Something was missing in Mike Krzyzewski’s yard. A gap between the William Penn barberry and an English holly created a discordant note in the otherwise harmonious landscape he’d composed. So on a Wednesday morning in mid-December, while members of his Blue Devil basketball team were busy with final exams, Krzyzewski drove to a Durham gardening store in pursuit of a burgundy-colored, deer-resistant Pieris japonica to fill the void and complement the color palette he’d orchestrated.
For a man whose intensity and drive are legendary, midweek flower shopping, especially during basketball season, may seem an odd errand. Although the team was in the middle of a weeklong lull for final exams, Krzyzewski had plenty on his to-do list that day, including a doctor’s appointment, a workout, several interviews, a team meeting, and a two-hour special edition of his weekly satellite radio show, broadcast live from Cameron Indoor Stadium. So why the botanical detour to peruse early-winter japonicas?
I love nature,” says the energetic coach, who turns sixty-five in February. “I love getting dirty and planting things and working on our land. Probably the only stores I go to in Durham anymore are gardening shops. I have good friends in these places.”
Mickie Krzyzewski has taken to calling basketball season “the black hole” because it consumes virtually everything else in its path. But for her husband and her family, the 2011-12 season represented an even more formidable vortex. Just three games into the season, the Blue Devils defeated Michigan State in Madison Square Garden to earn Krzyzewski his 903rd victory as a college head coach, the most ever in men’s Division I history. There were commemorative videos and posters, and countless visits and congratulatory calls from friends and former players. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year, along with Tennessee women’s coach and Sportswoman of the Year Pat Summitt. The usual flood of media requests that flow in during December turned into a tidal wave.
It’s been quite a ride for a man who, thirty-two years earlier, had needed to slowly spell his name for a handful of reporters covering his introductory press conference. Krzyzewski has won four national championships and virtually every award his profession bestows. Generations of players credit him with shaping their character, instilling leadership, making them men. He’s coached Team USA Basketball to Olympic gold in 2008 and will lead them again in 2012. CEOs seek his leadership advice. Hard-core fans pony up $10,000 each to participate in K Academy, a five-day basketball fantasy camp held every summer. Admirers from around the world send e-mail messages, letters, autograph requests, and gifts. Sincere young men write asking what they need to do to play for Duke and Coach K.
But had it not been for the dark days of a very different season seventeen years ago, it’s unlikely Coach K would be enjoying what he calls a “tsunami of success.” He might not even be coaching Duke basketball. The breaking down and rebuilding of Mike Krzyzewski was a pivotal point for a man who’s dedicated his life to winning basketball games. Accustomed to controlling every facet of his program, he had to learn how to let friends and colleagues take on some of the heavy lifting of running a high-visibility, multimillion-dollar franchise. In doing so, he has achieved even greater success on the court. And he’s developed a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for those quiet moments of contentment that most of the world never sees, from celebrating the arrival of his eighth grandchild in January to cavorting with his yellow lab Blue to finding the perfect Pieris japonica.
A ROCKY START
My name is Tom Butters. I’m the athletic director at Duke University, and I have the awesome responsibility of replacing Bill Foster as the basketball coach of Duke,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. Standing in the living room of the red-brick duplex in West Point, Carol Marsh “Mickie” Krzyzewski asked Butters to hold the line and handed the call to her husband, Army head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It was March 1980, and Foster had just announced he was leaving Duke to take the head coaching job at the University of South Carolina. Rumors began swirling almost immediately about which college coach would be tapped to take over a program that had made it to the NCAA finals just two years before. Newspaper columnists speculated about a short list of coaches, including Boston College’s Tom Davis, Old Dominion’s Paul Webb, Mississippi’s Bob Weltlich, Oklahoma’s Dave Bliss, and Duke assistant coach Bob Wenzel. The name Krzyzewski was never mentioned.
Butters admired Indiana University coach Bobby Knight, and part of his interest in Bliss and Weltlich was that they’d been on Knight’s coaching staffs at Army and Indiana. Former Blue Devil guard Steve Vacendak ’66 tipped Butters off to another Knight protégé. Mike Krzyzewski had played point guard for Knight at West Point and later served as an unpaid graduate assistant on Knight’s staff at Indiana. The thirty-three-year-old coach was in his fifth year at Army, where he had transformed a team that was 3-22 the season before he arrived, leading them to two appearances in the NIT.
Butters and Krzyzewski spoke at length. An interview was scheduled for March 13 in Kentucky, where Duke eked out a onepoint win over the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Eastern Regionals.
Other schools had already taken notice of the young coach. About the same time Butters came calling, Iowa State had offered Krzyzewski its head coaching job. But after that first interview with Butters, despite having no guarantee of a second interview, Krzyzewski thanked Iowa State for the offer and declined.
“When the Duke opportunity came up, even though I knew it was a long shot, I realized that was the type of school I wanted to be part of,” says Krzyzewski. “I thought it would be very much like West Point, and it was in the ACC, and so I turned the other job down.”
Butters couldn’t get Krzyzewski out of his mind. There was a second interview and then a third on campus. The story’s been told of how Krzyzewski was already at the airport to catch his return flight home when Butters realized with utter clarity that he’d found his man. Krzyzewski was brought back to Duke and offered the job, which he accepted on the spot, without asking the salary (around $40,000).
On Tuesday, March 18, the Durham Morning Herald ran a column titled, “Duke’s New Coach? He Begins With ‘W’,” which speculated that the next coach would likely be Weltlich, Wenzel, or Webb. Butters was quoted in the article saying, “There are no other people we are considering.” Later that same day, a press conference was held announcing Mike Krzyzewski as Duke’s new basketball coach.
Nearly thirty-two years later, when asked what that earnest young guy was thinking at that inaugural media event, Krzyzewski smiles and shakes his head slightly. “He should have been thinking about how naïve he was, and how green. I knew I was a surprise to everybody. I’ve always had a kind of spirit that I could win and that I would be willing to do whatever it took ethically to win. But I really didn’t know what I was getting into—the competitiveness and the talent level.” He later compared the experience to driving in Times Square after having only tooled around Durham.
The honeymoon period was brief. Losses mounted. Krzyzewski had known he was going to have a rough start—he’d been hired late enough in the season that he didn’t have time to recruit—but every defeat stung. At the end of his first three seasons the Blue Devils were 38-47. Iron Dukes members implored Butters to fire Krzyzewski. One letter writer told Butters he should have hired an American. “That stuff got me really angry, but I didn’t go home every day thinking I was losing my job,” Krzyzewski says. “I knew I had Tom on my side, and President Sanford, and [vice president for business and finance] Chuck Huestis, [former chancellor] Ken Pye and [vice president for government relations and university counsel] Gene Mc- Donald—I mean, those are the people who started the university on the track where it is today, and I knew that they believed in me. They were committed to me when it wasn’t fashionable.”
Krzyzewski’s program soon turned a corner. Simultaneously, the university was transforming itself into a nationally ranked academic and research institution. In 1984, the Blue Devils received their first NCAA bid under Krzyzewski’s leadership, and Duke’s campus was the cover image for the New York Times Magazine article on America’s “hot” colleges. Two years later, the Blue Devils made it to the finals of the NCAA Tournament.
“For a while I never thought I’d leave West Point, so when I came to Duke it wasn’t like I was using it as a stepping stone,” he says, insisting that there was never a master strategy for his career, no calculated three- to five-year plan. “I never thought that far in the future. It was just let’s try to win, let’s try to build a program and go from there.”
The 1980s also saw the explosive growth of cable television, including a soon-to-be sports media powerhouse called ESPN. In 1982, ESPN broadcast the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the first time those early games had ever been aired on television. Televised sporting events soon became a 24/7 phenomenon, and intercollegiate athletics became bigtime entertainment—and big-time business. By the time Duke won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992, “we were riding a wave of popularity,” says Krzyzewski. “We just hit it at the right time.”
At the time, no one could predict that the link connecting Duke University and Coach K would evolve into a long-term, symbiotic, and ultimately inextricable relationship.