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Alexander Wolff
March 16, 1992
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's divine spirit and working-class ethics have forged an exemplary college basketball program
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March 16, 1992

Blue Angel

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's divine spirit and working-class ethics have forged an exemplary college basketball program

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It was an odd thing for a coach to say to a player who was about to shoot two hugely important free throws. It was an odder thing still for a coach to say to a player who on seven previous occasions that evening had launched the ball from the foul line into the ether of the Hoosier Dome and smartly through the hoop. Given the circumstances—12 seconds to play against mighty UNLV, tie game, a national title in the balance—it may have been oddest of all that the player, Christian Laettner of Duke, grinned back.

Let the coach, Mike Krzyzewski, explain: "Two years earlier we had met as a team after losing to Seton Hall at the '89 Final Four in Seattle. I was determined not to lay any guilt trips on the players, not to let them leave that room feeling down. I told them we were staying through the championship game to celebrate what they had accomplished. Then I looked at my seniors and I started to cry.

"Laettner is sitting right in front of me. He's only 19. He's bewildered. I'm not sure he's ever seen an adult cry. And later that night—it must have been 11 o'clock—I'm watching tape in my hotel room and there's this knock at the door. It's Christian. He wants to know if I'm all right. He sits down, and I tell him how proud I am of what they've done and how we would build on it. And again he says, 'Are you sure you're all right?' When he gets up to leave, before he shuts the door, he turns and says, 'You sure you're all right?'

"I threw a pillow at him and said, 'Get out of here.' "

Let other coaches throw chairs. Krzyzewski, the man from rigid and proper Duke, schooled at West Point, purportedly cloned from Bob Knight, will throw pillows. When the NCAA tournament gets under way next week, Krzyzewski will be trying to guide the defending national champion Blue Devils, 25-2 and ranked No. 1 all season, to their sixth trip to the Final Four in seven years. To all but the finicky few who believe that a coach fails unless he wins it all every time, Krzyzewski's record is unassailable. "He's the best in the business right now," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "He's a great coach and a much better recruiter than people give him credit for. I mean, the Final Four four years in a row, plus a national championship? It's totally ridiculous."

Krzyzewski has one thing going for him that few other coaches have and that none can acquire by studying tape or spending time at clinics. He's a most fortuitous fluke of demography. He grew up in what might as well have been Depression America, upstairs in a sparsely furnished brick two-flat in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago. His parents hoarded what little they had in order to do better by their two boys. ("In my mom's closet there were always two dresses," Krzyzewski says. "They were clean, they were in great shape, but there were only two. My parents were people who never had anything, but they had everything.") Yet he is a card-carrying baby boomer who attended Army as a member of its most restless class, the class of 1969, one that kept a nervous eye on Southeast Asia. Thus even as Krzyzewski relates like some touchie-feelie big brother, he's a schoolmaster preaching hoary precepts out of a simpler time, someone who can hammer home a standard coaching exhortation like "Give me the best that you've got" by playing an Anita Baker tape in the locker room. Imagine McGuffey's Reader on laser disc.

This peculiar generational straddling act goes a long way toward explaining how Krzyzewski has risen to the summit of his profession. It's not, however, why the Blue Devils won that national title last spring. (If there's any distinction Krzyzewski is both adept and relentless at drawing, it's the one between winning titles and being a successful coach.) Four times in five years he had gone to the Final Four and fallen short; but he had understood long ago what can be learned from falling short, and he had internalized those lessons even as pundits breezily concluded that it was his fate to be there at the end and preside in gentlemanly fashion over a loss, like some latter-day Bud Grant or Gene Mauch. Couldn't win it all—just as he supposedly couldn't coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, couldn't recruit in it, couldn't make that Knight shtick work, and had a name that couldn't even be pronounced, for goodness' sake. (It's shuh-SHEF-ski.)

He broke through at the '91 Final Four in much the same way he had overcome back-to-back 17-loss seasons at Duke in 1982 and '83 (one of those 34 defeats, a 17-pointer at Princeton in December '81, left him crying in the shower) and much as he had risen above a washout recruiting year in 1981, an epic oh-fer that remains unmatched in the annals of player procurement. In each case after flubbing he retooled and tried again, and if he flubbed again, he tried again until he got it right. "How did he get to be where he is?" says his wife, Mickie, who shares his innocent steeliness. "He just worked at it. Yeah, it's a cliché. But there are so few people who are real clichés."

It's an article of faith with Krzyzewski that failure and success are connected like cause and effect. "That's why losing at the Final Four has never been a bother to me," he says. "There was a bigger thing there. It's because we reacted the way we did after we lost that we came back. If I'd acted like an——after we lost, why would they want to come back?"

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