We would love to know, in his heart of hearts, what Tom Butters thought when he met, interviewed and then hired Mike Krzyzewski in 1980.
We believe him when he said that he thought Coach K was the brightest young coaching talent in America. But what else did he think? Did he imagine it was a home run? Did he see it as inevitable? Was there any anxiety about the hire?
We’re guessing that he was pretty sure because Butters was a very self-assured man. And of course he turned out to be right. But did he imagine that it would turn out as brilliantly as it has?
Who can know?
But it did.
Not that it was easy.
Coach K’s first year was pretty solid and might have been better had Gene Banks not missed a couple NIT games with an injury. Duke lost to Purdue; Nolan Richardson won it with Tulsa. It was Richardson’s first year coaching as well. They would meet soon enough in the NCAA Tournament, twice, with K winning first in the Final Four in 1990 and Richardson winning the national title over Duke in 1994.
There was a long road for K to get there though. His second and third years were really challenging with Duke putting up records of 10-17 and 11-17 and infamously losing to Wagner. In 1982-83, Duke would get just clobbered by Ralph Sampson and Virginia in the ACC Tournament, 109-66.
That game would go into myth after Coach K swore to never forget and it would be years before Virginia beat Duke again (for an alternate history read this. That means you especially, Jay Bilas).
Of course, the next year, the freshman were older and Tommy Amaker would arrive and Duke started winning. And other than 1994-95 and the Covid season, the winning has never stopped.
It’s been an extraordinary ride. There are many reasons for that but some of the main ones are Mike Krzyzewski’s extraordinary desire to compete, his ability to communicate better than most professional psychiatrists and therapists and, crucially, his ability to wield anger like a thunder bolt.
His intense competitive nature is easy to see and we don’t need to go into that. Every coach has that. For some, it burns out over time. It never has with Krzyzewski.
His ability to communicate bluntly and honestly with his players is phenomenal. He did it as a young coach - Bilas has talked about it a lot this month - and obviously once he became iconic people were going to listen.
But people are still listening. Zion Williamson listened. Grayson Allen listened. Kobe listened. LeBron listened. Even now, Paolo Banchero listens. Mark Williams listens. Theo John listens.
They all listened. They all got better.
The one thing about Coach K that we never fully understood, and aren’t sure we could do well with, is his anger.
That’s not a slight on him. Not everyone can play for Duke. In his recent interview with Jayson Tatum, JJ Redick said he was feeling some PTSD. He was joking - we think.
But what’s remarkable is that we think K’s anger is probably just as intense as that of his mentor, Bob Knight’s. But K controls his. And he doesn’t just control it. He channels it and makes it useful. How many people can feel anger as intensely as he clearly does at times and then make something positive out of it? How many people have the emotional intelligence to realize that what could destroy you could also become something very valuable?
It’s a mystery to us but it’s unquestionably one of his greatest assets as a coach. We got a flash of insight at Clemson this year when Wendell Moore suffered a dangerous foul at the hands of Tiger David Collins. One Clemson player - maybe PJ Hall - said he thought that Coach K was going to fight the entire team.
And he sounded kind of scared too! Can you imagine a strapping 20 year old scared that a 75 year old man was coming for him and his whole team?
But in a remarkably short period of time, Coach K had tamped it down, spoken to Clemson coach Brad Brownell and hugged Collins in a remarkable act of public forgiveness.
All of this in the space of seconds. It was emotionally dazzling.
In a million years, Knight could never have done that. And as a side note, you have to wonder what Krzyzewski learned at West Point from Knight, with his endless bullying and mind games. You can imagine a fiery young Mike Krzyzewski watching, studying, thinking, okay I’m at West Point, I have to take his crap, but I’m never going to be out of control like that.
You can’t imagine him not learning from that, can you?
And that’s another quality of Krzyzewski's that must be mentioned: one reason he has continued to improve as a coach, even into his 70s, is that he constantly challenges himself to learn. When he took the Olympic job, frankly, we had reservations. We thought, like John Feinstein, that he was overextending himself, that recruiting would suffer.
We also felt that he had earned the right to do it and if it hurt Duke, well, we’d deal with that.
For his part, K insisted that it actually would help Duke and he was right. He built immense respect, Duke became even more of an international brand and recruiting picked up dramatically.
Understandably, the anger is what people who aren’t Duke fans focus in on. You see him on the sideline, snarling, cursing, totally focused on his job and you think, well that’s who that guy is.
But it’s not who he is - it’s part of who he is.
He’s also a man who has quietly helped many, many people who needed it. You know where we’ve seen it a lot?
In stories about people who have died. Family members say that, for whatever reason, Krzyzewski reached out to them, encouraged them, inspired them. A lot of times it seems o have been (forgive us) out of the blue.
Our friend Bobby Salmon talked online recently about seeing Coach K at a function. We hope he won’t mind us posting this excerpt:
“Something I witnessed about 15 years ago told me more about Coach K than anything I’ve ever read or witnessed on the court. I attended a Rotary Club meeting at the Durham Civic Center one day because the speaker was going to be Coach. Most of us had already been through the buffet line when he arrived and he was making his way to the line to fix a plate. He stopped to speak to a few folks that he knew as he worked toward the back where the food was being served. As he started fixing his plate a food service worker was filling the salad and moved away to let him fix his. Coach stopped what he was doing and engaged this women in about a 10 minute conversation. I was close enough to hear part of the discussion and it was all about her and her family and her interest. She did not even know who he was...all she knew was this man cared enough to spend a few minutes finding out about her life. He didn’t see a food service worker to be ignored but rather he saw a person that needed to be spoken to. I could not tell you the first thing he talked about during his address to the club but will never forget his interaction with that woman.”
These are the sorts of things that people who, for whatever reason (and we certainly don’t expect them to share our passion by the way), can’t stand Duke or Coach K don’t know or see.
When you get past the immense competitiveness, the laser-like focus and the anger that he wields like a summer thunderbolt, the man is fundamentally decent and compassionate, a product of both his parents and what the best elements of what Catholicism instilled in him: be devout. Be kind. Don’t put yourself above a lady who is serving your meal. Respect the man who cleans your floor. We believe that he believes that those people are just as worthy of respect as he is.
Make no mistake, he has m***********g flaws like the rest of us. If you don’t believe us, ask Mrs. K; we’re sure she could list more than you’d care to know.
But at the end of the day, at the end of this very long life of basketball he has shared with us, a major part of the reason why Duke fans love Coach K so unreservedly is because he is, at heart, a nice Polish boy from Chicago who turned out to have some very special gifts that he shared with many, many people.
And because of that, he became, and will always remain, one of us.