final season at Duke. In June, Krzyzewski announced he’d be stepping down and that assistant Jon Scheyer would be taking over. Soon after, the notion that this season could end with Duke in New Orleans became a tantalizing possibility.
“I didn’t do this season to have a storybook,” Krzyzewski said. “I did it because I wanted to coach one more year, and I wanted to have a good succession plan for our program. And we’ve won 32 games, and my guys have been terrific.”
Krzyzewski went on to illustrate the lengths he has gone to deflect any emotion he’s feeling in his final season. “Any emotion that I’ve shown, it’s not been because it’s my last season,” he said. He added: “If you’re being emotional for … your last season, you’re really a selfish person. Although there are people out there that think I am. In this respect I am not.
“I have always thought that shared emotion is the best. And to be able to share that emotion and accomplishment with these guys has been really good.”
On Saturday, there will almost assuredly be a camera following every one of Krzyzewski’s steps from the locker room to the court as he coaches in the historic 132nd game of his NCAA tournament career. His walk is close to a hobble now, as he has had two hip replacements, serious back issues that stretch over decades and a knee replacement. At 75, the long career, endless travel and constant stress have taken hold.
Brey shared an observation from Notre Dame assistant Ryan Humphrey prior to the teams’ game this season. Humphrey pointed out that Krzyzewski and Brey were the same height when they shook hands before the game. That would make him three inches shorter than when Brey started working for him in 1987.
All those practices, late nights and endless film sessions take their toll in different ways. And they’ve culminated, five decades after his first NCAA tournament as a head coach, in an opportunity to lead his final team to a national championship. Krzyzewski’s focus is to “be all-in on Saturday and accept the consequences.”
But the rest of the nation is going to view his final spin through the tournament via the grander prism of the most prolific coach in tournament history and his final salvo.
“Knowing Coach, I think he’s completely immersed in the moment for this group,” Wojciechowski said. But he added: “However many years down the road, when he puts on the nostalgia glasses, to walk out as a national champion the last day you’re going to coach. It’s a script made in Hollywood.”
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Coach K’s 101-win, five-decade NCAA tournament career maps the rise of a legend
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