Former Duke men’s basketball players recall coach Mike Krzyzewski’s early days
On March 2, 1980, a day after Duke won the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, Bill Foster resigned as the team’s coach, effective at the end of that season. The next day, Foster accepted the coaching job of South Carolina, signature a five-year contract for $50,000 per year.
The news came as a surprise to outsiders given that Foster had turned the Duke program on its head since taking over six years earlier, including leading the Blue Devils to the national title game in 1978 where they lost to Kentucky.
Shortly after Duke’s 1980 season ended with a loss in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, then-Blue Devils athletic director Tom Butters hired Foster’s successor: Mike Krzyzewski, who had just to turn 33 a month earlier.
Today, Krzyzewski, who is retiring at the end of the season, is the winningest manager in Division 1 history with 1,202 wins. And he has a chance this weekend to culminate his career with his sixth national title at Duke. The Blue Devils will face rival North Carolina on Saturday in the Final Four, the first time the schools have faced each other in the NCAA Tournament. The winner advances to play either Villanova or Kansas for the championship on Monday.
However, 42 years ago, Krzyzewski was anything but a safe bet. Krzyzewski came to Duke after spending the previous five seasons as an Army head coach, his alma mater. In his final season at school, Army went 9-17.
“It was a bold move on the part of Tom Butters,” said Kenny Dennard, senior captain of Krzyzewski’s first team at Duke. “He felt like it was the right decision. And he was right.
And yet, Krzyzewski did not create a sensation overnight. He took over a Blue Devils team that had lost 6-foot-11 center Mike Gminski at graduation. Gminski had been an All-American and a first-round selection in the 1980 NBA draft.
That first season, Duke went 17-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament. It was a far cry from the previous three seasons when the Blue Devils appeared in three NCAA tournaments, advancing to the 1978 title game, making the second round in 1979 and losing in the Middle East Regional Final in 1980. The Blue Devils had been ranked as high as first in the Associated Press poll during the 1978-79 and 1979-80 regular seasons.
“We’ve taken the country by storm,” said Dennard, a 6-foot-8 forward. “We were a bunch of fun-loving kids. We had great chemistry. We didn’t have a shot clock or three-point shots but we scored a lot of points. We played several defenses. It was just a fun time.
Under Krzyzewski, Duke played man-to-man defense, a change from the zone defense that Foster had implemented. Krzyzewski was adamant that the Blue Devils would first be known as a defensive team.
“Mike was focused on taking charge,” said Mike Tissaw, who played for Foster for one season and Krzyzewski for three seasons. “At the time, he told us that taking a defensive charge was the best play in basketball. You get a turnover, you get a foul on the other team, and you tell the other team that they just won’t fly to the basket.
Still, Tissaw recalls fans at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium begging the Blue Devils to get involved in a zone defense and growing frustrated with Krzyzewski’s progress. Duke went 10-17 in Krzyzewski’s second season in 1981-82. That same season, rival North Carolina won the national title thanks to first-year guard Michael Jordan’s jumper winner with 15 seconds left.
“There came a time when we could hear boos from our local fans,” said Tissaw, who was a junior on that team and is now a professor of psychology at SUNY Potsdam in New York. “There were rumors floating around that Coach K might not last very long at Duke.”
Tissaw added: “I felt in my first year that Coach K just didn’t have the players he wanted. It’s a very natural thing. A new coach comes to a pretty big basketball program and they want to go out and recruit and get the guys they want who will work well with their system.
In the fall of 1982, Krzyzewski brought in a freshman class that was arguably the best in the country. Four of those freshmen started: guards Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson and forwards Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas. But the Blue Devils continued to struggle, finishing 11-17 and losing six of their last seven games.
The following season, Duke was no longer ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll, but won 14 of its first 15 games. The Blue Devils then lost three in a row, including a 78-73 loss at home to No. 1 North Carolina. Three days later, to the surprise of many, Butters widened Krzyzewski’s five-year contract.
“It gave Coach K the security of knowing Tom was behind him,” said Dennard, who runs his own investor relations firm in Houston. “It paid off.”
As seniors, Dawkins, Henderson, Alarie and Bilas led Duke to a 37-3 record, a No. 1 national ranking at the end of the regular season and a berth in the 1986 National Championship Game, where the Blue Devils lost to Louisville. Since then, no one has questioned Krzyzewski’s job security.
Over the past 39 seasons, Krzyzewski has led Duke to 36 NCAA tournament appearances, with the only exceptions being in 1995 when Krzyzewski missed nearly the entire season due to complications from back surgery. in 2020 when the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic; and last season when the Blue Devils went 13-11, their worst winning percentage since the 1982-83 season.
This season, with five potential first-round picks in the 2022 draft on its roster, Duke bounced back and made the Final Four for the first time since 2015 and the 13th time since Krzyzewski arrived.
Douglas McNeely was the first player Krzyzewski signed from Duke and played for the Blue Devils for the coach’s first four seasons when no one could have predicted Duke’s enduring success. But McNeely credits Butters and the Duke administration for sticking to their plan and trusting Krzyzewski.
“Whenever there’s a coaching change, there’s always a transition period,” said McNeely, who is now chief executive of BlackRock, Inc., the world’s largest asset manager with more than $10 trillion in assets under management. “But at Duke, what you saw in the early days of Coach K was that he was building a foundation. Just like you build a strong company or a strong structure, it takes time to get the right pieces, to get the muscle memory, to get the cadence right From the start, Coach K showed that.
McNeely added, “I think it was a perfect marriage between him and Duke University. Duke at the time wanted someone to approach it that way, to build a sustainable program.