Coach K and his debut in ACC men’s basketball

Coach K and his debut in ACC men's basketball

“You don’t mind if I remember once in a while, do you?”

In the moments after Duke’s hard-fought win in January over Georgia Tech, head coach Mike Krzyzewski took to the podium and told the media. In his opening statement, Krzyzewski readily admitted the “exhausting” nature of the game – after all, the Blue Devils had just returned from a 12-day COVID-19 break which cost them much of the holiday, and that took a lot of intensity for them to defeat a brave but overmatched Yellow Jackets team.

Duke most often gets the best shot from opponents at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and in the final season of Krzyzewski’s career, that held true as ever. For the Blue Devils – seeded second in the Jan. 4 game – this game was just another step towards the goal of an ACC title. But for the Yellow Jackets, it was a last chance to face the Hall of Fame coach in the house he built. It may be overstated, but the significance of each team’s last meeting with Krzyzewski has certainly been there throughout the season.

That sentiment was not lost on Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner, who had secretly planned to bring in Bobby Cremins, a former Georgia Tech head coach himself and a former Krzyzewski coach, for sit on the sidelines as a “parting gift”. .” A premature illness prevented Cremins from making the trip to Durham, but the thought was more than enough to put Krzyzewski back on the memory lane.

“It was a moment, a decade, [when] Georgia Tech-Duke games from around 1985 through the early 1990s were some of the elite games in this league’s history,” Krzyzewski said. “And Bobby was not only a great coach, but he…Bobby is genuine.”

Today, with the vast majority of Krzyzewski’s career behind him, it’s easy to forget the beginnings that preceded the legacy of the five-time national champion. It’s easy to forget the hardships it took to become the winningest head coach in college basketball history — that first national title came over 30 years ago, after all — but this has not always been the case.

So, like Krzyzewski on that January night, let’s take a moment to reminisce.

“A sensational year”

Krzyzewski had just turned 33 when he became Duke’s head coach. Young and fresh out of five years of coaching experience at the Army, his alma mater, he took over a program from Bill Foster who had just won the ACC tournament.

Duke’s new coach had scattered success in those early seasons, dipping below .500 in his second and third seasons before rising stronger than ever. By 1986, Krzyzewski’s much-vaunted first recruiting class—Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas made up the famed “Class That Saved Coach K”—had come of age, and after a remarkable title run of the regular season that ended with a victory at home against North Carolina, the Blue Devils found themselves facing Georgia Tech de Cremins in the final of the ACC tournament.

Cremins isn’t the most notable of Krzyzewski’s career opponents, but the two young coaches had already built up a compelling rivalry by this time. Even then, a story in The Chronicle claimed that Duke and Georgia Tech were “inexorably linked” by their star recruiting classes: The Yellow Jackets had star guard Mark Price and big man John Salley, who in previous years were proving worthy adversaries for their Blue Devil counterparts. The two teams were truly a perfect match, sharing their 10 encounters in the four years leading up to this moment.

Duke, however, had the last laugh, squealing in the 68-67 title game to give Krzyzewski his first conference tournament championship.

That year, the Blue Devils would make their first Final Four under Krzyzewski before ultimately failing in the title match against Louisville. By the end of the year, they had compiled an NCAA record 37 wins, and Krzyzewski had established himself as far more than Duke’s young head coach.

“To say it was a sensational year is maybe a little sweet,” Krzyzewski said after the national championship loss. “We won the NIT, the [ACC] regular season title, the ACC Tournament and set a winning record. How could it be anything other than sensational?

While Cremins and Krzyzewski would remain worthy adversaries for the next decade, Duke’s vindictive win at the ACC Tournament that year pushed his young coach through one of his first real hurdles. In one sensational stroke, Krzyzewski had distinguished himself and his program, laying the groundwork for decades of unprecedented victories.

The new standard

When it comes to ACC basketball, however, no memory is complete without Dean Smith.

During those early years, with Krzyzewski in the conference alongside Cremins and NC State’s charismatic Jim Valvano, Smith – North Carolina’s longtime and respected head coach – and his program were the yardstick. -league gold, a dynamic beautifully captured in John Feinstein. The Legends Club. The Tar Heels were perennial contenders and their coach was a proven winner.

Smith was the benchmark, and Krzyzewski witnessed it firsthand in a 1984 game against the Tar Heels – the best team in the country managed by Michael Jordan – at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After a mid-game outburst from Smith at the scorer’s table went unpunished by the officiating team, Krzyzewski fumed to the media after the game that there was a “double standard that sometimes exists in this league”, noting that Smith seemed to operate under a different set of rules.

There were bigger stories that day – fan behavior was front and center as the Blue Devils nearly beat the defending domestic champions – and Krzyzewski’s post-match comments were relegated to the page 13 of today’s edition of The Chronicle. But all these years later, with Krzyzewski as a clear benchmark not just in ACC basketball, but in college basketball, this moment lingers as a reminder that to become an icon in the sport, Krzyzewski had to face a .

Of course, Krzyzewski has now won more games than anyone, including Smith. By the time the Duke coach passed Smith for second place all-time with his 880th victory, there was no doubt that Krzyzewski was the gold standard of his day, if not something more.

“I don’t want to take this too seriously, but rather say, ‘I’m one of the guys who’s won a lot of games,'” Krzyzewski said after passing Smith. “To share a spotlight with Dean [Smith] and [Bob Knight]it is a great honour.”

“The ACC I Know”

In one of the final road games of his senior season, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils traveled to Virginia for revenge after a 69-68 loss at Durham two weeks prior. Duke got the job done, winning 65-61 in another chapter of what has become one of the ACC’s most hotly contested rivalries.

“Just another Duke-Virginia game,” Krzyzewski said after the game.

For Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, like Pastner and so many others, this wasn’t just another game, but probably the last meeting with Krzyzewski. Bennett took to center court just before kickoff to honor Krzyzewski’s “monumental contributions to the world of basketball”, presenting the coach with a plaque that Krzyzewski would later joke “weighs about 800 pounds”.

“Look, I’m not looking for a farewell tour or anything like that,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “But this is my last year, and if there’s any way to celebrate the brotherhood that’s in the game, that’s a good thing.”

Two familiar faces sat in the crowd that evening. Krzyzewski met with former Virginia head coach Terry Holland, who coached the Cavaliers from 1974 to 1990, and Virginia’s 7-foot-4 tall Ralph Sampson was also in attendance.

So, as Krzyzewski pondered the significance of Bennett’s pregame gesture, he again began to reminisce. This time, he recalled how a television program on the team bus that day brought back memories of his early days at Duke, taking on Sampson, Jordan and the rest of the ACC.

“It made me think of Terry [Holland] and dean [Smith]”My wife, Mickie, and Ann Holland are really close friends, and Ann had texted her last night saying they’d be at the game, and that’s the other camaraderie. You can’t believe Bobby Cremins and Jimmy Valvano’s wives and Dean’s wife, Linnea, they were all friends.

“It was like that before, and so tonight, for me, I was a little emotional about it because it’s the college game and it’s the ACC that I know.”

No matter how Krzyzewski’s final season ends, he’s sure to leave behind a legacy of camaraderie, especially on the show so fondly called The Brotherhood by all who come across it.

Especially all the wins, all the championships, maybe that’s why his legacy is built to last.

Editor’s note: This article is part of the Coach K commemorative edition of The Chronicle. Please click here for more content.

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity sophomore and an associate Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 117th volume.