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Looking Back: Mike Krzyzewski’s First Year At Duke, Part I

A transitional year with some major

Mike Krzyzewski became a legend at Duke, but before he did, there were some frustrating times

Bill Foster coached his last game at Duke on March 15, 1980. It was an Elite Eight game against Purdue, in Lexington, Kentucky. The Boilermakers won 68-60. They went to the Final Four, Foster went to South Carolina and Duke AD Tom Butters went to West Point, selecting unknown Mike Krzyzewski to replace Foster.

Foster did not leave an entirely-empty cupboard for his successor. All-America center Mike Gminski and solid point guard Bob Bender graduated. But Krzyzewski inherited nine returnees, including three very good starters.

Seniors Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard were bookend forwards, both around 6-8, 220 pounds. Neither was a prototype power forward, neither a prototype wing forward. Just basketball players. Junior Vince Taylor was a skilled, athletic wing. Sophomore Tom Emma was more of a shooting guard than a point guard but he was a capable, acceptable replacement for Bender. Sophomore Chip Engelland, senior Jim Suddath and talented walk-on senior Larry Linney gave Duke quality depth on the wings.

But there was a problem at center.

Duke didn’t have one.

Maybe it was the presence of Gminski, a four-year starter. But Foster missed on Steve Stipanovich, missed on Greg Kite, missed on Brett Bearup, even tried with Ralph Sampson. Imagine a Sampson-Gminski twin towers. Foster was trying to arrange a Spring 1980 visit from Sam Perkins but that never happened. He lost Bill Ross to Clemson, Jeff Pehl to Richmond, Pete Budko to North Carolina. He simply could not recruit a big man after signing Gminski.

Which left Krzyzewski with 6-8 sophomores Mike Tissaw and Allen Williams, neither of whom was actually a center. Tissaw worked hard but was athletically challenged and not especially skilled; he would end his Duke career shooting 42 percent from the field and 53 percent from the line, with more than twice as many turnovers as assists. Williams was more athletic but lacked consistency and focus.

Tissaw would average 4.5 points and 3.9 rebounds as a starter in 1981, Williams 3.2 and 1.8 off the bench, a meager combination of 7.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game from the center spot. Gminski had 97 blocks in 1980. The entire Duke team had 50 in 1981, led by Dennard, with 10.

In other words, enough talent to compete but not enough to dominate.

And how would these holdovers adjust to the new guy?

Bill Foster was 50 years old when he left Duke. He was a laconic veteran, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a tendency to repress his emotions. Krzyzewski was a 33-year-old fireball. Foster’s teams played some man-to-man but lots of zone. Krzyzewski was determined to build his program on the man-to-man. Dennard and Banks were free spirits. Most of Krzyzewski’s adult years at been spent at an institution where free spirits generally were not rewarded.

A few years ago I talked to Dennard about the transition and he belied any suggestion that Krzyzewski was hamstrung by his military background.

“People are sometimes surprised to hear this but he was very patient. He was a teacher. If the effort was there, he would work with you over and over.But the effort had to be there. He wanted you to be the best you could be but he didn’t try to turn you into something you weren’t.”

John Feinstein interviewed Krzyzewski for the 1980-’81 ACC Basketball Handbook.

Krzyzewski discussed a hypothetical critical fan.

“Personally, though, I won’t give a damn what he thinks. If I think I did a good coaching job, if those I’m close to think I’ve done a good coaching job, if my players think I’ve done a good coaching job, I’ll be happy.”

Jim Valvano took over from Norm Sloan about the same time as Krzyzewski moved south. They moved into a tough neighborhood that included Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland.

The ACC had eight teams in 1980 and tons of talent, talent which wasn’t always allowed to shine. There was no shot clock, no three-point shot and lots of boring basketball. Duke had seven games that season in which neither team hit the 60-point mark. Banks ended up leading the ACC in scoring, at 18.5 points per game. Wake Forest led the ACC with 77.3 points per game, while Virginia barely allowed 60.

Maryland began the season ranked fourth in the AP poll, followed by Virgina at eighth and North Carolina at 13th. Wake Forest was unranked at the beginning of the season but hit the poll two weeks into the season.

Tough neighborhood.

Duke opened with wins over Stetson and South Florida. The Big Four Tournament was next. Duke lost to North Carolina 78-76, a game Duke would have won with better foul shooting down the stretch. But Valvano’s Wolfpack plastered Duke 74-60 in the consolation game.

It was a one-step-forward, one-step back kind of season for Duke. The Blue Devils beat Vanderbilt on the road, Pennsylvania at home. But Tennessee beat Duke 90-69 in the Sugar Bowl Tournament in New Orleans.

And Duke simply could not get a signature win. Krzyzewski’s first five games against nationally-ranked teams resulted in losses.

That changed on January 24, when Clemson visited Cameron.