Shades of Coach K: Players, Coaches, Media Reflect as Legend's 1,000th Win Nears

Viv Bernstein@@viv_bernsteinSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 23, 2015


Will 1K happen Sunday? Will Madison Square Garden be the stage where Mike Krzyzewski becomes the first men's college basketball coach to reach 1,000 victories in his career?

How fitting that would be. Krzyzewski takes a 25-8 career record into his New York home-away-from-home when Duke faces St. John's at the Garden on Sunday afternoon. Whether it happens at the Garden or at Notre Dame on Wednesday—and here's betting no Duke fan wants the Blue Devils to show up at No. 2 Virginia next Saturday still at 999—this record has been inevitable for years.

When it happens, historians will have one more milestone and piece of evidence—along with the four NCAA championships, 25 ACC regular-season and tournament titles combined and two Olympic gold medals, among a lifetime of achievements—to debate where Krzyzewski stands among the greatest coaches of all time in any sport.

But ticking off what he has accomplished is easy. Arguing where he belongs in the hierarchy is academic. Understanding why he has been able to do all of that? Not so simple.

Maybe it's the military background. Maybe it's because Krzyzewski is the kind of coach who will dive on the floor for his team. Or come up with different strategies to win, even at age 67. Or find new ways to relate to 18-year-old freshmen; he probably isn't the only one in the Duke locker room who would blush at the sight of Beyonce. Or is it because, after all this time, he's still hungry for more?

Or maybe it's that potty mouth.

We'll leave it to those who know him best—his players, coaches and the media who have covered Duke for years—to explain why, after 40 years, Krzyzewski will be the first to four digits.

"Neither one of us scored a lot of points..."

The Cameron Crazies count toward 1,000.
The Cameron Crazies count toward 1,000.Ellen Ozier/Associated Press/Associated Press

Long before Gary Williams became head coach at Maryland and led the program to an NCAA title in 2002 while helping raise the intensity of its rivalry with Duke, he was a point guard for the Terrapins.

Maryland happened to play Army one year, so Williams had an opportunity to face its point guard at the time, Mike Krzyzewski.

"So I've known Mike a long time," Williams said. "He's tough. He played for Bobby Knight, so he was going to play good defense. We were a lot alike in fact as players. Neither one of us scored a lot of points. We were the point guards on our teams and had a lot of responsibility, and I think it helped both of us as coaches."

After playing and coaching at Army, Krzyzewski left West Point in 1980 to take over the Duke program. But in a way, West Point has never left Krzyzewski.

"He would attribute a lot, I think he would tell you, a lot to West Point," said Dick Vitale.

"His use of profanity is impressive…"

Krzyzewski is the model of decorum in his postgame press conferences. You would never imagine the language that comes out of him when the microphones aren't quite so close.

"He's really an intense guy," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I think he can really confront guys and can challenge them. Maybe the best word is he's great at challenging guys and probably challenging their manhood when needed."

And how might Krzyzewski accomplish that?

An unfortunate ref feeling Coach K's wrath.
An unfortunate ref feeling Coach K's wrath.USA TODAY Sports

"His use of profanity is impressive," Ed Hardin, the longtime columnist for the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, who has covered ACC basketball since 1984, wrote in an email. "He uses it as a weapon, to lash out at officials, to berate players and to fire himself up. He sometimes cusses just to cuss.

"A column I wrote off a [Georgia] Tech-Duke game in Durham a few years back apparently got the eye of the league, and a letter was sent out to all the ACC coaches to use decorum on the sidelines. Skip Prosser, the late Wake Forest coach, saw me a couple of days later and pretended to lock his lips shut with a key.

"'You think Mike even read that letter?' I asked Prosser. 'Hell no,' he said."

"All of a sudden, you see Coach dive…"

Duke was in the middle of a tight NCAA tournament game against Michigan in the round of 32 in 2011, and Krzyzewski decided he needed to send his team a message.

"We weren't playing well in the second half," said Todd Zafirovski, a reserve forward who spent most of five years from 2009-13 studying Krzyzewski from the end of the Duke bench. "I think he might have been even telling someone, 'you need to dive on the court.'

"All of the sudden, you see Coach dive on the floor in the middle of a huddle. We're all crowding around him, he jumps off of his chair and just dives on the floor. Everyone just kind of looked at each other. It's like, if he's going to do that, we have to be able to go out there and do that, too.

"He'll do whatever it takes even at—what is he now, 67 years old? He'll do whatever it takes."

Kyle Singler hits the deck versus Michigan in 2011, just like his coach showed him.
Kyle Singler hits the deck versus Michigan in 2011, just like his coach showed him.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

But players don't always like what he does. Just ask Charlotte Hornets veteran Gerald Henderson, who felt the wrath of Krzyzewski during his junior year in 2008-09. Years later, Henderson still remembers a meeting after a loss to Michigan in December that season.

"He asked me, 'How do you think you're playing?'" Henderson recalled recently. "I said, 'I'm doing all right. I feel like I should be doing this and that.' He said—and the best way I can say it is, he says, 'I think you're playing terrible.'"

In typical Krzyzewski fashion, the language was saltier than that, although Henderson didn't reveal the actual word choice.

As Henderson continued, "Basically, he was like, 'I look at you, you should play athletic, you should go to the basket, attack the basket, you should dominate the game defensively, too. You don't do any of that. …You're an athlete. You don't do anything athletic. The athletes I had, they dunk on people, they make athletic plays, they drive to the basket. …What are your ambitions, some of your goals when you leave here?'"

"I want to be in the NBA," Henderson told Krzyzewski. "He's like, 'Today, if I was an owner, GM or coach, I wouldn't draft you. NBA players, they do special things. I haven't seen you do anything special all year.'"

Message received.

Krzyzewski giving pointers to Gerald Henderson.
Krzyzewski giving pointers to Gerald Henderson.Jim R. Bounds/Associated Press/Associated Press

"That pissed me off," Henderson said. "Because at the time, I thought I was an NBA player. That was one of my long-term goals. But at the time, he was right, I wasn't doing anything special. I was just kind of out there playing, and our team was losing and we needed to play better. From that date on, I arguably played the best basketball I ever played. Not just because I wanted to prove to him I was an NBA player or I wanted to go to the NBA. It just kind of clicked in me, I've got to be responsible for how I play."

Drafted in the first round in 2009, Henderson is now in his sixth season with Charlotte.

"...competitive in every single way."

In Zafirovski's time at Duke, it wasn't unusual for Krzyzewski to shoot free throws during practice. Sometimes, he would even challenge his players.

"He'll hit one free throw and someone will miss their free throw," Zafirovski said. "He'll walk off the court and say, 'I won.' He's so competitive in every single way."

And that's one of the keys to Duke's teams under Krzyzewski: It's not just the talent that he signs for Duke—certainly the Blue Devils have their pick of top players every year. More importantly, it's how competitively they play under Krzyzewski.

Krzyzewski and Williams at a Duke-Maryland battle.
Krzyzewski and Williams at a Duke-Maryland battle.Sara D. Davis/Associated Press

"He gets his teams to play very hard," Gary Williams said. "In other words, he has good players and at the same time, that talent plays at a very high level in terms of their intensity. I think not every team does that with that kind of talent.

"The other thing they do a good job of as new players come into the program—even if it's a one-and-done guy—they accept playing the way Duke always plays, and it's a very team-oriented game. The idea that the ball's going to be passed, and things like that, is accepted and that's not true in every great player that comes to college nowadays. They don't want to buy into that, but they do at Duke."

"Converting negative to positive..."

Some teams win by getting players to fit into their system. Krzyzewski has always won by fitting his system to the players on his roster.

"He doesn't play the exact same way he played 10 years ago, 20 years ago," said Jay Bilas, the former Duke player-turned-ESPN broadcaster. "He's varied it depending on who he's got personnel-wise.

"He gets the best players and whatever style is best for them or whatever, whatever mode of playing is best for that group, that's the way he will play, and it maximizes their opportunities to win."

But it's not just adjusting to the players. It's Krzyzewski's ability to change day to day and game to game no matter what the circumstances that have allowed him to win so often.

"I think one of his most valuable traits has been his adaptability," John Roth, the longtime Duke radio color analyst and author of The Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball, wrote in an email. "He's changed things such as Duke's fast break and certain ball-screen defenses after his work with some of the NBA coaches on his USA staff and installed some zone principles from his collaboration with Jim Boeheim.

Coach K and Duke celebrating their 2001 national championship.
Coach K and Duke celebrating their 2001 national championship.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

"One of the best examples of his adaptability came late in the 2001 season when starter Carlos Boozer was injured in the last home game and Duke lost to Maryland. All that remained that season was a visit to UNC, then the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Virtually no one thought Duke had a chance to win at UNC with Boozer out, but Krzyzewski revamped the lineup and revised the style of play in just a couple of days. Duke not only beat UNC but also won the ACC and the NCAA.

"There are examples like this from almost every season. Just [last] week, after a two-game losing streak, he turned to a zone defense for much of the Louisville game to help protect the paint better, and it led to an impressive win. So adaptability, embracing change, converting negative to positive, those are among the many things that have served him well over the long term."

"...that Rocky eye of the tiger."

All of these years later, and apparently Krzyzewski still has something to prove.

Hill and Krzyzewski during their time together in Durham.
Hill and Krzyzewski during their time together in Durham.Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

"He had a hunger about him," Grant Hill said. "I think it was very obvious during the recruiting process, just how bad he wanted it. And how he was just, he was so, the competitiveness oozed off on him, you could feel it, you could sense it. When I played for him for four years, every day he was ready to come to fight. That was the attitude, the attitude that he brought as a coach, and I think certainly rubbed off on the players.

"I was at a game in November in Cameron. You could just see like he's still got, he still has that, I don't know, that Rocky eye of the tiger. Someone who has accomplished so much. He still has the hunger, almost like the attitude, 'I want to prove myself.' Considering all he's accomplished and he's been able to do, to still maintain that drive I think is in large part at least partially responsible for his continued success."

"...this guy's relentless."

Before Krzyzewski had built Duke into a national powerhouse capable of drawing the best players in the country, he was in an annual dogfight with Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Valvano at NC State and others to nab the top recruits in the state.

One of those recruits was David Henderson, a 6'5” guard who became part of the famed Blue Devils class along with Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Bilas that helped Duke reach the NCAA Championship Game in 1986. Author and Washington Post sports reporter John Feinstein is writing a book about the relationship and rivalry among Smith, Valvano and Krzyzewski.

Feinstein came up with this gem in talking to former Tar Heels assistant coach Eddie Fogler:

"Eddie Fogler told me a story," Feinstein said, "when David Henderson was a junior, he went to see the state playoffs first round and he was there, and the only other coach from a big-time program in the gym was Krzyzewski. And next night he went back again, because he liked Henderson a lot, Krzyzewski was there again. Finals, he didn't go back.

"Henderson's coach called him and said 'Oh, by the way, Krzyzewski was here the third night, too.' Fogler said that's when he realized—this guy's relentless. And he's gonna come after us and everybody else, and he's still relentless and still has as much desire to win every game as he had when he was 30 years old."

Krzyzewski and Smith.
Krzyzewski and Smith.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

And all these years later, is it possible Dean Smith is still motivating Krzyzewski? Perhaps in some ways. Indeed, Smith might be the reason why Krzyzewski doesn't appear anywhere near retirement at this point in his career.

"Mike doesn't mind the recruiting," Feinstein said. "He loves practice. He loves the relationship with the players, and he loves the competition. And that's why he's still doing it, and that's why he won't put a cap on when he's going to walk away. Because he doesn't want to be Dean and walk away too soon."

"He will quote LeBron..."

Krzyzewski not only has to find a way to relate to 18-year-old freshmen, he has to work with million-dollar professionals as coach of USA Basketball. How is he able to relate to and motivate both equally well?

"I have to admit being amazed at how Krzyzewski, even in his late 60s, finds a way to remain so energized and able to relate with players who are 40 or 50 years his junior," Steve Wiseman, sports editor and Duke beat writer for The Durham Herald-Sun, wrote in an email. "He's adapted to texting and is on Twitter (even though he uses that social media site under a secret alias).

"He's a big Beyonce fan. No, really. He is. You read that right. I was present when he was talking about being at an event to honor LeBron James, and Krzyzewski's seat in the front row was next to Beyonce. Her husband, Jay Z, was sitting on the other side of her. Krzyzewski blushed like a school girl when talking to us reporters about his experience sitting next to her. It was…interesting."

Krzyzewski also keeps in close touch with top professionals like James and Chris Paul, even when they are not preparing to play for USA Basketball. It is the relationships he built with top NBA stars that played a critical role in the success of the program, including gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Coach K getting smiles out of LeBron and Jay Z.
Coach K getting smiles out of LeBron and Jay Z.Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

"When he got the Olympic job, in a sense he recruited LeBron," Feinstein said. "He recruited Kobe [Bryant]. He recruited them in a sense that he knew he needed them on his side to get the rest of the guys to fall in line. And so, LeBron, when he gets Sportsman of the Year, what does he say: One of the most important influences in his life has been Krzyzewski.

"I think it's true of any team. If your best players are saying to the rest of the guys, 'Hey, the guy knows what he's talking about,' then the rest of them are more apt to buy in. I think it's obvious he made a conscious effort to make those guys buy into what he was selling. …He texts with LeBron all the time. He will quote LeBron to his own players at Duke because he knows they're going to listen to that. And he's always been—every great coach I've ever known has been a great communicator."

"...talk about changing a culture..."

The record of success, the coaching tree that includes everyone from Mike Brey to Johnny Dawkins at Stanford, Tommy Amaker at Harvard and about a dozen more, are all part of the legacy of Krzyzewski.

But his impact on the game can be seen in his work with USA Basketball. He helped change not only the performance, but the culture of the team.

"Ten years ago the narrative was: The rest of the world has caught up and it's no longer our game," Bilas said. "And now the narrative is, 'Look how much better our players are.' That happened in a 10-year period. Our players got better? That's not what happened.

"We put a program together. USA Basketball put a program together—largely Jerry Colangelo and Coach K. And they totally changed—talk about changing a culture—they totally changed it. And I think a lot of different organizations could use that as a model, specifically the PGA and the Ryder Cup. Because they're dealing with the same issues in their sport that we were in basketball 10, 12 years ago."

"...he won't dwell on it for very long."

Krzyzewski recently called the run-up to 1,000 an albatross for his young basketball team. Chances are, he isn't going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it once it is done.

"He'll sit back and probably have a glass of wine or two—he loves his wine—and think about it after the fact," Zafirovski said. "But he won't dwell on it for very long. He'll watch that game maybe once, twicethat's what he does every night after a game—and then he'll move on to the next game and get ready for whoever they play next."

Because with Krzyzewski, it isn't about the past. It's about the present.

Vitale ventures into the notorious Duke student section.
Vitale ventures into the notorious Duke student section.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"I remember sitting with him in his office," Vitale said. "And you can see the intensity, and the emotion. It was like a day before a big game. …We're sitting there talking, and he goes into an unbelievable dissertation about commitment, how 'My team right now has no clue what it takes to be a national champion, and I'm going to let them know today why. They wrote a goal down, obviously coming to Duke, it's to win a national title. Well I'm going to simply let them know that they have no clue.'

"Then he talked about the banners and the [Christian] Laettners and the [Bobby] Hurleys and the Grant Hills, but the intensity and the emotion like you could just see, he was all fired up to go talk to his kids. That tells you a little bit about the kind of guy he is. He's not about all the great things that have happened in the past. Mike is about today. He's all about today. How good are we going to be today?"

"I don't see him walking away..."

But what about tomorrow? At 67, what does he have left to prove?

Maybe that doesn't even matter. All that matters is that next game.

"If you'd have asked me 10, 12 years ago how much longer would he stay, I would have probably said, I don't know, five or six years," Bilas said. "But now, even though the end has got to be closer than the beginning, I don't see necessarily an end because he's more energetic now than he was a dozen years ago. He's more engaged—not that he wasn't engaged then, because he was.

"Everything's just so high-level, and I have a hard time kind of wrapping my head around the idea that—I don't even know, he's 67, 68 years old—because he doesn't seem that. Maybe it's just that his hair never changes color. But he doesn't seem it, he doesn't act it, he doesn't sound it. His coaching doesn't indicate it.

"I don't see him walking away in the very near future. I think he's going to be there a long time."

"...the side of Mike I think people don't see."

Plenty of college basketball fans hate Duke, hate what will happen Sunday or shortly thereafter and will never be able to embrace Krzyzewski no matter how many games he wins. Fair enough. You don't have to like the man to take a moment to understand why so many love and respect him.

People like Jay Williams, who helped Duke win the 2001 national championship but saw his NBA career cut short by a motorcycle accident. When Williams was considering turning pro after the 2001 NCAA tournament, he turned to Krzyzewski for advice.

"I thought there was no doubt, walking into that room, that he was going to tell me I needed to stay in school," Williams said. "So you naturally build up a defense system to that. But we sat down and I had one of the most eye-opening conversations I've ever with an individual. We went through the pros and cons of each situation, staying and leaving.

"At the end of it, he said, 'You know, Jay. You have to make whatever decision that's best for you and your family, whatever is in your best interest to grow as a human being and a man. But I dare you to be different. I dare you not to follow the norm. You always talk about wanting to be a pioneer. Well here's your chance to blaze your own path.'

"I left that room thinking on those words for a while. All of a sudden I thought, 'I don't want to be the norm.' The norm would've been to take the easy way out and to leave. I made the decision to stay in school.

Krzyzewski and Williams.
Krzyzewski and Williams.BOB JORDAN/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

"However my life worked out, even if I didn't get hurt, that was the best decision I ever made my entire life. That was a decision that was bigger than basketball. It was a decision about me wanting to better myself. I will be forever indebted to him for not telling me what to do, but for giving me the options and showing me how things could positively or negatively impact me. I look at him every day and say, 'Thank you, man. Thank you.'"

When Williams was hurt in that motorcycle accident, he said Krzyzewski was the first to visit him at the hospital.

It's hardly a surprise Krzyzewski would support a former player in a time of need. But how about a reporter—someone who would never have expected a call from Krzyzewski late one night?

"My father died nine years ago next month," Feinstein said. "Two nights later, Duke was playing at North Carolina, the day of the funeral and I got home from the funeral and I was wiped out as you would expect and it was a 9 p.m. game and I sat down to watch it and fell asleep in front of the television set. When I woke up, there was about a minute or so to go and Duke was up by two or three, something like that, in Chapel Hill. So I watched the last minute of the game. Duke won.

"About 45 minutes later—it was well after midnight—the phone rang and it was Krzyzewski and he just said, the first thing he said is, 'I knew you'd still be up.' I said, 'Yeah, nice win' or something like that. He said, 'I just wanted you to know that when I stepped into that last huddle...I looked up at the sky and said Martin, this one's for you.' And my dad's name was Martin. And I didn't even know how he knew that, cause he never met him or anything like that. And my dad was not a basketball fan.

"It just struck me. That's the side of Mike I think people don't see."

Senior writer Jason King contributed to this report.