Highlights of a storied coaching career

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski would become the winningest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history with a win Tuesday night.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski would become the winningest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history with a win Tuesday night.

Back in the summer of 2008, I sat at home in Colorado eagerly anticipating my freshman year at Duke. In my quest to fill my head with every possible ounce of knowledge regarding the basketball program, I had a very exciting moment of realization.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski sat at 803 career wins. I thought to myself that by assuming the Blue Devils would win 25 games each season for the next four years, a conservative estimate, I would be able to see that record-setting victory­­—No. 903—at the end of my senior year.

Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils had other plans of course, winning 30 games or more each of the past three years to speed up that time line significantly. Now, as the coach sits on the cusp of history, I have assembled a committee of one to present to you the most memorable of Krzyzewski’s victories on the path to 903.

Obviously it was nearly impossible to narrow this list to five games, so this collection was chosen using an arbitrary, subjective evaluation combining significance to the Duke program and Krzyzewski’s career along with overall entertainment value of the game itself.

No. 5: March 30, 1991, Duke 79, UNLV 77; Win No. 335

One year earlier in Denver, the Running Rebels beat the Blue Devils by 30 points in the NCAA championship game. This time around, in the national semifinal in Indianapolis, Duke—featuring Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley—managed to stay with UNLV’s high-tempo team for an entire 40 minutes. After 17 ties and 25 lead changes, Laettner hit two free throws with just over ten seconds remaining to end the Running Rebels’ hopes at the first undefeated season since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana squad. Duke proceeded to defeat Roy Williams and the Kansas Jayhawks two days later for the program’s first national championship in its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance.

No. 4: March 6, 2010, Duke 82, North Carolina 50; Win No. 859

The only regular season game on this list, the 2010 matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels was an important game for Duke for a variety of reasons—first and foremost being that Krzyzewski’s team finally ended a four-game losing streak to North Carolina at Cameron. The Blue Devils had 53 points at halftime on their way to recording the largest margin of victory in the history of the rivalry. In the context of the 2010 season, the win capped a 17-0 home slate for Duke and boosted its case for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The team had lost earlier in the week at Maryland, but the slaughter of the Blue Devils’ biggest rival signaled that this team was serious about making a run in the tournament.

No. 3: April 5, 2010, Duke 61, Butler 59; Win No. 868

As fate would have it, the Blue Devils did not lose again in 2010. But boy did they come close. In a shot that would have been bigger than The Shot had it gone in, basketball fans across the country watched in awe as the outcome of the season flew through the air in Indianapolis. After Krzyzewski instructed senior Brian Zoubek to miss a free throw with 3.6 seconds remaining—with the Bulldogs without a timeout—Hayward’s Heave seemingly traveled in slow motion from half court, off the backboard and off the front of the rim. The victory gave Krzyzewski his fourth title spanning three decades, and marked the crowning moment of the senior class of Zoubek, Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas.

No. 2: March 10, 1984, Duke 77, North Carolina 75; Win No. 135

Perhaps the most important game on this list in terms of Krzyzewski’s individual career, the Blue Devils’ upset of the then-No. 1 Tar Heels was a moment of vindication for the head coach. For the better part of the first four years of his tenure, alumni and donors had little patience for the unknown coach from West Point.

But his program was finally on the rise during his fourth year in Durham, behind the strength of the 1982 recruiting class of Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, David Henderson and Mark Alarie. As sophomores in 1983-84, the group was joined by freshman point guard Tommy Amaker—the missing piece of the puzzle. Duke jumped above the 20-win mark for the first time in Krzyzewski’s tenure and faced a matchup with the nation’s top team in the ACC semifinals.

North Carolina boasted one of its most talented rosters ever and had already beaten the Blue Devils twice during the regular season. But it was Dawkins’ explosive first half and Henderson’s four free throws down the stretch that carried Duke to the upset despite Michael Jordan’s 22 points for the Tar Heels. The upset marked a monumental boost to Krzyzewski’s credibility, and Duke reached its first NCAA championship game of the Krzyzewski era just two years later.

No. 1: March 28, 1992, Duke 104, Kentucky 103, OT; Win No. 368

An obvious choice for the most memorable game of Krzyzewski’s career, The Shot was not only immediately legendary on its own, but it changed the way teams play defense at the end of a game. Trailing by one with 2.1 seconds left in overtime, an unguarded Grant Hill heaved a one-handed inbound pass from under his own basket to Christian Laettner at the other free-throw line. One dribble, a turn and Laettner put up The Shot that sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four, where they would eventually beat Michigan’s Fab Five for their second consecutive title.

It is no coincidence that all five of these games were played after March 1, and that three of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski made a name for himself over the past 36 years by winning the biggest games on the biggest stages in college basketball.

These five games are merely a snapshot of the career of a man who will likely be remembered as the greatest coach of all time—in any sport. There were other championship games of course, as well as epic battles with North Carolina, Laettner buzzer-beaters and top recruiting classes.

But as the players and opponents change, there remains only one Coach K.


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